Donna Murch / Well-funded higher education played a significant role in shaping the minds of the youth who in turn shaped the Black Panther Party into what it was

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Takeema Hoffman

There is no doubt about the fact that the Black Panther Party left an indelible impression on American history. Their presence defined the movement and their legacy stands as a culmination of a rich cultural history of resistance against oppression. For Professor and historian Donna Murch, the Panther party has been an integral part of her academic journey. In her investigative and illuminating work Living for the City: Education, Migration, and The Rise of The Black Panther Party she explores the role of higher education as a catalyst for the Black Power Movement.

“Oakland was good to me.” says Murch of her 10 year love affair with the city of Oakland, California, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. A transplant from the east coast, she relocated in 1994 to pursue her PhD in history from UC Berkeley. Originally her dissertation was going to be about Black Urban History in St. Luis, but what she found was so depressing and brutal she decided to change topics. Enticed by the vibrant culture and remnants of the movement that surrounded her she turned her attention towards Oakland and the rest is history, literally. She began researching the party in 1997 and did so for the next ten years. In terms of the archived knowledge that has been accumulated about the Panther Party, Murch maintains that she wanted to add a fresh perspective and new voice to the collective, telling the story in a way that shed light on the attributes of the party left in the dark by modern popular narratives. She recounts being unsatisfied by works like Hugh Pearson’s Shadow of the Panther which depicted the party as militant, separatist, and violent, perceptions she knew were not reflective of the party’s true nature.

“I tell a story that is very different than what most people think of when they think of [the party] The opening line of the book is ‘A tale of origin that is familiar and unfamiliar’ There are familiar names, familiar events, but many of the ways I tell the story are unfamiliar and surprising. The panthers have always been explained by historians as the quintessential northern urban Black Power movement, contrasted with the [Black Power] southern movement. The thing that surprised me, and I learned this living in Oakland, was how southern Oakland is. A lot of the people I was interviewing were migrants from the south and so it looks at the process of migration and what southerners brought with them; optimism, militancy, and [dedication to] education.”

The crux of her argument is that higher education played a significant role in shaping the minds of the youth who in turn shaped the Party into what it was.

“The book is about education in its golden era when it was well funded. In the 1960s through 70s in California higher education was accessible to people with little money. My book argues that unprecedented access to [higher] education is one of the resources that made the Black Power movement possible. Almost all of the organizations came out of the study groups on these college campuses, specifically the community colleges.”

One of the most interesting things brought to the fore in Murch’s work is the state response to the influx of African-Americans in Oakland. As the numbers in Oakland increased, so did the detention centers, jails, and segregation. Schools took on an increasingly authoritarian nature and thus began what Murch sees as the dismantling of the public education system and the beginnings of the catastrophic carceral system that exists today. In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” author Michelle Alexander asserts that mass incarceration is a modern reflection of the racist ideology and control tactics that defined the era. Murch agrees with this assessment and believes mass incarceration is the most imminent domestic social issue of our era.

“In California they had free public education but now much of the money is being used towards incarceration. As Michelle Alexander says, it was a backlash against civil rights and the Black Power movement as the response to black people mobilizing [against racism] is to criminalize those groups. What makes the United States most unique, and California in particular, is mass incarceration, which is very much about racial control and the racial regime.”

Looking at the current state of political affairs in Oakland and around the world, Murch is not surprised to see the city labeled as the epicenter of the global Occupy movement. As she knows too well, Northern California has a solid history of continuity within social movements and, as far as Oakland is concerned, there is a strong tradition of solidarity with causes on an international scale -- one of the most genius and profound aspects of the Panther’s ideology. Though they were a militant black organization, they also coexisted with and cultivated several other multi-ethnic organizations and had allies of all colors. The idea of coalition is one Murch feels we need to focus on in order to bring about the type of positive social change we desire.

“I would like to see efforts at coalition. Look at the mass coordinated [Occupy Wall Street] protests [in Harlem] against incarceration on [February 20th, 2012], I think that was important and that’s an issue that can be used to broaden the movement and bring coalition. I think that it’s a strong model for a black organization to be in coalition. That is one of the most interesting things about the Panthers. I used to go to political events and it was so common for me to meet all types of people, like white radicals, and their attitude towards the party was interesting because they considered them to be the people to follow. Reading is important and knowing the history is important because it’s different than the popular image. We thought that they were separatists, but they had several white allies like Marlon Brando and Jean Seberg. We thought that they always focused on guns, but the longest run institution was a K-8 school which was run by women, and we thought the party was all men ... We are in a historical moment, and thinking about coalition is important. It’s important to bring together all these different groups and unify their causes.”

As each generation has its own cause to fight, Murch sees history as being an important tool for opening minds to the possibilities of what can be gained through mobilizing against social ills.

“I think the lesson we learn from the Panthers is the creativity and inventiveness of black youth in very stark conditions. They came up with something new: the police patrol, the breakfast program. It was all very anti-materialist and anti-capitalist. Each generation has different opportunities and different restraints. I don’t think it’s an accident, the age of people involved [in the Occupy protests]. I believe it’s linked to student debt. And why do they have debt? It’s the cost of the tuition. In the 1960s higher education was free, when I tell my students that they almost can’t believe it. That’s where history can be helpful in imagining a different reality.”

Murch is adamant that as a society we must maintain a sense of optimism as history has shown us that it is often when things seem the bleakest that opportunities for change can arise. Murch remembers a visit to the UC Berkeley campus right before the now infamous Occupy protest in which several students were pepper sprayed while sitting in peaceful demonstration. She took note of the dismal mood that permeated the atmosphere.

“What I saw was people who were unhappy. Faculty and students. There was a somber mood and I believe it reached a tipping point and the protest came out of that. Sometimes when things look the worst an opportunity can come out of that and I think it’s important to have a sense of optimism.”

Soon Murch will be turning her sights toward another critical and tarnished segment of America’s black history that she took interest in during her Panther party research, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the politicized “war on drugs”.

“I think it is important in regards to decline of the Black Power movement. I’m writing a social history of crack; users, dealers, how crack reshaped the cocaine economy, the people that mobilized against it. A rough estimate is that 70 percent of the profits from crack were made in Los Angeles, and a lot of the infrastructure for it was in L.A., but in the Bay Area I see it as a very important piece of the history.”

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