By ED KEMP
January 26, 2009
Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on their attitudes of
inclusiveness and love.
"We run the whole gamut of humanity," said member Bill Taylor, who
describes himself as Hattiesburg's "resident atheist."
Stretching that umbrella to include the controversial Black Panther
Party might draw a wary look or two, but Curtis Austin, who heads the
University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Black Studies,
offered a revisionist look at the movement Sunday morning.
"They had a love for the people," he said. "They believed that all
people deserved to be loved and cared for and to be free."
Austin discussed his book "Up Against the Wall: Violence in the
Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party," at the Unitarian
Universalist Fellowship in the Hattiesburg Garden Center on
Hutchinson Avenue. Its usual crowd of 25-30 member listened to Austin
explain the movement's origins, which began in the 1960s as a
reaction against police brutality of black people.
This "us against them" mentality drove the Black Panthers to arm
themselves, even to the point of marching into the California State
Capitol with loaded weapons to protest a gun-ban directed towards
them. It also led to numerous violent confrontations with law
enforcement officers across the county.
But it doesn't describe the entire Black Panther story, said Austin.
For one thing, the Black Panthers, whose members averaged 19 years
old, engaged in an entire program of non-violence in order to address
the continuing plague of black poverty. They offered free health
clinics, pest control, neighborhood watches and breakfast programs to
impoverished black neighborhoods.
For another, Black Panthers engaged in violence as only a defensive
measure and never had an active program of violence like other
contemporary domestic terrorist groups, said Austin, noting that
their original name was the Black Panthers for Self-Defense.
"The Black Panthers were actually a 501(c)3 charity," said Austin. "I
don't think the government would have given charity status to a
The government, however, played an important part in the weakening of
the Black Panthers, calling the movement dangerous and waging a war
against it through infiltration by FBI counterintelligence.
Complicit in the marginalizing of the Black Panthers was the media,
which both made and unmade the movement, Austin explained. One the
one hand, nationwide TV and print journalism coverage of the Civil
Rights movement galvanized young blacks to think beyond its ethos of
non-violence to form the party; on the other, the coverage of the
Black Panthers in exclusively violent or confrontational situations
pinned them in the public mind as merely militant, gun-toting radicals.
Though no Black Panther chapters still exist, their legacy can still
be felt in pioneering many free social services programs, as well as
their coalition-building with other races and social movements, which
Austin said paralleled the recent campaign of President Barack Obama.
Fellowship members expressed pleasure at hearing a fresh take on the
"It's nice to have a different take on them, especially living here
in Mississippi," said Nicole Werle of Purvis. "You know, the media is
very good at keeping stereotypes alive."