Jay A. Fernandez in Signature:
African Americans’ struggle for equality in America has taken on many shapes and strategies since the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery, was ratified in 1865. From the Niagara Movement and the formation of the NAACP through Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association to the powerful oratory and organization of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; from the fiery poetry and literature of Richard Wright, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka to the Million Man March and Black Lives Matter, the great, ongoing effort has been a defining characteristic of the American identity, ever convulsing and changing, if never quickly or comprehensively enough.
Malcolm X was killed in early 1965, and King in April 1968. In between, fifty years ago on October 15 in Oakland, former college classmates Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, inspired by the forceful rhetoric of the former and disillusioned by the nonviolent approach of the latter, formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. While contentious from the start, and dogged by both internal criminal tendencies and outside government forces seeking to discredit the group as a threat to democracy, the Panthers undeniably hold a key place in the history of the black struggle, even if many of their ambitiously broad aims, which included standing up to police brutality and the unpunished killings of unarmed black civilians, remain sadly unrealized half a century later. (The group dissolved in 1982.)