Lowell Bergman: Covering the Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party

Lowell Bergman gives a talk at TEDx SF. (Suzie Katz/Flickr)

The Black Panthers were complicated, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lowell Bergman. "The image is never the reality."

The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in October 1966. Reflecting on its legacy 50 years later, Bergman says the Panthers' image -- or the pursuit of that image -- was part of both their success and their downfall.

The Panthers emerged the year after Malcolm X was assassinated and almost two years before Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Bergman says they unleashed a raw emotional power.

He should know. Bergman, who directs the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, covered the rise and fall of the Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s, including chronicling the FBI's war against the party for Rolling Stone.

An iconic image of the Panthers — armed and dressed in leather jackets and black berets — instantly captivated the public's imagination. But it wasn't just the public that was paying attention. The Panthers became a focus for law enforcement, from local police departments to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

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"You could tell they were changing the game, given the amount of attention they were getting from authorities,"  says Bergman. "These people were interested in political change, and that was really threatening."

That attention, he says, came directly from the then-revolutionary act of turning the Second Amendment on its head. Bergman says, that move showed the intellectual brilliance of party leaders.

"They represented not people who were self-educated like Malcolm X,  or university- or college-educated like  Martin Luther King."

Instead, they turned to the populism of Marxist theory. "They described themselves as the lumpen proletariat, meaning they are not the workers -- they are the people below the workers," discarded by society, Bergman says.

"They quoted Che Guevara, saying what they were doing was exhausting all legal means before they declared open revolution. And that got people's attention."

They had another radical idea, to exercise their right to police the police. "They were the dashboard cams of the 1960s," Bergman says.

The Panthers used the image of the armed black man to pose questions about police brutality and civil rights. The response was an FBI target on the Panthers' backs and the transformation of their leaders into media darlings.

In the end, Bergman says, both of those factors played a significant role in the Panthers' disintegration in the early 1980s.

"There were cocktail parties in Hollywood and Beverly Hills" says Bergman. "It was the Radical Chic, and the Panthers' leaders played to that."

But as they became media stars, their various factions deteriorated, competing for power as well as headlines. Many in the rank and file, Bergman says, were swallowed up by the splintering party, paying the true price of their leaders' fame.

It was those who believed in the cause rather than the cult of celebrity, Bergman says, who were left dead or in jail long after the spotlight on the party had been switched off.

Bergman points to the case of Geronimo Pratt, a Vietnam War hero who was jailed for 27 years before his conviction was overturned. After the furor over the Panthers died down, he says, those like Pratt were left to suffer the consequences.

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"Very little attention has been paid to many of those people," Bergman says.

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