Elaine Brown & The Black Panthers
Elaine Brown is not what I would call a “rock star” of the Civil Rights Movement. She is not someone you would be likely to learn about while studying the rhetoric of the key male players—King, Malcom X, DuBois– and she was not involved in what we may consider the “monumental” moments of the Movement. In fact, she was only a teenager when King gave his triumphant “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Yet her presence in Civil Rights history is monumental, a landmark for another group of individuals who had too often been excluded from the struggle because of their biological identities. In 1974, Brown undertook a position in one of the most feared liberation parties of all time, a position that was assumed to be entirely out of reach for a woman. She became the first and only female leader of the notorious, and notoriously chauvinistic, Black Panther Liberation Party.
Life was not easy for a woman in the Black Panther Party. Sexual promiscuity amongst female members and physical abuse by male members were not unheard of, and rumors still circulate about the nature of the female Panthers’ relationships with the male Panthers. In her book Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Brown describes the male Black Panther mentality and expresses how difficult it was to have a leadership role:
“A woman in the Black Panther Movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people… I knew I had to muster something mighty to manage the Black Panther Party.”
Despite her struggles as a female leader, the party made a few important strides under her leadership. The Black Panthers became more “involved in conventional politics and… in 1976 the party successfully supported Lionel Wilson in his campaign to become the first black mayor of Oakland” (sparacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USACbrownE.htm).
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