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Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California

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In this nuanced and groundbreaking history, Donna Murch argues that the Black Panther Party (BPP) started with a study group. Drawing on oral history and untapped archival sources, she explains how a relatively small city with a recent history of African American settlement produced such compelling and influential forms of Black Power politics. During an era of expansion a In this nuanced and groundbreaking history, Donna Murch argues that the Black Panther Party (BPP) started with a study group. Drawing on oral history and untapped archival sources, she explains how a relatively small city with a recent history of African American settlement produced such compelling and influential forms of Black Power politics. During an era of expansion and political struggle in California's system of public higher education, black southern migrants formed the BPP. In the early 1960s, attending Merritt College and other public universities radicalized Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and many of the young people who joined the Panthers' rank and file. In the face of social crisis and police violence, the most disfranchised sectors of the East Bay's African American community--young, poor, and migrant--challenged the legitimacy of state authorities and of an older generation of black leadership. By excavating this hidden history, Living for the City broadens the scholarship of the Black Power movement by documenting the contributions of black students and youth who created new forms of organization, grassroots mobilization, and political literacy.


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In this nuanced and groundbreaking history, Donna Murch argues that the Black Panther Party (BPP) started with a study group. Drawing on oral history and untapped archival sources, she explains how a relatively small city with a recent history of African American settlement produced such compelling and influential forms of Black Power politics. During an era of expansion a In this nuanced and groundbreaking history, Donna Murch argues that the Black Panther Party (BPP) started with a study group. Drawing on oral history and untapped archival sources, she explains how a relatively small city with a recent history of African American settlement produced such compelling and influential forms of Black Power politics. During an era of expansion and political struggle in California's system of public higher education, black southern migrants formed the BPP. In the early 1960s, attending Merritt College and other public universities radicalized Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and many of the young people who joined the Panthers' rank and file. In the face of social crisis and police violence, the most disfranchised sectors of the East Bay's African American community--young, poor, and migrant--challenged the legitimacy of state authorities and of an older generation of black leadership. By excavating this hidden history, Living for the City broadens the scholarship of the Black Power movement by documenting the contributions of black students and youth who created new forms of organization, grassroots mobilization, and political literacy.

30 review for Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chuck

    This is an excellent book. It is well researched and well written and full of provocative arguments about the emergence of the Panthers (and Black radicalism generally) in Oakland. Indeed, of the half-dozen or so books I've read about the Panthers over the years, this is the best. Although Murch sympathizes with the Panthers, she is a scholar first of all and takes care to substantiate her claims and clearly wants to (and does) provide a balanced account. This is an issue in the context of schol This is an excellent book. It is well researched and well written and full of provocative arguments about the emergence of the Panthers (and Black radicalism generally) in Oakland. Indeed, of the half-dozen or so books I've read about the Panthers over the years, this is the best. Although Murch sympathizes with the Panthers, she is a scholar first of all and takes care to substantiate her claims and clearly wants to (and does) provide a balanced account. This is an issue in the context of scholarship on the Panthers, in which so many of the works are tendentious (either pro or contra). While most historians focus on Panther's militancy—obsessed with "black men with guns!"—Murch takes a step back and places them in a much broader frame. She puts the Panthers in the context of the Black immigrant communities that came to the Bay Area in search of defense industry jobs around WWII. By doing so, she accomplishes at least two very important goals. First, she links many Panther innovations to practices found in Black southern communities-- for instance, she relates Panther police patrols to the tradition of armed, community self-defense and, second, she places the Panthers in the context of much broader social and economic changes that occurred in the twentieth century. Few scholars have been able to pull this off when treating the Panthers, a group with an incredibly complicated history and one that still excites partisan passions. I would only criticize her for failing to link the Panthers' community programs to traditions of anti-state, libertarian socialism. If nothing else, this would have helped her illustrate some of the tensions between the Panthers' simultaneously bottom-up and top-down approach to social change. However, this is a minor shortcoming. This book was also designed and edited well. I only noticed one type-o throughout the entire text (as an editor, I can assure you that this is no mean feat). The photos and illustrations were instructive and pertinent.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gabriella

    ***NOTE: these reviews are reading responses that are slightly amended from my course assignments for CPLN 624: Readings in Race, Poverty, and Place. I really enjoyed how LFTC contextualized the Black Panther Party in its particular time and location in history. First, it was enlightening to see how Southerners who’d just arrived to Oakland contributed to the militancy of the Black Power movement. Donna Murch uses organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Lowndes County Freedom Organization ***NOTE: these reviews are reading responses that are slightly amended from my course assignments for CPLN 624: Readings in Race, Poverty, and Place. I really enjoyed how LFTC contextualized the Black Panther Party in its particular time and location in history. First, it was enlightening to see how Southerners who’d just arrived to Oakland contributed to the militancy of the Black Power movement. Donna Murch uses organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Lowndes County Freedom Organization to show how these back-home people and organizations influenced Seale and Newton’s nations of black self-defense. Most of the compelling gender issues came out for me in this party shift from revolution to reform, as their embrace of “survival programs” brought significantly more women and intergenerational support to their ranks. It was particularly telling that the most “violent” BPP members (who were also usually rapists and/or the feds) saw these programs, which included very searing critiques of the state’s lack of social services, as less radical action, because they weren’t as “confrontational.” This watering down of the activist nature of community service work is present amongst many student and community organizers I’ve encountered in the present time, and so it was very affirming to see the worth of this more “feminine” action. To return to last week’s “Faustian bargain of the black middle class” conversation (thanks to my class' discussion of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida), I can’t tell if these shifts towards communalism and electoral power was blacks learning to be “sophisticated about power” or something more insidious. As “the Panthers embraced the once-hated black middle-class establishment and remade themselves in its image”, they produced a “kinder, much gentler black radicalism.” Sometimes, this seemed like smarter, more inclusive politics, similar to the 2018 midterm campaigns. On the other hand, it seemed to alienate some of their working-class and student bases. These conflicting issues are still present today. Once again, we’re in a time of growing black access to higher education, but unlike 1960’s California, this access is now attached to huge debt. This seminal role of the university in many Party members’ political educations is another Faustian deal that many 21st-century student activists try to balance, as they are both enraged and indicted by their university’s harms to surrounding black and low-income communities. Like yesterday, however, I think much of what passes for student activism at schools like Penn is primarily concerned with the university’s bureaucracy, and distant from pressing issues in Philadelphia, due to an age-old “chronic unwillingness, or inability, to translate ideas into action.” Finally, there’s this issue of geography in Oakland: the city’s divide between the flatlands and the hills will likely become universal as the “return to the city” solidifies, and economic development in CBD-adjacent neighborhoods outpaces growth in the rest. Nationally, much of the BPP work was influenced by a growing belief in and fondness of chocolate cities, and their resultant possibilities. Today, many black urban activists must ask a different question about the influence of location: how do concepts of community control work in gentrifying neighborhoods? How do organizers explain that they’d rather not move to opportunity, but have it come without forced integration?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Yeah super interesting deep dive into the BPP! Not much to say other than it did a good job of bringing lots of nuance to a topic that is usually just regarded as a super violent group. I liked that Murch doesn't sugar coat anything but also explains the leaders as very three dimensional people to help you understand their actions better. Overall the organisation is way more interesting, complex and innovative then people give it credit for and the book frames the rise and fall of the party extr Yeah super interesting deep dive into the BPP! Not much to say other than it did a good job of bringing lots of nuance to a topic that is usually just regarded as a super violent group. I liked that Murch doesn't sugar coat anything but also explains the leaders as very three dimensional people to help you understand their actions better. Overall the organisation is way more interesting, complex and innovative then people give it credit for and the book frames the rise and fall of the party extremely well. I've never really read a book about a grass roots organisation so seeing the evolution and then dealing with deciding which routes to take achieve their goals was wildly interesting. Learned a lot so I am pleased! Side note: I think this is the first instance where I've been like huh yeah I guess the second amendment was useful, so that was fun for me.

  4. 4 out of 5

    James

    Murch argued that the rise of the Black Panther Party, from 1966-1972 before falling into infighting and repression, was fueled by both the recent migration of black families from Oklahoma and Texas in the post-war defense industries, and the opening of community college and state colleges for young African-Americans. These youths, who came of age between the murders of Emmett Till in 1955 and Malcolm X in 1965, were radicalized by the disappointment of their parents to the continuing problems o Murch argued that the rise of the Black Panther Party, from 1966-1972 before falling into infighting and repression, was fueled by both the recent migration of black families from Oklahoma and Texas in the post-war defense industries, and the opening of community college and state colleges for young African-Americans. These youths, who came of age between the murders of Emmett Till in 1955 and Malcolm X in 1965, were radicalized by the disappointment of their parents to the continuing problems of poverty, police repression, and discrimination. In Oakland, they began to form political black nationalist groups that pushed for early versions of Black Studies. From the twin experiences of migration and education, the Black Panther Party emerged. At first, Murch argued, the Panthers turned to street confrontation with the police and sharp class antagonisms, embracing Maoism. They backed off the confrontational politics by the ‘69/70 and turned towards community organizing, emphasizing free breakfast for children programs, healthcare clinics, paper publishing, and political education (which had always been apart of their program.) The Panthers also turned towards building alliances with other oppressed groups, like Gay and Lesbian organizations, women’s groups, Latino groups, and more. Huey Newton coined the term “Intercommunalism” which emphasized building communities as opposed to seizing power in nation-states, though it may have been too late for the Panthers by the time it became a guiding principle. Ravaged by repression and increasing centralization, the Party shed members and was a shell of itself by the mid 70s, descending into internal fighting. Still, former members went onto become active in urban politics and community organizing, and the organization’s historical inspiration continues to fuel other Key Themes and Concept -Migration brought black families into Oakland to work in the defense industry post-war, and their children grew up to become militants as the disappointment of “Up South” northern cities continued discrimination they had fled from in the South. -Public education led to many black activitists meeting in college and begun to organize as part of student life. -The Black Panther Party emphasized political education always, though shifted between armed self-defense to community organizing during its existence.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ecaterina Burton

    A richly layered investigation into the actual origins of the Panthers that blends first-hand interviews with a plethora of academic and media sources. Murch dives deep and sets a brisk but thorough exploration of the political and social geography that made the Bay ripe for radicalism. As someone who has lived here for a decade, I found this book to be illuminating and Murch stays keenly aware of the factors that led to the Panthers’ eventual dissolution. This book I imagine would be an incredi A richly layered investigation into the actual origins of the Panthers that blends first-hand interviews with a plethora of academic and media sources. Murch dives deep and sets a brisk but thorough exploration of the political and social geography that made the Bay ripe for radicalism. As someone who has lived here for a decade, I found this book to be illuminating and Murch stays keenly aware of the factors that led to the Panthers’ eventual dissolution. This book I imagine would be an incredible example for how a similar study could be done of Ferguson and how its residents ignited a movement.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    Murch Does an excellent job of bringing together an urban history with a history of the black panther party. I really appreciated how well she uses her sources, particularly through interviews with participants of the BPP. I never really thought about how migration and education would come together in such a way to make Oakland in the 1960s a possibility, and I’m so glad that Murch weaved together this story.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    very good

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ben Wolfson

    Super thorough and structured in a chronological way which I enjoyed. Wish chapter length was shorter so it was easier to read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    2.5/5. A book that sought to delve deeper into a previously established narrative of the BPP's history. It provided me with great insights, in both the primary sources and analysis. However, I found an undercurrent of bias in the work, as if it needed to justify its existence by setting itself apart from established historiography. In particular, dismissing the ambush that led to the death of Bobby Hutton as 'accounts varied' and focusing on the outrage surrounding his death was a poor mishandlin 2.5/5. A book that sought to delve deeper into a previously established narrative of the BPP's history. It provided me with great insights, in both the primary sources and analysis. However, I found an undercurrent of bias in the work, as if it needed to justify its existence by setting itself apart from established historiography. In particular, dismissing the ambush that led to the death of Bobby Hutton as 'accounts varied' and focusing on the outrage surrounding his death was a poor mishandling of a tragic event, by not explaining the full back story and inviting the reader to doubt the author's motivations, and thus other factual accounts described in the book. The book was engaging at times, but its failure to be objective in historical writing was a great letdown.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Williams

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alondra Nelson

  12. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

  13. 5 out of 5

    Joe Costello

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kylie Marsh

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alissa Joyce

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Forsman

  17. 5 out of 5

    Meg

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  19. 4 out of 5

    Colton

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  21. 5 out of 5

    Aidan Stanley-Coughlan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Casey Rocheteau

  23. 4 out of 5

    William

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mpho Mphutlane

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Goldman

  26. 4 out of 5

    Aiden

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matt

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ilona Ring

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sam

  30. 4 out of 5

    Naima Summer

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