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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Stevie Wonder’s urban anthem, “Living for the City,” provides both the name and inspiration for my study of Black radicalism in Oakland. Released in 1973 during the twilight of the Black Power movement, the song is a profound allegory about African American migrants’ ordeals in postwar cities. Like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” written nearly a decade before, the narrative arc from the rural South to the northern city laments black people’s recurrent battles with racial subordination despite movement across space and time. The song opens with a “young boy born in hard times Mississippi,” who journeys north to escape his parents’ life of incessant work and bare subsistence. He leaves behind the close-knit world of familial “love and affection” in search of opportunity, but the color line in jobs, threats by police, and horrors of prison all transform the city of hope into a place of sorrow. Caught between the fault lines of generation and region and the destructive effects of incarceration, the young protagonist descends into confusion and hopelessness. The rapid transformation of an innocent boy into a broken man dramatizes the precarious existence of urban migrants. Sung in a distorted and muffled voice that contrasts the joyful tone of the early verses, the song’s conclusion expresses the frustration and anger of thwarted possibility: “This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder. If we don’t change, the world will soon be over.”

Black popular music has long expressed the social and political crises confronting African American communities in periods of transition. Placed in its historical context, “Living for the City” can be seen as a meditation on the underlying anxieties, frustrations, and material circumstances that inspired the rise of Black Power and black consciousness in the postwar years. Through verse and metaphor, Wonder narrates a cautionary tale about the dangers confronting urban youth on the threshold to adulthood for whom neither economic survival, nor the political process, offered viable solutions. As this book will show, the song’s themes of southern migration, black pride . . .

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