At its Black History Month celebration on Feb. 26, the Seattle Freedom Socialist Party sponsored a forum entitled “The FBI’s war on the Black Panther Party: the fight is not over!” Eddie Conway, author, Vietnam vet, former Panther leader in the Baltimore chapter, was the featured speaker — from behind bars.
Below are excerpts from his phone interview with Seattle FSP organizer, Chris Smith.
What was it about the politics of the Black Panther Party and your own experience that helped you to decide to join that organization?
I think it wasn’t so much the politics of the Black Panther Party as it was the lack of progress in any other avenue that we attempted to work through. When I returned home from Europe, from the Army, I joined the NAACP and I joined CORE. Both of these organizations were trying to integrate workplaces, change the laws and improve conditions in the community. Through that process I found out that the problems in America were systemic and so profound that all the reform organizations couldn’t really address the conditions of the Black community. A bunch of us decided that we needed to have something a little more solid and tangible and the Black Panther Party represented that.
What was it specifically that you thought about the Black Panther Party that was different from some of those other organizations?
Our community was impoverished. And there was a lot of police brutality against our young people, a lot of police “justifiable” homicides occurring. We recognized the need for some sort of organization that would address that and challenge the police, try to get community control of the police. The other organizations weren’t even talking about this, or about us setting up an apparatus that would take care of us and use our own resources such as health clinics, etc. The Black Panther Party was talking about these issues, and it was very appealing.
Right. Not only were they talking about it, but they were defending the community. What do you see as the role of women in the Black Panther Party?
I always feel like women were probably the glue that helped the party grow and develop and manage itself — logistically in terms of making sure the programs operated, in terms of even studying. Women had equal roles in the Black Panther Party. A lot of people talk about that. In fact, I always tell people that when sisters and brothers both are required to know self-defense mechanisms, there’s not going to be a lot of male chauvinism or discrimination within an organization.
What did you do in the Black Panther Party? And what contributed to your arrest and imprisonment? Tell us your story about how you were set up.
In Baltimore I was a lieutenant of security for a period of time, so I was responsible for checking new members. I discovered that the defense captain in the Baltimore chapter was actually a National Security Agency agent or agent provocateur, and that he had been sent to Maryland to set up an artificial Black Panther Party. I became the target of COINTELPRO after that, because my exposure had caused them to lose a key spy, and they put me on their hot list, I guess.
There was this incident in which two members of the Black Panther Party got arrested a couple of blocks away from the scene of a crime, and they engaged in a shooting incident with Baltimore city police. One of the police was killed, one was wounded and one shot at. A day or so later they arrested me and charged me with being the leader of that. When they couldn’t substantiate it, they put an informer in my cell that had worked for the police department before, and he turned in the statement they needed for a conviction.
They had no evidence. All the people who testified at my trial were police officials, and one or two work supervisors who testified that I was organizing Black postal labor. I worked for the post office then, and I was organizing Black postal workers to create a union for us, because we weren’t getting fair representation from the major union
The Panthers called themselves “Revolutionary Internationalists.” How did they come to that position and what does it mean?
Initially, we were Black community focused — we attracted a lot of Black Nationalists and a lot of people who were just really concerned with what was happening in the Black community. But as we looked at who our friends were and who our enemies were, it became clear that our problem wasn’t one of us being a colony or having a nationalistic problem. Our problem was a class struggle, because it was clear that there was something wrong with the way the economic system had been set up and how it impacted a large portion of the Black Community. We recognized that the same problem existed in South Africa, in Nicaragua, in Vietnam, in the Middle East, and that we must really look at the situation from an internationalist perspective. Our philosophy elevated to Revolutionary Internationalism.
In 1968 J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, called the Black Panther Party the single greatest threat to the security of the U.S. What was Hoover afraid of?
The United States military was like 5 million people and of course they had the most sophisticated weapons on the planet. So you’d think, “Well OK, what’s the problem here?” The problem certainly wasn’t a military threat! The problem was the possibility of Native Americans, Latinos, the anti-war movement, the New Left and the old Left, the Palestinians and Puerto Ricans, the Africans and Asians and Latin Americans — all these people working together in some sort of unified way.
The idea of them supporting each other really did represent a threat in Hoover’s mind. And a threat to the ruling class itself, because for the first time the youth and progressive people were challenging it in the street. And for the first time since McCarthyism, I think there was a clear understanding that people were talking about the “no-no” word, socialism.
What advice do you have for young African Americans and other radicals of all colors who really want to see change?
We need to educate, spread the word, and work on the ground in the areas where we can. We need to network at this point. Because I think that what’s happening in Ireland is coming to America, what’s happening in France is coming to America, what’s happening in Egypt is coming to America, what’s happening in the rest of the world — all those things are coming to America.
Sentenced to life 41 years ago, Marshall “Eddie” Conway’s two books are entitled The Greatest Threat and Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther. Contact his defense committee at http://www.freeeddieconway.org for information on how to get copies and help with his case.