POV: What drew you to the Black Panther Party originally
Barbara Easley: I was a student at San Francisco State college, and I joined the Black Student Union during the time of the Vietnam War. The Black Panther Party came to San Francisco State — Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Warren Wells — but I was a little frightened of them, so I didn’t get deeply involved. Later I met Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, and started doing some secretarial work for them. That led me into meeting Donald Cox, the Field Marshal at the time. The next thing I knew, I was traveling to New York to support the New York 21 [Party members who had been arrested in New York City]. I came to Philadelphia for a year, working with Mumia Abu-Jamal and a variety of other people. The pressure on the Panthers was increasing. Eldridge left for Cuba, and then Algiers. Donald Cox, my husband at the time, was indicted for a variety of charges, and when he went to Algiers I went with him, because Kathleen Cleaver was also having a baby. Next thing I knew, I was in North Korea, where I stayed until October 1970. As part of the international branch of the Black Panther Party, I set up a nursery and a library, and I became a kind of guerrilla ambassador to the other African liberation movements there.
Barbara Easley outside the Philadelphia Black Panther Party Office in 1969.
POV: Many people have a settled idea of what the BPP was about. What do you think is something that people don’t appreciate, or misunderstand
Easley: It was not about violence; it was about growing. People don’t understand that the Black Panther Party is not the same as the “New Black Panther Party” which is operating in different segments of this country. They’re projecting some anti-Semitic, anti-racial ideas; some of the things they put out there are not what we put out there, not what we were about.
POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then
Easley: No, I just look at the Democratic/Republican Party, that whole business, as a lot of posturing to get elected. In retrospect, there are very few people who put their money where their mouth is. We need a third party. The Green Party may be all right. There needs to be a lot of youth questioning authority. I don’t mean their parents and their teachers, or the policeman on the street. That all has to go on, but it needs to be raised to a higher level. I’m talking about our so-called leadership, from the president to the city council. I have not changed. I do vote; I encourage people to get involved with that process, wherever they are. People need to figure out where they want to go, what they want to see accomplished. The ’70s and ’80s were the time of the “Me Generation,” and the process of all this “me” means there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s important to recognize that you’re not the only person suffering in your community. Join something secular and local in its nature, whether that’s saving a building, saving a park, or something else.
POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we’ve made progress towards those goals
Easley: There was some progress made, but it has peaked, and it’s going backwards — and not just for minorities. In some ways it’s more needed now than ever. There’s subtlety in some of the things they [the government] have done, so that you don’t know about these law changes until someone brings your attention to them, or they make changes that affect you personally. That Ten Point Program is still needed, maybe with some minor word adjustments. But there are also other programs out there, because there has been a resurgence of oppression, and until it’s your time to see it, you missed it, because you’re too busy.
POV: Looking back at your time in the Black Panther Party, are there things you would do differently? Would some of your goals or methods change
Easley: I am sure when you look back there are some things you could differently. There’s always something to do differently. But I don’t regret anything. I’m sure we all would make changes.
POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the BPP
Easley: Surprisingly, it’s still an influence. Some people know about it. If you’re only 25 you might not know, but any student of history, if they find out about your past, they will ask you questions. The discipline and the theory and the practice are all important. They’ve remained a part of the work I do in social work and human services. I’ve grown to know several policemen who are retired, and when I mention that I was a Panther, they say, “look what’s going on, where are you now?” Getting rid of drugs, helping children, respecting elders, going to school — that was our program. It was something positive, focused on the growth of a people.
Our legacy is also the legacy of everyone back to the first slave that came to America. We were just another link in history that builds on someone else’s struggles. That culture of resistance, it’s all around the world, and occasionally you’ll hear somebody mention the Black Panther Party as an influence, because they read or heard about it or saw a movie. Youth will pick up that culture of resistance, and learn how to interpret politics and community work based on that. Take what you need to progress.
Barbara Easley was a member of the Black Panther Party from 1970 to 1974. She worked in the Party offices in Oakland, Philadelphia, New York, and with the international branch of the Party in Africa. She volunteers as a consultant for a community housing group in Philadelphia, and she is organizing the city’s first Panther Film Festival in 2005.