POV: What drew you to the Black Panther Party originally?
Billy X. Jennings: I came into the party in 1968, after high school. I had lived in San Diego, and I traveled to Oakland in June 1968. That's also when the "Free Huey" movement started. My college was three blocks from the courthouse where Huey Newton was on trial. A member of the Party lived in my apartment building, and we talked about what the Party was doing. This was the time when The Autobiography of Malcolm X had just been published. The Voting Rights Act had just passed. People were being beaten up for trying to eat at lunch counters. I grew up in that kind of atmosphere, with dogs being sicced on civil rights marchers. The Watts Riots happened a few years before that. The Ten Point Program sounded like a feasible program. It included things that black people needed, plus [I was drawn to] the self-defense aspect of the Party's program.
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?
Jennings: They don't understand what the Party really stood for, because the media never gave the Party a chance to talk about its programs, the Party's goals, the Ten Point Program. The media was talking about guns and militancy; not the survival programs, like free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free clinics, free buses to [visit] prisons, free dental care, sickle-cell testing and voter registration. These were programs designed to educate and organize people in the community. For instance, the breakfast program served both to organize people within the community and to feed their own communities. But what you would read about were police raids on Panther offices, or guns being found.
POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then?
Jennings: It's developed in a different way. The party was never into electoral politics; it was more of an educational tool, or a symbolic organizing method for changing attitudes towards politics and organizing on a local level. When we ran Bobby Seale for mayor of Oakland [in 1972], we got 40 percent of the vote. At that time the Black Panther Party was the furthest thing to the left you could possibly get. Even though he lost, the community changed. We realized that the local races, for positions like mayor, affect our lives on a daily basis.
POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we've made progress towards those goals?
Jennings: Not at all. We've taken steps back. Even civil rights, which were new at that time — affirmative action, the Bakke decision, things that people fought for — they've thrown away. The Ten Point Program is still relevant. Those are things we need today: an end to police brutality, the power to determine the destiny of the black community. Today, there might be some things added. Part of the Ten Point Program read, "We want freedom, land, bread, housing, clothing, education and peace." We also included, as a major political objective, the UN plebiscite among the black public to determine the destiny of our people. Reparations weren't mentioned in the Program, but that's what we were talking about.
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?
Jennings: Definitely. First, I would change the language the Party used. We alienated a lot of people. We believed in free speech, just coming off of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. I would change the profanity, which turned off a lot of older people. I would change the gun policy. We believed in guns as a political tool, as a means for self-protection. Malcolm talked about self-defense, and we emphasized that, but the press [used that stance to] emphasize that we were a threat. I would change the emphasis on "the lumpenproletariat" and put more emphasis on "the worker." We talked about the guns too much, and we should have organized a bit harder. We got the most support from people in the community for the survival programs, because we were doing something for them, not just talking about a struggle or a revolution.
POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the BPP?
Jennings: It all depends on where you're at, geographically. The Party was different things in different cities. Overall, it was a black militant revolutionary organization with dedicated members who tried to serve the community. In certain places, it only survived for brief period of time. In Seattle or California, where we had the developed survival programs, the legacy is different than a place where the party was shut down early by police raids.
Billy Jennings grew up in San Diego and moved to Oakland in June 1968. He was a member of the Black Panther Party from 1968 to 1974. He currently works to maintain the legacy of the Black Panther Party, running the website It's About Time. It's About Time was started by former members of the Black Panther Party in Sacramento in 1995.