POV: What drew you to the Black Panther Party originally?
Yvonne King: My interest in the Party began when I was living in California for a brief period in 1968. I used to follow some of the Party's works, through Ramparts magazine, when Eldridge was still writing for them. The work was of great interest to me. I ended up in Chicago, and the guy I was with joined the Party, and told me I should make my own decision about it. He brought material home from the Illinois Chapter, and I read the materials, the Ten Point Program, and in January 1969 I went to the office and joined the Party. It wasn't merely an adventure for me. I didn't view it as that. I recognized the work they were doing was important. There was discrimination going on throughout the country, racism. I was attracted by the Party's boldness and assertiveness, and the fact that they were organized stood out to me. They caught the imagination of the people, including me. It was phenomenal; even today, and in retrospect, it remains that way.
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?
King: I think that some people don't appreciate the work ethic that existed in the Panthers, an ethic that resulted in tremendous achievements for a very young political organization with very few resources. Most of us were full-time organizers. We lived communally and made certain sacrifices. We weren't paid to work for the BPP. Monies that we received for speaking engagements were funneled back into the organization. The majority of Panthers worked very hard, and learned many different things in order to move into positions where they were needed.
POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then?
King: In essence, no. I think that when you don't have an organization, when you're looking to participate in electoral politics, then you may be more open to compromise. If you have an organization, you will follow that line within the organization. In terms of analyzing positions by other groups, by individual candidates, I think that I draw a great deal from my experience in the Party. I try to consider objective conditions, to look at people's role in the community, rather than just what they say.
POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we've made progress towards those goals?
King: I guess so, in respect of the level of consciousness of the people, which has been heightened; and being able to recognize certain contradictions, dealing with health care, education, racism, the problems of the criminal justice system and incarceration. That's progress, in terms of people recognizing problems not just on the surface, but realizing how systemically these problems exist and persist. On point number nine, the right to a trial by your peers, there may be more people registered to vote today than before, and since jurors are drawn from voter registrations, there may be some improvement. However, you still have minority people being tried by all-white juries, not by their peer groups. Looking at capital cases, there are still people of color on death row who have been tried by all-white juries. So in that respect I don't think there has been a great deal of progress.
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?
King: As an organization, I think that we might have paid more attention to communication among ourselves, from chapter to chapter. We grew very quickly, and I don't think the founders envisioned a national organization, not to mention an international one, at the outset. It took off so quickly among people who were very young — mentally, chronologically, and politically — so building the organization might have been slower. It's very difficult to say, because of the times, and hindsight provides you the benefit of looking at your mistakes. But trying to be objective about the conditions that existed, how much control did we really have over certain variables? If one were to build an organization today, I think one could learn a great deal. Personally, I don't know how useful it would be to talk about what I would have done more or less of. It was such a rich and phenomenal experience, the best five years of my life.
POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the Black Panther Party? What lessons could someone involved in community work today draw from your experience?
King: They really have to place the community as a priority, above themselves. As organizers they have to be principled and disciplined. They have to recognize that when one is striving to build institutions within the community, one has to develop systems, as opposed to organizing an institution around individuals or personalities.
Billy X. Jennings
Yvonne King joined the Black Panther Party in 1969. She served as field secretary for the Illinois chapter. From 1988 to 2002, she lived in western Africa, teaching in Ghana, Nigeria and Angola. She currently resides in Philadelphia, where she continues to be involved in social justice work in the United States and in Africa.