New era, New Panthers

The New Black Panther Party raises racial concerns and becomes a larger part of Savannah’s political scene as it grows in numbers.
Savannah Morning News, Dec. 18, 2002
http://www.savannahnow.com/
By Jenel Few

Stray dogs scrounge through garbage. Haggard old men scratch off lottery tickets and pass a bottle. Dreadlocked teens congregate outside the bleak corner store on East Broad and Anderson streets.

The dreary abandoned lot nearby seems perfect for the New Black Panther Party’s Black Holocaust Monument.

The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is trying to make a radical statement about the condition of black neighborhoods and the quality of black life in Savannah.

Their monument is similar to the bronze African American Monument on River Street, which depicts a four-member family with broken shackles at their feet.

But the New Panther’s monument, built by member James Kimble, is a more humble structure made of brightly painted papier-mache.

Local New Panther leader Yusuf Shabazz served on the city’s River Street monument planning committee, but didn’t like that it devoted $750,000 to an African-American monument designed by a white artist. So the New Panthers built their own.

“It’s more indicative of our sojourn as black people,” Shabazz said. “The monument on River Street is nice but it’s missing something.”

The New Panther’s monument forces passers-by to take notice of a rough neighborhood they would otherwise pass through as quickly as their vehicles could carry them.

It is also a stark reminder of the shackles from which black people are still struggling to break free.

The message is one that Shabazz has been trying to share for decades.

“Over 25 years ago, Malcolm X said blacks were socially degraded, economically oppressed and politically exploited and it still stands true today,” he said.

A legacy of activism

Shabazz’s radical roots run deep.

His grandfather, the Rev. George Carter, was a follower of Marcus Garvey, who advocated uniting the world’s black populations to rule Africa for themselves.

His mother, Laura Jackson, was a student activist at Savannah State College, now university, in the 1970s. She took him to campus lectures and rallies sponsored by the Nation of Islam.

By his teens, Shabazz was pointing out hypocrisies taught in school and preached on Sundays.

“I remember going to the preacher and asking questions that he couldn’t answer,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz’s high school years quickly became a defining moment in his life.

It was during this time the school district began busing black students from his westside Liberty City neighborhood to integrate Windsor Forest High on the southside.

“They went to middle-class blacks,” Shabazz recalled. “They didn’t want blacks from the projects.”

Most of his peers were too young to be all-consumed by issues of race, class and equity.

But not Shabazz.

He spent his days trying to figure out the complexities and inequities he saw around him. He found strength, solace and pride in the writings of black intellectuals such as W.E.B DuBois and popular black literature of the day, such as “Roots” and the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

His new-found knowledge intensified the frustration he felt about being bused.

Then one day, when a white student wouldn’t move his feet from Shabazz’s chair, he started a fight that evolved into a campus riot. It landed him back at majority-black Beach High in 1980.

His feelings drew Shabazz to the Nation of Islam and its message of self-respect, education and empowerment.

While a student at Savannah State College, he joined the Nation, changed his name from Lorenzo Jackson to Yusuf Shabazz and set out to share his sense of pride with the rest of Savannah’s black community.

“I was involved in a religious revolution to get white Jesus out of black churches,” he said. “What would it do to the white community’s mind if, for over 400 years, their churches hung paintings of black Jesus on the wall?”

Shabazz added that Jesus didn’t have European features.

“The Bible describes Jesus like the people from that region, with skin like bronze and hair like wool.”

A vocal critic

Shabazz, not one for holding back criticisms of white society, organized several local lectures by controversial Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad in the early 1990s.

Muhammad was known for uplifting blacks through severe put-downs of whites.

During an infamous 1993 speech at a New Jersey college, Muhammad called for a white genocide, said the Pope was gay and Jews were bloodsuckers.

Three years later, Muhammad became national chair of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Shabazz organized a local New Panther chapter around the time of Muhammad’s death in 2001.

Membership has been building and now the group is making its citywide debut.

New Panthers for a new century

The New Panthers wear black military fatigues, a black tam, combat boots and a patch depicting a panther jumping out of the African continent with the Harriet Tubman quote “Freedom or death.”

The uniform is reminiscent of the black beret and leather-wearing Panthers of the 1960s.

But Shabazz says that’s where the similarities end.

“I started the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Savannah because I thought it could be used as a vehicle to galvanize people,” Shabazz said. “We’re not like the original Panther Party.”

In fact, some of the surviving founders of the original Black Panthers have sued the New Black Panther Party for copying their name and symbol.

Panther David Hilliard said the original group has sued the New Black Panthers because it is exploiting the Panther name and reputation. The original Panthers also contend the new group is promoting ideas that are contrary to their organization’s beliefs.

“These guys are totally antithetical to what we represent,” Hilliard said. “We challenge these people who are dishonoring our legacy.”

‘Tainting’ the Panther legacy

In the 1960s, the original Panthers established a 10-point program which called, in part, for black empowerment through decent housing, military exemption and an end to police brutality and economic exploitation.

Hilliard said the New Panthers have hijacked their image, ideas and have used their reputation to spread messages of hate and discrimination.

“We have nothing in common with these guys,” he said. “But the Panther name gives them instant validity.”

The original Panthers were organized by black Californians in 1966 when the country was still coming to terms with the idea of civil rights. Their efforts to empower and uplift the black community were overshadowed by their views on socialism and frequent conflicts with police.

The group soon became the targets of infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and police raids. Imprisonment of leadership, infighting and the IRS eventually caused the Black Panther Party’s power and presence to fizzle nationwide.

The New Black Panthers aren’t about tearing down the establishment, according to Shabazz, they’re about building up the black community.

“Those who stand with this uniform are those brothers and sisters with conviction who want to see change,” Shabazz said. “They are those who want to raise the level of consciousness of black people and see them rise up socially, economically and politically.”

The local New Panther group is about 40 members strong and meets at 7 p.m. every Tuesday at the Bull Street library.

Shabazz said they aren’t trying to intimidate whites or clash with police like the gun-toting Panthers of the 1970s. But if their presence stirs a little fear into the hearts of some people, the New Panthers don’t mind it one bit.

“If they’re not right — yeah. They need to be up in arms about it,” Shabazz said. “Basically, we want to let them know that there are blacks on the scene that aren’t compromising.”

The New Black Panthers said they want reparations for decades of injustice and inequality; a separate state for blacks to govern for themselves; and believe blacks should be exempt from military service and guaranteed decent housing and free health care.

It’s a message that seems far-fetched and divisive to some, but one that has been embraced by many poor and working class blacks who feel society and integration has failed them.

“My husband is the leader for the people who can’t speak or represent themselves — those who don’t know what to do when injustice is done to them,” said Estella, Shabazz’s wife.

Shabazz and the New Panthers value the black people that the established leadership doesn’t, she said.

Kimble said he became a New Panther because the organization offers a message of hope and self-worth that he never heard before.

“I joined to help young people and understand things for myself about black people,” Kimble said. “I feel like now I know that I’m superior to the white man.”

The New Panthers claim to teach love, not hate. They have also sponsored activities designed to enrich the community, like a cultural alternative to Thanksgiving and a lecture by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

But some of their words and actions, coupled with their affiliation with the late Khalid Muhammad, makes some wonder if the New Panthers are just stirring up old tensions.

“They are a straight-up hate group,” said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A nonprofit based in Alabama, Potok said the center tracks hate groups nationwide and publishes a report on its findings.

It listed the New Black Panther Party as one of the nation’s three black separatist groups with chapters throughout the South and on the East Coast.

During Savannah State University’s homecoming parade, the New Panthers protested against university administrators by carrying an effigy of President Carlton Brown with a noose around his neck.

“We wanted to burn it, but SPD wouldn’t let us,” Shabazz said.

The New Panther’s reputation has cost them meeting places — an original home at St. Paul’s CME Church, the Prince Hall Mason building, and the International Masons Hall.

“Yusuf is concerned that our people are not being self-directed and I won’t knock him for doing what he’s doing,” said County Commissioner Harris Odell. “I know he wants to be positive and I just hope that they will be.”

Shabazz wasn’t always so outwardly radical.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Savannah State College, publishes the Freedom’s Journal newspaper, and owns Shabazz Fish Restaurant at Victory Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

In 1984, he ran unsuccessfully for the 5th District County Commission seat and tried again in 1995, but lost the runoff to Odell.

“My focus is different now,” Shabazz said.

He knows the New Black Panther’s words and actions will be viewed as controversial and divisive by many whites and blacks. But he feels as if the black community is in a state of desperation, which sometimes calls for desperate measures.

“I’m a dose of strong medicine,” he said. “When you go among a sleeping people and cut the lights on they resist that light.”

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