At her command, the Black Panthers had been summoned to Oakland, Calif. It was August 1974, and Elaine Brown was taking over as chair of the Black Panther Party, the only female leader of the revolutionary organization.
It was a pivotal moment for a woman in the black power movement.
Surrounded on stage that day by the Panthers’ security squad, Brown looked out into the audience of party members and with two succinct sentences took her place in history.
She warned against a coup. “If you are such an individual, you’d better run — and fast. I am, as your chairman, the leader of this party as of this moment. My leadership cannot be challenged. I will lead our party both above ground and underground. I will lead the party not only in furthering our goals but also in defending the party by any and all means.”
The group answered with a chorus of right on’s, she wrote, including a declaration of support from “Larry, a body guard who held a .45 automatic pistol under his jacket.”
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had been founded on Oct. 15, 1966, by Huey Newton, a law student, and Bobby Seale to protect black communities from police brutality, according to a 1996 Washington Post article.
Former Black Panther David Hilliard said the party called for universal health care, education, decent housing, free medical care and transportation for seniors.
“We did not practice racist ideology,” Hilliard said. “The system was discriminatory and violent. Our slogan became revolution and survival, pending transformation of society; survival pending revolution.”
The Panthers required members to attend political education classes, follow the party’s disciplinary rules and memorize the 10-point party platform that called for “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” according to a University of California at Berkeley report.
The party, which at its height had more than 2,000 members in chapters throughout the country, created free school breakfast programs and provided sickle-cell anemia testing, legal aid and adult education.
But its militancy made it a target of law enforcement officials. On June 15, 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
Hoover created a secret agency to destroy the party with a mission to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” party members, according to FBI records.
By 1970, many of the party’s leaders had been imprisoned or killed in gun battles with police.
Brown inherited a party, she wrote, that “was the target of the most violent aggression of the police forces of America.”
Brown had been chosen to lead the Panthers by founder Newton before he went into exile in Cuba to avoid charges of killing a 17-year-old prostitute. (His trial would later end in a hung jury.) The two had previously been lovers.
For the Panthers, choosing a woman to lead the party was in itself revolutionary. No woman had led the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
During her tenure, Brown installed women in key administrative positions, which evoked outrage from some men. In her book, Brown recalled an exchange: “ ‘I hear we can’t call them bitches no more,’ one Brother actually stated to me in the middle of an extraordinarily hectic day. ‘No, [expletive],’ I reasoned unendearingly, ‘you may not call them bitches “no more.” ’ ”
In 1977, a few months after Newton returned from exile in Cuba, he approved the beating of Regina Davis, who was administrator of the Black Panthers’ school, for a minor transgression.
Brown wrote in her memoir that after Davis was hospitalized with a broken jaw from the beating, Brown felt she could no longer stay in the party.
Brown confronted Newton about the beating, but he refused to back down. Brown decided to resign. She hastily packed her belongings and left Oakland for Los Angeles.
Today, Brown is 74 and still making news. Last month she won a $3.7 million lawsuit against an Oakland City councilwoman she accused of elder abuse and assaulting her at a restaurant in 2015. On Monday, the jury awarded Brown $550,000 in punitive damages, according to her attorney Charles Bonner.