Black Panther Party, Winston-Salem, North Carolina Chapter
The Winston-Salem, North Carolina chapter of the Oakland, California-based Black Panther Party (BPP), an African American revolutionary organization, was active in Winston-Salem, NC from 1969 until 1978. The Winston-Salem chapter was the first Black Panther Party chapter to form in the South, and along with the New Orleans chapter, was one of the two most significant BPP chapters to emerge in the region. It is primarily remembered for its successful implementation of community service programs, which the national BPP called "survival programs." Focused on improving the lives of the African American community in Winston-Salem, these programs included free breakfast program for local children, and the Joseph Waddell People's Free Ambulance Service. Similar to most other Black Panther Party chapters around the country, the Winston-Salem chapter faced a great deal of harassment, and criticism from the FBI, as well as other law enforcement agencies, the K.K.K., and members of the Winston-Salem community. Although all members of the Winston-Salem BPP chapter were African American, the predominantly white North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union staunchly defended the Winston BPP in court and in the media. The Winston-Salem BPP chapter also launched the political careers of party members Larry Little and Nelson Malloy, both of whom were elected to the Board of Aldermen in Winston-Salem in later years. The chapter’s legacy was publicly affirmed in 2012, when the city of Winston-Salem erected a historical marker in honor of the local BPP chapter, recognizing the group for its positive impact on the community during a time of social and political turmoil.
National Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party (or BPP) was an African American revolutionary organization active in the United States from 1966-1982. Founded in Oakland, California on October 15, 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the party originally referred to itself as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and called for the protection of Black neighborhoods from police brutality. Over time, the Party’s beliefs and objectives evolved, and the Party transformed into a Marxist group. The transformed group advocated the arming of all African Americans, the exemption of African Americans from the draft and from all other sanctions of so-called white America, the release of all African Americans from jail, and the payment of compensation to African Americans for centuries of exploitation by White Americans. At its peak, in the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party had over two thousand members, and chapters located in several major American cities, including New York City, New Orleans, and Chicago.
The Founders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Lewis and Bobby Seale, created the Party’s platform, called the Ten-Point Program. The Ten-Point Program consisted of ten statements advocating changes that would improve the lives of Blacks in the United States.
Origins in North Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina
Eric Brown and Harold Avent, two students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical University, began to organize a Black Panther Party (BPP) in Greensboro in early 1969. Protests, altercations, and arrests motivated by the unofficial BPP in Greensboro caught the attention of Blacks all over North Carolina, with ideals spreading predominantly to Charlotte and Winston-Salem.
Charlotte, North Carolina
In Charlotte, Jerome Johnson and Benjamin Chavis, Jr., two members of the local group the Afro-American Unity Organization Black Panther Party, also attempted to organize a BPP chapter in Charlotte in early 1969, but were also unsuccessful. Although some interest existed within Charlotte's black community, the group's radical ideology and tactics, as well as intense FBI surveillance, precluded the formation of a Black Panther Party chapter in Charlotte.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Layoffs, walkouts, and pickets of the tobacco companies by their predominantly black labor force signaled Civil Rights activism in Winston-Salem as early as the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that a group of Black youths, motivated by the North Carolina A & T students, gathered to discuss what could be done about local issues involving race, and meeting the needs of the Black community. This group, led by Nelson Malloy and Robert Greer, both locals familiar with how racism, and police brutality, had impacted the lives of Blacks in the area, named themselves the Organization of Black Liberation, and hoped to one day be affiliated with the Black Panther Party. Created with the intentions of solving problems not addressed by the Civil Rights Movement, the group sought a “radical reconstructuring of the system,” and committed itself to making it happen. The group worked for over a year in order to obtain a National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF) charter, distinguishing itself from their counterparts in Greensboro and Charlotte through their utilization of deliberate and meticulous methods. As the group awaited their NCCF charter it encountered a period of relative inactivity due to its unofficial affiliation with the National Black Panther Party. During that period of time the unofficial Panthers focused their time and efforts on the group’s free breakfast program, which provided breakfast to underprivileged school children, and the sale of the Black Panther newspaper, which funded the group’s official indoctrination. The group’s official affiliation with the National Black Panther Party member cost three hundred dollars, and didn’t occur until April 1971 due to a number of legal problems and harassment by law enforcement agencies.
Members and Leaders
After its official sanction in April 1971, the Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party had roughly twenty members and fifty regular volunteers, all of whom remained under heavy FBI surveillance. Robert Greer, a credited founder of the original group, eventually assumed the role of organization head. Other early members included co-founder Nelson Malloy, who later became a city councilman, as well as William Rice, Julius Cornell, Thurmond DuBoise, Jessie Stritt, Nathanial Shelf, Harry Tyson, and Larry Little, who eventually replaced Greer as head of the Branch in 1970. Other original members, David Bowman, John Moore, Grady(Papa Doc)Fuller and Jackie Peoples.
Early member, and Winston-Salem native, Larry Little assumed the position of organization head at the age of twenty. Little, a high school basketball star with no college education, or political background, first became interested in the Black Panther Party as a teen when he listened to self-proclaimed Panthers from A & T speak at a rally. His interest in Black history, and determination to make a change, led to his rise as the leader of the group after Greer’s failure to devote himself fully to the work, and success of their chapter. Little devoted himself fully to the Party, and its success, traveling consistently to the Panther’s central headquarters in Oakland, and getting the group more involved in local issues. Under Little’s leadership the branch reached the height of its success, due to his determination to make meaningful change in the Black community. Little’s radical determination led to his arrest on July 20, 1970 for disorderly conduct, and attempting to incite a riot. The arrest occurred following an altercation with several police officers, who ripped down posters, hung by Little, reading, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” According to Little, the judge at his trial gave him the choice between quitting the Black Panther Party or going to jail; Little chose to remain loyal to the Panthers, and served thirty days in jail. In May 1974 Little decided to run for alderman, in an attempt to make changes in the political arena. Little’s attempt, the first of many, was unsuccessful as his opponent, incumbent and fellow African American, Richard N. Davis, narrowly defeated him in the highly controversial election with a vote of 646 to 566. Little’s political defeat in 1974 illustrated that many people still viewed the Panthers as a threat, even though the chapter had altered its methods, and attempted to make changes by working within the system. After his political defeat, Little sensed the decline of his Black Panther Party, and resigned as head of the organization in early 1976. After a successful career as a Panther, and political activist, Little attended both college and law school. Today, Little teaches as an associate professor of political science at Winston-Salem State University.
The Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party made a significant impact on the Winston-Salem community by providing Blacks with necessary programs, and raising awareness about both local, and national racial issues.
The North Carolina Black Panthers committed the majority of its time to public service work within the community. In their earliest years, the Winston-Salem chapter worked to provide breakfast for school children, by distributing food donated by local businesses. The breakfast program was simple, but popular, and successful. It excelled at providing children from poor families with an important daily meal, each morning during the school year. Later on the chapter adopted several other inexpensive, yet highly effective community programs to help Winston-Salem’s poorer residents. These programs included free pest control, a luxury typically beyond the financial means of a large number of Black residents, as well as free transportation to, and from, prison, for those who had incarcerated family members. The chapter’s community outreach also included clothes drives, and inexpensive sickle cell anemia testing, as well as their more famous ambulance service. The free ambulance service created by the Winston-Salem chapter is considered one of the group’s most successful accomplishments because, although healthcare costs posed a problem for low income Blacks everywhere, no other chapter of the Black Panther Party provided its community with a similar program, or solution. The free ambulance program in North Carolina administered Blacks with free transportation, and healthcare. During its final years, one of the Winston-Salem chapter’s primary concerns was Black voter registration. According to the FBI, at their most successful registration drive, the chapter registered over five hundred new voters, making it the “most ambitious project undertaken by the NC chapter to date.” In 1972, the Winston-Salem party, along with the National Black Panther Party began instituting policies to alter the public image of the party. The Winston-Salem branch followed the instructions given by the National Party by joining churches, as well as engaging with traditional Black community leaders, small business owners, and ministers, in an attempt to revolutionize the community, and bring about change by working through traditional legal institutions. This policy shift proved to be a success for the North Carolina branch, as it directly led to the development of several highly influential community programs mentioned earlier, such as the free ambulance program, as well as greater party support within the community. The previous, violent stance frightened more Blacks than it attracted, costing the chapter a large number of supporters in the community. The ideological change, referred to by Little as a shift “…from guns to shoes,” helped the party to gain more support, but still was not enough to allow the Winston-Salem chapter to accomplish all of its goals.
Raising Political Awareness
The Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party raised awareness about its beliefs through its involvement with the Black Panther newspaper. The newspaper served as the chapter’s primary source of income throughout its lifetime. By buying the newspapers from the national headquarters, at a relatively inexpensive price, the chapter could then resell them, in order to raise money for local programs, as well as inform the local Black community about Black Panther Party affairs nationwide. Not only did the Winston-Salem chapter raise awareness by selling the newspapers locally, in an attempt to inform the citizens of North Carolina, but they also wrote and published a large number of articles in the Newspaper about local affairs. The publication of these articles united the Black community by proving that all Blacks, not just Party members, were victims of brutality, and encouraging Blacks everywhere to join in the fight.
Lack of Political Support
During its founding years, the primary problem faced by the Winston-Salem chapter was lack of support. Winston-Salem may have been an ideal city for the birth of a Panther party because of its large Black population, and potential for Black Radicalism; however, the community lacked universal support. At the time, in Winston-Salem, Blacks made up over one-half of the total population; however, fewer than twenty percent of African Americans owned homes. The majority of support for the Panther party came from the poorer populations, who benefitted from their community service programs. This group was related to what the party was doing, and appreciated their services. The Black middle class was not as open to the radical group, whose rhetoric and style intimidated them and posed, in their opinions, an even greater threat for the Black community as a whole. Radicalism and altercations with police alienated most community members, who feared, and hoped to avoid further conflict with law enforcement. The branch’s lack of community support eventually led to its collapse in 1978.
The Winston-Salem chapter, like most Black Panther Parties all over the country, caught the attention of the FBI. After a community-wide increase in support for the National Coalition to Combat Fascism (NCCF), the FBI drastically increased its monitoring of the group, doing what they believed was necessary, to defame and discredit the Panthers, in the best interest of the public. In 1971, the FBI developed a smear campaign intended to create problems between the Winston-Salem Panther party, and the national headquarters in Oakland, hoping that such dissonance would lead to the annihilation of the Winston-Salem chapter, although it did not. The FBI scrutiny did, however, lead to other problems for the chapter. Even minor infractions by the Panthers brought unwanted attention from the FBI. This often disrupted the group’s daily activities, and occasionally led to the arrests of group leaders.
Financial Problems & Reevaluation
The Winston-Salem Panthers struggled financially due to their constant controversy with law enforcement agencies. Although the branch occasionally had surpluses in income thanks to erratic donations, it rarely ever had extra money, and at one point was even unable to secure telephone service in their headquarters. The legal and financial problems faced by the chapter also prevented the branch from undertaking massive community service programs. The combination of these problems forced the Winston-Salem Panthers to reevaluate their tactics. The group decided to avoid conflict, and to focus primarily on community service programs. This transition led to a relaxation by the FBI, and allowed the party to pursue its endeavors in peace.
The legacy left behind by the Winston-Salem Panther Party differs greatly from legacies left by other Panther parties around the country because of its successful policy change. Arguably the most effective branch at implementing the community service approach outlined by national headquarters, the Winston-Salem panthers saw their success in service programs, rather than violent revolts and protests, making it a model of what the national organization wanted and envisioned. The branch, primarily remembered for its service programs, such as its free breakfast program and ambulance service, also gave poor Blacks in Winston-Salem a political voice and enhanced their racial pride. Blacks that once lived in fear of Klan members, felt empowered by the Panthers, and encouraged to stand-up, and defend themselves. The chapter, the first to form in the South, created a long-lasting legacy, firmly cemented in Black North Carolina history by the early 1980s, and recognized again in 2012 with the unveiling of a Black Panther Party marker commemorating the positive change made by the group.
The activity of the Winston-Salem Black Panther’s programs ended with the death of the party in 1978; however, the activism of its major leaders continued for many years. Several members of the Winston-Salem branch went on to become leading political figures, or influence public life in some way, such as Larry Little, who was referred to by the Winston-Salem daily newspaper as the area’s most influential African American citizen, and Nelson Malloy, who served as North Ward alderman after Little. The success of the Winston-Salem Panthers later in life highlights the party’s other major impact: serving as a training ground for Black elected officials.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. p. 102. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Austin, Curtis (2006). Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. p. 250. ISBN 978-1557288271.
- Harry, Cheryl Streeter (2012). Winston-Salem's African-American Legacy. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 115. ISBN 978-0738597737.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 119–120. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Black Panther Party, “Larry Little on ‘Squeaky’s’ Death List: No. Carolina B.P.P. Head Threatened by K.K.K.,” The Black Panther, October 17, 1975.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 122–124. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 91–92. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Garrett, Albert Duncan. "Black Panther Party". Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- Jeffries, Judson L. (2007). Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party. Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 47–82. ISBN 978-0253219305.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 96–99. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Korstad, Robert Rodgers (2003). Civil Rights Unionism Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807854549.
- Clay, Isaac (2003). "From Guns to Shoes: The Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party" (PDF). University of North Carolina at Ashville.
- O'Donnell, Lisa (2012). "Winston-Salem Unveils Black Panther Party Marker". Winston-Salem Journal.
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. p. 120. ISBN 9780820333236.
- Seale, Bobby (January 16, 2007). "Inside the Black Panther Party: An Interview with Bobby Seal. - Interview by Rhone Fraser". Black Agenda Report.
- U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, North Carolina.” Washington, D.C.,: U.S. Department of Commerce Field Offices, 1971.
- Williams, Yohuru; Lazerow, Jama (2008). "Civic Nationalism up close: The North Carolina Chapter of the Black Panther Party". Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 281–86. ISBN 978-0822343431.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Black Panther Party, North Carolina,” BUFILE number: 105-165706, 1968-1976. extracts online
- Fergus, Devin (2009). Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 107–110. ISBN 9780820333236.