Left Justified: Black Panthers in Rockford

Left Justified: Black Panthers in Rockford

By Stanley Campbell

The Rockford police had surrounded the building, and were calling for the occupants to surrender. Inside, four cornered members of the notorious Black Panther Party were trying to negotiate their escape.

Does this sound familiar? Do you remember this from the history of Rockford? I doubt if you would, but it almost came true. Rockford Urban Ministries, whom I work for, had been approached by a few local members of the Black Panther Party (yes, there were some) to set up a breakfast for kids program in the basement of one of the churches. The director at that time, African-American pastor Rev. Charles Jordan, thought this would be a good way to reach a new segment of Rockford and to see if the churches could help feed poor kids before they went to school.

“I was a little wary of working with the Black Panthers, but they seemed like good folks, and I knew that a breakfast program was needed, so we got them the basement of then-Grace United Methodist Church on West State Street,” said now-retired Bishop Charles Jordan, living in California. “Boy, did I catch hell after that!”

It seems the program was more successful than expected, and a lot of kids showed up for the free meal before they traipsed off to school. But conservative United Methodists discovered that the program was being run by the Black Panthers, people began to protest the church offices. “They threatened to withhold their pledges,” said Bishop Jordan. “Thank goodness, then-District Superintendent Bill White was not cowed. Even after the police were called and there was a short standoff, we let the program go on for the sake of the kids.”

I thank the Black Students Alliance of Rock Valley College for bringing Bobby Seale to town. He was the founder of the Black Panthers, and he spoke to an overflowing crowd in RVC’s Performing Arts Room Wednesday night, Feb. 26. It’s there I met local Panther Monk Teeba and heard the story of breakfast at Grace.

I am an aficionado of civil rights struggles, and I have a collection of books and pamphlets that go all the way back to the abolition of slavery. So I was thrilled to get the chance to see real, live activists.

But I didn’t realize how little I know about the Black Panthers until I listened to Bobby’s three-hour lecture. Bobby had been a civil engineer and was working in the military-industrial complex when he began reading about black history.

While living in Oakland, Calif., he had access to the Berkeley campus library and quickly befriended many African-American students. This was in the early ’60s, and Berkeley had erupted in protests for free speech. Bobby led a group that lobbied for the first black studies program in the United States. But after he was arrested for “swearing” at a poetry reading, as well as disorderly conduct when he was attacked by police informants, he and Huey Newton organized the Black Panther Party as a way of promoting “self-defense” among the African-American community.

He said there were 40 or 50 members who were well trained and even had a uniform. What set them apart and scared the white power structure was when they armed themselves and marched into the California State Legislature. Bobby Seale said that after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Black Panther Party experienced tremendous growth.

The FBI, according to Bobby, encouraged local police to attack and kill the Black Panthers. “We lost 34 men and women to that terror,” says Bobby. Only when the mayor of Seattle, Wash., told the FBI to leave, did the killing stop. Bobby Seale spoke from the heart and made history real. He showed us that anyone could make a difference.

And it almost made me accept guns as self-defense.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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