BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Hugh Pearson, what is the origin of the title of your book, “The Shadow of the Panther”?
PEARSON, AUTHOR, "THE SHADOW OF THE PANTHER" It originates out of my determination to find a good title to catch the attention of publishing houses when I came up with a proposal. And also, that's one part; the other part is I wanted to explain -- the nature of what I wanted to do is like the shadow of the panther -- what kind of legacy did the Black Panther Party leave America with in general and black America with in particular? I thought that it would be a good title to use to convey what I was trying to say about the Black Panther Party.
LAMB: The picture on the cover is of Huey Newton?
LAMB: The subtitle here is “Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America.” Who was Huey Newton?
PEARSON: Huey Newton was the -- he is called the co-founder who is actually the founder and driving force behind the Black Panther Party. He founded the party in the fall of 1966. He and Bobby Seale actually founded the party, but Bobby Seale was more a public relations person along with Eldridge Cleaver. Newton was really the driving force, the real power behind everything. I think that the Black Panther Party is an organization that without question got its start kind of coming out of what had been started by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So I think that Huey Newton is definitely a person who had two sides, as I point out in the book.
The one side of him was a criminal, very criminal from the very beginning, petty criminal, and then he became much more serious later on. But the other side, he was an intellectual, something that I think you don't see, a kind of mix you don't see too often in African-American men anymore. It would almost be like Tupac Shakur, a person who was in the news for a while as engaging in all sorts of outrageous activities along with his rap, someone like Tupac who could quote the philosophers and writers from all over the world and also speak English properly. Huey Newton was very much a person like that but at the same time go down on the streets and get into a fight and beat up anybody practically that he would come across or engage in criminality with anyone he came across.
LAMB: Did you write that Tupac Shakur's mother was a Black Panther?
PEARSON: I didn't write that, but, yes, his mother was a Black Panther. I think I did refer to her in the book. I referred to her because she was in the New York chapter of the Black Panthers. So yeah, he is one of the young people who speaks of the Black Panthers almost as icons. So yeah, she was in the party, but I don't spend much attention on her. I just spend like a sentence or two on her.
LAMB: Where was Huey Newton from?
PEARSON: He was from Oakland, California. His family originally came from Monroe, Lousiana. He was named after Huey Long because, as a lot of people who know anything about Southern politics and Louisiana politics know, Long was a very popular populist governor who was very different from most of the Southern governors of the 1920s and `30s, and he was a governor and then a senator. Most of the Southern politicians in that era engaged in race-baiting politics, and though a case can easily be made that Huey Long was a racist, he did not engage in race-baiting politics. He was very populist in his nature, and he had the whole notion of every man a king, so a lot blacks in Louisiana had a respect for that. Huey Newton's father, Walter Newton, out of respect for what Long was trying to accomplish for all poor people in Louisiana, decided to name his son Huey. So that is how Huey got his name.
LAMB: Right on the opening flap of this book you talk about August 22, 1989. What happened?
PEARSON: August 22, 1989 was the day that Huey Newton approached -- he went to West Oakland. He'd grown up all over Oakland, and by this time we are talking about Newton -- he had been in jail; he had come out of jail for the shooting of a police officer in Oakland. It was while he was in jail that the Black Panther Party became the national party that everybody remembers because he professed that he did not kill this officer, and we have to understand that this is 1967, the fall of 1967. You had a number of different groups who saw the police as their enemies. You had young whites and the anti-war movement; you had young blacks, young black militants, both of whom said, well, "The police are our enemy," and they kind of latched onto Huey Newton as a hero for being accused of shooting this police officer.
So Huey Newton became this icon that everybody looked up to, and when he came out of jail on a technicality in 1970 because he had been convicted of manslaughter, when he came out of jail he was a person that was celebrated by radicals everywhere. I mean it was the thing to have your anti-war button in the one hand, "Free Huey" button in the other. Or if you were black, you know the black person would have the Black Power button and along with that your "Free Huey" button. So Huey came out of that and came into a celebrity world of limousine liberals, of Hollywood liberals who kind of latched onto him. But at the same time he developed a very heavy drug addiction.
He had always been -- he had been a petty criminal and by petty criminal I mean a person who engaged in short-change scams in Oakland. He had done that while he was in high school and on up until his early 20s, but then when he came out and became a person who was an icon of the beautiful people, he became heavily addicted to cocaine. He had tried drugs before, but he did not become addicted anywhere near to the extent he became addicted in 1970 when he came out of prison. He became a virtual monster in a lot of ways. The side of Huey Newton that could engage in evil activity just accelerated because cocaine makes a person very paranoid. He engaged in a lot of sexual abuse; he engaged in the ordering of the murder of people within the party and, in the cases of some people, outside of the party.
LAMB: I'm going to have to ask you, how do you know all of this?
PEARSON: Because out of talking to people who were actually in the party, out of going over court records and uncovering the evidence that he actually engaged in this. There is plenty of evidence around that Huey Newton did -- he was accused and charged with plenty of killings and accused and charged with embezzling money from a school that the Black Panthers had.
LAMB: How many times was he convicted of something?
PEARSON: He was convicted -- OK, he was convicted in 1967; he was convicted of, as well, of stabbing Odell Lee in 1964. This was a misdemeanor conviction. He was convicted of a very minor charge in about 1987, ‘88. So he was convicted of something probably about three or four times. He was charged with a number of different things.
LAMB: Did he go to jail every time?
PEARSON: No, he didn't go to jail every time. He was out on bail for long periods of time. When he came out of jail in 1970 on the manslaughter conviction in the shooting of the Oakland police officer, and he was tried two times over again and these trials resulted in hung juries so the case was dismissed.
LAMB: Go back to August 22, 1989.
PEARSON: August 22, 1989, Huey Newton had come out of jail on a misdemeanor charge, a drug-possession charge. By this time we're talking about a man who is very much addicted to cocaine. His organization no longer exists -- the Black Panthers were practically defunct by 1982 -- and he is heavily addicted to crack cocaine. So he goes to West Oakland on this particular night that you are speaking of, and he tries to get some more cocaine because what he's doing is he's not paying for the crack cocaine in the way most customers pay. Basically he is pressuring drug dealers to give him drugs because "I'm Huey Newton." His whole thing is like "I'm Huey Newton. I used to be king of the streets; you have pay respect to me because of who I am."
So drug dealers are giving him money, but it was this very complex thing. There are organizations that are running drugs on the streets of Oakland, and one organization is the Black Guerilla Family, which is prison-based. Now, there are Black Panthers who became part of the Black Guerilla Family while they were in prison because there were a number of people who were in the Black Panther Party who ended up going to prison. Huey Newton -- there is a lot of anger against Huey Newton because of him abandoning these Panthers while they were in prison and no longer allowing the Panther Party to take care of them and their families to the extent that they did before he got out of prison in 1970. So you have a lot residual anger in the BGF resulting from that as well as the fact that he is taking drugs from these guys without paying. So a contract is put out on the life of Huey Newton, and on this particular August night, a young man, Tyrone Robinson, decides to take up the contract because he thinks he's going to move up in the organization, and on that night he puts three bullets in the head of Huey Newton and Huey Newton dies.
LAMB: How do you know that Tyrone Robinson did it?
PEARSON: He was charged with the killing. He was convicted of second-degree murder. I went to the trial. I interviewed the Willie Payne who was actually with Huey Newton before he died. As a matter of fact, Huey Newton crossed paths with Willie Payne the night that he died and decided to get the cocaine and come back to Willie Payne's apartment and smoke the crack cocaine.
LAMB: Did you talk to Tyrone Robinson?
PEARSON: I tried to talk to Tyrone Robinson, but I didn't get a chance to talk to Tyrone Robinson. All I did was hear his testimony in court and also go to the court records, because there was a lot of -- you know, there were different police reports and everything that, as well as what I could glean from Willie Payne to reconstruct everything.
LAMB: Did you go to the funeral?
PEARSON: I didn't go to the funeral of Huey Newton because I came to Oakland -- let's see, he died in August, and I came to the Bay area in November, so I didn't get chance to go to the funeral.
LAMB: What was your reason for going to the Bay area?
PEARSON: I came to the Bay area because I had a tentative offer from Robert Maynard, publisher of the Oakland Tribune, to write for the Oakland Tribune. I say "tentative" only because he said, "As soon as I can open something up, I would like to have you on my staff." So I was freelancing in New York City. I didn't have anything solid in New York City because everyone was telling me at the major papers, "You have to pay your dues; you have to go out and leave New York and work your way back." So I thought Bob Maynard's tentative offer was the best offer that I had, so I decided to come to the Bay area and wing it, go out to the Bay area.
And at the same time, the Panthers -- since my birth name is Huey -- the Panthers had kind of left my mind from my childhood because in my childhood I read everything, practically everything I could get my hands on about the Panthers. So when Huey was killed in August, I was like, well, my goodness, what happened to this guy? What happened to the Black Panther Party? I wanted to investigate what happened to the Black Panther Party as well as pursue this newspaper opportunity in the Bay area. So that's what brought me to the Bay area.
LAMB: Did you ever think at any time in your life that you wanted to be a Black Panther?
PEARSON: When I was, I would say when I was about 10 -- well, I would say more 11 or 12 years old during the heyday of the Black Panther Party, yeah, I thought it would be great to be a Black Panther because most of the media, particularly the media in the leftist community, the liberal community, most of the media gave you the impression that the Panthers were really great guys who were coming up with community programs and that any kind of problems they were having with the police was because they were trying to do something good. So, yeah, I was very much into the Black Power movement, Black Power era, when I was 11, 12, 13 years old.
LAMB: Did you have to be black to be a member?
PEARSON: Yeah, for the most part you did have to be black to be a member. But a lot of people don't realize that the Black Panthers were different than Black Nationalists. The Black Panthers believed that the system was at fault for the problems of black people and poor people in general. They had a lot of white allies, and that's one of the reasons I think a lot of the white radical movements like the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Peace and Freedom Party, they created an alliance with the Panther Party because the Panthers said, "We believe that it is the system that's wrong and not white people in general." That is opposed to what happened in SNCC. Now, SNCC started out as an integrated organization, but eventually the leadership of SNCC decided to kick the whites out of the organization, and you had a number of different black militant groups that didn't want to work with whites.
LAMB: You have some pictures in there of some people that will be very familiar, and you mentioned SNCC, and I wanted to hold this picture up right here of Stokely Carmichael. What is SNCC, and what did he have to do with it?
PEARSON: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was an organization that really for the most part started out as the youth branch of Martin Luther King's civil rights movement. As everyone is quite familiar with the story, 1955 was the year when most people chart the beginning of the actual nonviolent resistance to segregation, the movement in which blacks decided that we're going to put our foot down, we're not going to stand for this anymore. And then you had a lot of young people like John Lewis, Bob Moses, James Forman and the like who said we want to do something as well.
So it started out very much in alliance with Martin Luther King and eventually started veering away from King, engaging in tactics that were more daring than what King and his disciples really wanted them to engage in. So eventually, it started out that way. You had the freedom rides, which basically were started by CORE but which were assisted by people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It went from there, went to voter registration projects, and it started out as an integrated movement. And Stokely Carmichael joined the movement early on, and basically he went into Mississippi, he went to Alabama, he was part or the freedom rights and he became more and more militant. Now, you had other people in SNCC, people like Bob Moses and John Lewis, who didn't become as militant as Stokely Carmichael eventually became. But he became more militant and steered SNCC towards the militant direction.
LAMB: John Lewis, the congressman from Atlanta?
PEARSON: The current congressman from Atlanta.
LAMB: Go back to Stokely Carmichael for a moment. Where is he today?
PEARSON: Stokely Carmichael is in Africa right now. I believe he was in Ghana for a while, but right now -- I'm forgetting the particular country -- but it's in West Africa, I believe, where he is right now.
LAMB: Is it Guinea?
PEARSON: Yeah, I think it's Guinea, yeah.
LAMB: There's a hyphen to it.
PEARSON: Guinea-Bissau, I believe it is.
LAMB: But he started "black power," the phrase "black power." What does that mean?
PEARSON: He and some of his disciples started that phrase.
LAMB: What does it mean?
PEARSON: It grew out of SNCC's dissatisfaction with what had gone on in 1964 at the Democratic National Convention. SNCC, in alliance with some people in Mississippi who created the Mississippi Freedom Party, went to the Democratic National Convention having registered anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 black voters and said, "Look, we are the true representatives who should be sitting and representing the state of Mississippi at the convention." Lyndon Johnson said, "Well, look, I need to solve -- I can't handle this right now. We'll give you two seats at the convention." He dispatched Humphrey to tell them, "We'll give you two seats." They wouldn't accept that, so the following year they went to Alabama to register voters in a third-party effort, and they came up with the notion of black power as a means to campaign and get black people to see we need to empower ourselves.
Now, eventually they became, because they didn't elect anybody in this third-party effort in which they came up with the symbol of the black panther -- the reason they came up with the symbol is because you had a lot of illiterate blacks, and they decided, "Well, we have to figure out a way for these black people to recognize our ballot, so we're going to come up with the symbol the black panther." So you had the notion of black power, the philosophy of black power, the symbol of the black panther that was initially used to register poor blacks in the black belt in Alabama, in Lowndes County, and that eventually after the electorial efforts did not result in anyone being elected, then it was carried north and it became the notion of black power, empowering ourselves by any means necessary even if it meant taking up the gun.
LAMB: Where is your home town originally?
PEARSON: I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana
LAMB: How long did you live there?
PEARSON: For 17 years -- yes, 17 and a half years.
LAMB: Parents, what did they do?
PEARSON: My father was a physician. He is still a physician. He is 73 years old. He had his own private practice; now he's a medical director of a hospital in Fort Wayne. He originally came from Georgia; as a matter of fact, he settled in Fort Wayne only a few weeks before I was born.
LAMB: Your mother?
PEARSON: My mother died when I was 17; she had a terminal illness for eight and a half years. She was originally from Florida. She met my father when he was in medical school, and she was a nurse at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
LAMB: What's your father's politics?
PEARSON: I would say my father could be classified as conservative. A lot of people talk about the blacks who are conservative, and I would say he could probably be classified as a conservative, a very self-reliant man who taught his kids to believe in themselves, that they could do anything they wanted to do, that they were as good as anybody else. But my father is not the kind of person who would voice any kind of support for something like the Black Power movement.
LAMB: Brothers or sisters?
PEARSON: I have two sisters, one older and one younger -- actually three now because I have a little 8-year-old sister from my father's third marriage.
LAMB: Where are your sisters?
PEARSON: Both of them in the Atlanta area, in suburban Atlanta.
LAMB: What was it like growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
PEARSON: It was interesting. As a matter of fact, I was thinking about this a few weeks ago. Indiana is basically seen as a pretty conservative state, and I think that politically that's pretty dead-on. But growing up in Fort Wayne -- I grew up in a small middle-class black enclave, and I went to predominately white schools from nursery school on up -- there was some racial tension, but for the most part there wasn't a whole lot of racial tension in elementary school, junior high and high school.
First when I was in elementary school, I didn't do that well only because I was into the Black Power movement, and some of the guys I grew up with, we all got this notion in our head that to do our schoolwork was becoming like white people so we didn't want to do our schoolwork. So actually after I fell out of that in junior high school by reading David Halberstam's book “The Best and the Brightest,” I started doing well in school. I was basically accepted by all of the other students who do well in school.
Now, there were a handful of black students in my school who did well, and of course you had your minority of whites, the cream of crop of the white students, who did well, and they basically accepted me as their peer, as a person who was very intelligent. Interestingly, it wasn't until I got to Brown University in Rhode Island, that I even came across the notion that I might be inferior because I was black, because you had the affirmative action program and a lot of whites felt that the only reason the blacks are here is because affirmative action is giving them a leg up.
So I would say growing up in Fort Wayne, there is a lot of cliches around, the conservative Midwestern values, optimistic Midwestern values, and I think for the most part those values, it's true. There might not be the worldliness you'll find on the East or the West Coast, but those values, I think there is something to this notion of basic Midwestern values that I think I was growing up with. My notion is tell me, be straight with me and don't give me a lot of crap. So I think I grew up with that.
LAMB: The David Halberstam book, what was “The Best and the Brightest” about?
PEARSON: It was about Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, actually, Kennedy, Johnson and the Vietnam War and how the United States became involved in the war and all of the advisors that were part of that.
LAMB: And how did that impact you?
PEARSON: It impacted me very much because you had people like McGeorge Bundy, who was very intelligent. Of course, Johnson himself didn't go to a prestigious college, but practically everyone he surrounded himself with -- and Kennedy as well -- and of course a lot of the people that Johnson surrounded himself with were carryovers from the Kennedy administration, at least initially. But McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and people like that had gone to very prestigious schools, and, for some reason, the way Halberstam wrote this book, these men were very fascinating to me. I thought, gee, I would like to do something similar to what these men are doing, not that I was interested in engaging in Vietnam War policy, but just the way the book was written it made it sound like they had very fascinating minds. I really latched onto that and the idea that it would be really great to go to a major, very prestigious school, an Ivy League school.
So in about the 9th grade I started investigating schools, and I bought a book -- I think it was the “Insider’s Guide to Colleges” -- and I just started going through the Insiders Guide and seeing what the different programs at different colleges were all about. Brown University sounded like it had a very interesting program, a very liberal program that allowed you to take whatever courses you wanted to take, but also was very creative and it just sounded like a really good program. So Brown was the school, and I said, “Oh, I'm definitely going to apply to this school and a couple other schools.”
LAMB: You mentioned before that it wasn't the “in thing” to be for black power and to be a good student or to be known as a bright student?
PEARSON: It was interesting. In my particular neighborhood -- it's kind of hard to explain -- it was a middle-class black neighborhood, but the people who I grew up with, their families were middle class because their parents had good factory jobs for the most part. You had a couple people whose parents were school teachers, but most everyone else, their parents had good factory jobs, because we're talking about a time in the Midwest when you had industrial cities in the Midwest where a lot of blacks could leave the South, come to the Midwest and get very good jobs making what today would be the equivalent of $40,000, $45,000 a year working in a factory.
So those were the kind of kids I grew up with, and my father was the only one in the community who was a physician. Now, there were other black physicians in Fort Wayne, but none of them lived in black communities. We were the only ones who lived in a black community. Many of the students, most of the kids I grew up with, basically, there were few of us who had this notion about black power, but we all for the most part had this idea about this, that there was a certain way to be black. We didn't have the idea to the extent that the kids in the inner-city part of Fort Wayne had because the blacks in the inner city basically thought of those of us in my community, which was called the Southern Heights, they basically thought of us as set apart from them because we lived in nice, modest houses.
But for the most part, what still existed among the people of Southern Heights was the notion that there was a certain way to be black, and it wasn't a notion that really accepted being intellectual. So it wasn't until I got into the latter part of junior high school, probably 9th, 10th grade, that I started veering away from that, me and a handful of other black students, including my sister and maybe three or four others. We started veering away from that idea and decided we were going to do well in school no matter what.
LAMB: What did you study at Brown?
PEARSON: I studied a variety of different things as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. For a while I wanted to be a lawyer. At first I came in wanting to be a writer because I had won a major high school writing award. I was the only one in northeastern Indiana to win it, an award called the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing. But I saw my first article published in a student newspaper at Brown; it didn't look like I had even written it. So that kind of turned me off to journalism.
LAMB: Why didn't it look like you had written it?
PEARSON: Because the editor had edited it so heavily. It was almost like, gee, if this is what it is all about, I don't want to go into this, so I had just had the idea that this is something that I might not want to do. So from there I thought about being a lawyer, so I took some social science courses, and then eventually I found my way into pre-med, not so much because I loved the sciences but because I thought, looking back on my father's life and the fact that he was independent and very, very well-respected, I want to do something where I can have an impact on people's lives and can be independent and make a decent living, more than a decent living but a comfortable living. So I went into pre-med. I guess I really started going into it hard in my junior year at Brown. Actually I took an extra year. I graduated from Brown on time, but I took an extra year between finishing Brown and going onto medical school and finished my pre-med and majored in biomedical ethics, which was an interdisciplinary major at Brown.
LAMB: Did you get a medical degree?
PEARSON: No, I didn't. I spent two years in medical school and left because eventually I figured out I wasn't going to become a good doctor. I just lost an interest in the science and medicine. I was doing all sorts of things at Meharry Medical College. I was public relations director for the student health fair; I was co-editor of the student newspaper. I was getting involved in a lot of political issues at Meharry and just spending less and less time on my medical studies. I just decided, I'm not going to make a good doctor, so I decided to leave.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
PEARSON: I live in New York City.
LAMB: Doing what?
PEARSON: I'm an editor and writer for Pacific News Service. I've written articles that have been in the New York Times, Newsday, a variety of different things. For the most part in the last couple of months I have been out promoting the book, writing freelance for other publications as well as doing stuff for Pacific News Service.
LAMB: How many Panthers were there at the height of the movement?
PEARSON: The estimates for the total number of Black Panthers vary. Some people say there was a couple of thousand at the height of the movement. It is hard to get an exact figure because the Panthers were a national phenomenon roughly from 1968 to 1971. They developed chapters. After Huey Newton was accused of shooting the police officer in Oakland, they became an overnight sensation for blacks around the country, particularly low-income blacks, so chapters started sprouting up around the country, and it's hard to get an exact number on it. Some people say there were as many as 5,000 at the height; some people, the lower estimate goes down to 1,500 to 2,000.
LAMB: On Page 209, you say celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Donald and Shirley Sutherland, Otto Preminger, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda and others contributed to the Black Panthers. Why and what was their cause?
PEARSON: The cause was kind of a two-pronged thing, the notion of taking up arms against the Establishment. Again, like I was saying a little bit earlier, this was a very common notion back in '67, '68, '69, that the Establishment was wrong and something needed to be done about the Establishment. You had to over throw the Establishment, and the Black Panthers were more or less seen as the vanguard among people who decided we needed to take up arms. Huey Newton said,"Look, pick up the gun; we have to pick up the gun." So you had a lot of people, like the people you just named, who basically had the idea that something does need to be done about the Establishment. So you had on the one hand, that was going through the minds of a lot of people. On the other hand, the Panthers had come up with community programs. By 1969 they were running free breakfast programs, school programs, things of that nature, very grassroots programs, also free clothing, free shoe programs, things that were very grass roots in nature.
LAMB: Where did they get the money?
PEARSON: They got the money from donations. Huey Newton and the Panthers, they basically had a lot of friends in Hollywood, friends in New York who gave the money to the party. There was that very famous party that Bernstein threw where they got donations from people of that nature.
LAMB: Let me read this quote; it's from Jane Fonda: "Revolution is an act of love; we are the children of revolution, born to be rebels. It runs in our blood." She called the Black Panthers "our revolutionary vanguard. We must support them with love, money, propaganda and risk." What year did she say that?
PEARSON: If I remember correctly, she said it in about 1970.
LAMB: Did you ever try to reach her and see if she would say the same thing today?
PEARSON: No, I didn't try to reach her to see if she would say the same thing. There were a number of different people I wanted to reach, but the main reason I didn't try to reach Fonda was because I thought I would have to go through too many layers to reach her, because I figured she's such a celebrity, particularly since she is married to Ted Turner now. I figured why spend time trying to reach someone like that when I could just look at what she said back then and tell the reader what she said back then.
LAMB: What was the point of quoting her here?
PEARSON: To let people know that someone like Jane Fonda, who is basically seen as a very well-respected actress, she has a history of having supported causes that people might not remember that she supported, which isn't to say that someone should see her as anathema because she did that but to give readers a notion of the breadth of support the Black Panthers had at one time. One of the things that I think a lot people who have been reviewing my book have not made potential readers aware of is that the first 100 pages or so of the book, I don't even talk about the Black Panthers. I talk about the history of the civil rights movement, not even going back to the `50s but going back to the `20s, and then I bring readers up through the involvement of young whites, because all of the white student activism of the `60s came out of the civil rights movement in the South. You had white students coming from the West Coast and the North, going to the South, particularly during the Mississippi Freedom Summer and after engaging in the Mississippi Freedom Summer coming back to their campuses and engaging in student activism. After they were basically, for all intents and purposes, kicked out of the civil rights movement by black militants, then they started putting their energy into the anti-war movement.
So I'm basically trying to show people how these celebrities that we see as icons for the most part today were also part of this movement, and I think that a lot of people should be made aware of the fact that it was only at a certain point in the late `60s that we had people veering off into this separatism as far as blacks and whites and their attitudes are concerned now. At one time, black and white students, black and white young people were very much into trying to work together so that I give people an idea of how Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, people of that nature, were all part of this.
LAMB: You say that some people wanted money before they would talk to you for this book.
PEARSON: Yes, some people in the Panther Party wanted money before they talked because ...
LAMB: Did you pay any of them?
PEARSON: I don't like to give names, merely because I figure, you know, people could possibly engage in a little type of legal action, suing for libel or something of that nature.
LAMB: Are you at all afraid about what you wrote could come back to ...
PEARSON: I'm not at all afraid only because I think that, for the most part, most of the people that I'm speaking of, they've moved on in their lives. There are people who are angry about me pointing out the truth about how the Panther Party was about more than just some of the positive things people remember them for. There are plenty of people who are angry about that. But I don't think there's people who are out there who are saying, "We are going to engage in some type of jihad or something against Hugh Pearson because he has written a book that points out some of the things we don't want to have pointed out."
LAMB: Mary Kennedy, who is she?
PEARSON: She was a rank-and-file member of the Black Panther Party.
LAMB: White or black?
PEARSON: She's black. That's another thing, now that you mention it. One of the things I think people should also be made aware of is, I spent a lot of time in the book talking about rank-and-file party members. Most of the time when people want to remember the Panthers, people who were in and know about that era, they want to remember the leaders only. And what I wanted to do in the book, the only leader I really want to focus a lot of attention on is Huey Newton. I wanted to contrast his life from what rank-and-file members went through in the party. So there is an entire segment in the book where I give people the notion of what might have happened. They hear about this Black Panther Party, about this party started by Huey Newton, and popularized by Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver; they say, "Well, hey, I want to join this party". What might it had been like if you were a woman who decides, "I want to join this party"? Or if you were a man who says, "I want to join this party." Mary Kennedy is one of the people I focus on as an ordinary rank-and-file member that no one would associate with the Black Panther Party in the way you associate Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton with the Black Panther Party.
LAMB: Is she still alive?
PEARSON: She's still alive and working. She lives in East Oakland.
LAMB: At last count in your book she has eight kids or seven?
PEARSON: I can't remember off the top of my head; about, I think she has seven. I can't remember the exact number at the moment.
LAMB: But you say that right in the middle of her being a Black Panther and raising these seven kids that she caught her husband, who was also a Black Panther, having an affair.
PEARSON: Yes, she did.
LAMB: What happened?
PEARSON: What happened was she tried to divorce her husband but get party approval for the divorce. She ran right smack dab into the middle of the misogyny of the Black Panther Party. Basically there were a lot of people in leadership positions who basically had a very misogynistic attitude towards women. And they told her, "Your husband doesn't want to get a divorce, so you can never get a divorce." And basically, she was the kind of person who obeyed party policies and said, "OK, fine. I can't get a divorce. I'll live with what he is doing. I don't have to like it, but I'll go on and move on in the party." The way in which it was dealt was in a very shocking manner -- using words that I'm not sure I can use on television. I enlighten readers about a lot of the attitudes that were very, very horrible and very much condoned by people in the leadership of the Black Panther Party. I want to make clear that not every single male in the Black Panther Party engaged in this kind of behavior, but the behavior was common enough so that if you believed in treating women in this manner your behavior practically went unchecked.
LAMB: Did you ever meet Huey Newton?
PEARSON: No, I didn't, because he died before I got out there.
LAMB: Did you ever meet Bobby Seale?
PEARSON: I didn't meet Bobby Seale. I've met his brother. I tried to contact Bobby Seale through his brother who spoke for the entire family three times and refused to talk for the book.
LAMB: Where is this picture from?
PEARSON: The picture is from when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale posed, about in 1967, from one of the first places where they located their Black Panther Party headquarters.
LAMB: Who is Bobby Seale?
PEARSON: Bobby Seale was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party along with Huey Newton, someone Huey had met in the early `60s when they both were attending junior college. Bobby was very much associated, practically as much associated with the idea, the notion in what the Black Panther Party did as Huey Newton. I'd say that there were three people who stand out in the minds of most people when they think of the Black Panther Party: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver and to a lesser extent now David Hilliard and Elaine Brown because they had autobiographies that came out last year.
LAMB: David Hilliard had a book last year. What's the difference between reading his book and your book? What was his title when he was with the Panthers?
PEARSON: He was for a long time chief of staff of the Black Panther Party. It's kind of overstating it, for a long time, but he was chief of staff of the Black Panther Party in the late `60s while Huey was in jail and after Eldridge fled to Algeria. He basically for a few years took over running the Black Panther Party. Now, the difference between David's book and my book is that David is candid to a certain extent, but he is not totally candid about some of the things that were going on in the party. He's not candid about the criminal activity he was accused of engaging in, like the embezzlement of party funds, the sanctioning of robberies that occurred.
LAMB: Was he ever convicted?
PEARSON: He was never convicted, no. This is the kind of activity that I uncovered by talking to people who were actually in the party and also from going over testimony from people who were in the party.
LAMB: Is this a public accusation?
PEARSON: Yes, public accusation. This was publicly made in congressional and Senate hearings here in Washington D.C., as a matter of fact, and also people who were in the party who were never accused of being informants for the FBI because that was another one of the things, practically -- there's a number of different people who were part of the party, who will defend the party, who will tell you that anything negative that is connected with the party is because the FBI sent people in to engage in that activity. I uncovered plenty of evidence that shows that the FBI sent people in to help a process that was already in action, and I think David Hilliard has plenty of evidence that I uncovered talking to ex-Panthers who were never accused of informing, and going over testimony which shows that Hilliard and people in the leadership were engaging in activities that he doesn't even mention in his book.
LAMB: This picture here is of a graduation ceremony. Where was it?
PEARSON: This was at UC Santa Cruz when Huey Newton was getting his Ph.D. in the history of consciousness.
LAMB: What did you think of that?
PEARSON: I think that there's a lot of people who hold Huey as an icon, who are very proud of the fact that he got a Ph.D. period. I think being proud of Huey Newton having the ambition to get a Ph.D. and stick to getting a Ph.D., I think there is nothing wrong with that, but, as far as the content of the program, I think it's very questionable. I think there is plenty of evidence that Huey Newton never really studied very hard to get the Ph.D. I think that the history of consciousness -- the title is very nebulous. A person has to wonder what on earth is the history of consciousness, and his dissertation is not the kind of dissertation that required a lot of study. All he had to do for the most part was get his FBI files, go through his FBI files and talk about the history of the FBI trying to persecute him and the Black Panther Party. That passed muster as a dissertation for him to get a Ph.D., and I don't think that that shows any real scholarship.
LAMB: The first picture in here is a man named C. L. Dellums. Who is he?
PEARSON: C. L. Dellums is one of the principal people who helped found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is very important because I think that it can be pointed to from the 1920s, it can be pointed to as a principal organization that got the civil rights movement off the ground. A. Philip Randolph who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleep Car Porters was, for the most part -- after you had Booker T. Washington and then after Washington, W. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey -- the next person who became a prominent national black figure was A. Philip Randolph. But he did it, started the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters with the help of C. L. Dellums, who also eventually became president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I talk about Dellums because Dellums was located in Oakland, and he helped A. Philip Randolph start the organization which was a national organization. But I speak of him because Dellums was a key person that got the movement rolling.
LAMB: Any relationship to Congressman Ron Dellums?
PEARSON: He's his uncle.
LAMB: Was Ron Dellums ever a Black Panther?
PEARSON: No, he wasn't. During the height of the Black Panther Party, Ron Dellums had started his political career. Actually in the early `70s, he was elected congressman from the Oakland-Berkeley area. He did have some political dealings with the Black Panther Party. He went into a lot of situations and kind of became a mediator between the Panthers and other people in the Oakland-Berkeley area.
LAMB: There is a picture of a gentleman by the name of H. Rap Brown. People my age remember him in 1967; he started a riot right around here in Cambridge, Maryland.
PEARSON: Right. Well, what happened was, by that time the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had become very militant, and he had been invited to the town of Cambridge, Maryland, to speak to a group of people in the black community, and he basically gave a speech that condoned the notion that a local school should be burned. So it became a question of -- after the school was actually burned, the question became, did H. Rap Brown's speech have anything to do with the school being burned down, because the fire department in Cambridge said, "Look, you had this guy come in and give this speech, and the people went and burned down the school. You know, he's the one to blame; we're not going to put out a fire that the people decided to engage in on their own." So H. Rap Brown had legal problems from then on out. He had to go underground; he just became involved in a very, very tangled legal web and eventually faded out of the Black Power movement as a result of it.
LAMB: But you found him, you found him alive today.
PEARSON: I found him alive in Atlanta.
LAMB: Did you see him?
PEARSON: I did see him.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
PEARSON: I talked to him.
LAMB: Where did you find him?
PEARSON: He is an imam in a mosque in the southwest section of Atlanta -- actually, I guess you could say the western section of Atlanta -- a very, very intelligent man who quietly wants to lead his flock away from the limelight. He basically gave me some pointers as to where I should look to uncover some of the things I wanted to go through, wanted to look at the movement, but he didn't want to talk about the movement because, I think that -- for one thing, I think there's a lot of bad memories he has about it. He's talked enough about, he's basically said what he wanted to say and he is headed in another direction. I'm very impressed with him, to tell you the truth, because he's not a member of the Louis Farrakhan sect of Muslims. He's a genuine member of the Islamic faith, and of course, you know there's different sects of the Islamic faith. But he struck me as a very quiet, unassuming man and an intelligent man, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: Were you ever shocked by what you learned?
PEARSON: Very shocked. I did not go into writing this book thinking I was going to uncover the shocking things I uncovered.
LAMB: Name a couple.
PEARSON: Some of the murders.
LAMB: Who was murdered?
PEARSON: People like Fred Bennett, who was a member of the Black Panther Party. There is a lot of speculation as to why he was murdered. Some people say that the Panthers thought he was an informant and murdered him. Other people say that he got the wife of a major leader in the party pregnant and was murdered was a result of that.
LAMB: Where was he murdered?
PEARSON: He was murdered in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside of Santa Cruz, California
PEARSON: It was about in 1971, if I remember correctly, the beginning of '71.
LAMB: Have they ever caught the person that ...
PEARSON: No, they didn't. There was a person who was working with, as an undercover agent, who helped dispose of the body. He's not the person who actually planned the murder and engaged in the murder, but while he was working undercover in the Black Panther Party, in order that he not be found out as an undercover agent, he did go along with helping to dispose the body.
LAMB: What else shocked you?
PEARSON: Another murder that shocked me that there is a lot of speculation on is the murder of Betty Van Patter. There is a lot of murkiness surrounding the murder. She became a bookkeeper for a little while for the Black Panther Party. There is a lot of speculation as to whether or not the party killed her or -- and the people that I talked to, there is convincing evidence that she was killed by the party, but there is a lot of controversy surrounding that, largely to do with the fact that Betty Van Patter is white and there is a lot of people who were angry that that murder is focused on as a possible Black Panther murder because they say, "Why focus on this white person who the Panther Party is being accused of murdering and not focus in on all the blacks who the Panther Party were accused of murdering?"
So I can kind of understand that, but at the same time I think that the number of innocent people like a woman like Betty Van Patter or even Fred Bennett or anybody who was killed by the party or accused of being killed by the party, I think that is something that stands out in my mind as something that shows the party should not be seen purely as a revolutionary do-good organization. I just think that those two murders and some other murders, murders that I didn't even uncover that, you know, rumors about murders, those are the types of things that the rumors as well as the hard evidence is so strong that the party should not be seen as purely the revolutionary vanguard that a lot of people on the left and in the liberal community want to see it as.
LAMB: "Gangsta rap?"
PEARSON: I think gangsta rap very much grows out of the image the Black Panther Party created for young black men, this image of defiant posturing that stands out in particular with Huey Newton sitting on a throne, gun in one hand, a spear in the other and also with what Eldridge Cleaver was doing.
LAMB: Who was he?
PEARSON: Eldridge Cleaver was the, for a time, he was basically the leader of the Black Panther Party while Huey Newton was in jail. He was the minister of information, and he from about 1968, when Huey Newton was sitting in jail waiting to go on trial for the murder of an Oakland police officer, Cleaver, for the most part, became the mouthpiece for the party, and also Bobby Seale. But Cleaver was a person whose initial fame came from writing a book called “Soul on Ice.” “Soul on Ice” was a book that was probably the first really outrageous book about young black men who were seen as, what I would say are the noble savage mentality, the noble savage image that I think young black men still suffer from.
Cleaver talked about raping women. He said, well, at first he raped a black woman, and then he crossed the tracks, so to speak, and started raping white women. In the book he kind of gave a lot of rationales for why a young black man in a poor community can turn into a criminal. You had a lot of people, a lot of critics who were fascinated with what he said because he could write very well; I mean, the things he was saying were very disturbing and outrageous. He started making speeches after he became a Black Panther that would basically condone killing judges and things if you go to court and the verdict didn't come out the way you wanted.
LAMB: Didn't the conservatives endorse him a few years ago?
PEARSON: After he came back -- he fled to Algeria and came back to the United States. He was in Algeria and France for a while, and he came back to the United States in 1975. And he professed that he was a new person, he renounced his Black Panther days, he renounced his radical philosophy altogether and he became part of Reverend Sun Myung Moon's church. He became a conservative for a while. So yeah, conservatives supported him. I didn't engage in a lot of research of all that Eldridge Cleaver engaged in after he came back in 1975 up to like, say, today. But yeah, he did become a conservative for a while, and he's been involved in some minor criminal activities in the last few years as well.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
PEARSON: No, I didn't talk to him. The reason I didn't talk to him is because of what I said a little bit earlier. I wanted to look at Newton and contrast Newton with people who were in the rank and file because I think that a lot of -- I did want to talk to Seale but couldn't get to Seale, but I think that one of the reasons was because I did want to concentrate on what the rank-and-file members of the party did. The other reason was because I thought that the notion that the people who were the leaders of the party were going to be very candid about the party was something that I would agree with. I thought that all people who were in positions of prominence for the most part, I should say most people who were in positions for the most part had an interest in protecting their image.
So I felt in writing the book I wanted to talk to the people who were the foot soldiers of the party because it became quite clear to me after beginning my research that there was an entire side of the story about the Black Panther Party, the rank-and-file members and what they went through that was the gist of what the party was all about. What you saw with Huey Newton, what you saw with Bobby Seale, what you saw with Eldridge Cleaver was a very small part of what the Black Panther phenomenon was all about. They were all public relations people; they were not foot soldiers.
LAMB: You make some connections in the back of the book. "Former LA gang member Cody Scott, who earned the moniker Monster Cody from the L.A. police after he brutally beat a man to death, describes in his memoir, ‘Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member,’ the senseless murders of other blacks which he also engaged in as a member of LA's Eight Tray Crips." But you go on and say, "White journalist William Broyles" -- I think he is former editor of Newsweek -- "who facilitated the publication of Scott's book is analogous to journalist Bob Scheer, who in 1966 was a facilitator of Eldridge Cleaver's career." Do you give the Broyles-Scheer team good marks or bad marks for facilitating the careers of these two men?
PEARSON: I give them bad marks because I think there is a real element in this society -- I hate to use labels, but I would say leftist-liberal elements in American society that has this notion that the true blacks are blacks who are basically kind of -- I'll just be blunt about it -- uncivilized, and that they think of people like Monster Cody, they think of people like Eldridge Cleaver from “Soul and Ice” as being the true black people and that when these people write books about how they engaged in their pathological behavior, they really think they're seeing the true black person and they -- you know, raw and unfiltered.
So I think that a Bob Scheer very much played into that image. I can't speak for the Bob Scheer who exists today, but Bob Scheer from that era very much played into that because it was a very popular thing to play into, this notion of, OK, my God, what is blackness all about and the idea, well, blackness is all about this pathology that we in white America are largely responsible for. So I think that this thing that Eldridge Cleaver promoted in his book, Soul on Ice, and was kind of brought to the surface by a Bob Scheer is carried over into the leftist-liberal philosophy about black people in general.
And William Broyles picked it up and brought it on in with Monster Cody and this whole idea of, OK, what is this monster that we see in South Central LA? What is he all about? Let's examine his behavior. And it carries over into movies like Menace to Society, this idea of the blacks not being responsible, the blacks at the bottom having no real responsibility for where they are, society having created this monster, and lets examine this monster and try to figure out what makes this monster tick. So that's exactly, that's what I'm referring to when I make the Scheer-Broyles connection.
LAMB: How old are you?
PEARSON: I'm 36; I'll be 37 next month.
LAMB: Are you where you wanted to be in your life at this point?
PEARSON: At this point, yeah, I'm very much where I want to be. I've taken a lot of risks, stuck to my guns to take the risks and basically hit bottom as far as the things that a person needs to do as a struggling writer and have come back up, and I'm very much satisfied with what I've accomplished.
LAMB: Where do you write?
PEARSON: I write at my place in New York City. I live in the Chelsea district in New York City.
LAMB: Do you have family?
PEARSON: Just my personal family? No, I'm a single man, a single man who is happily dating a particular woman.
LAMB: When you write, what time of day do you do it?
PEARSON: Most of the time I like to write anywhere from 11 o'clock at night to about 5, 6 in the morning because I can hear myself think. New York is a very busy city. I love Manhattan, very fascinated with Manhattan, and the noise really dies down anywhere from 11 to 5. I can go out in the day and go into practically any community and be fascinated and then at night I can hear myself think or read or work at my word processing program on my Macintosh, and I really like to work at that time of the early morning.
LAMB: How much do you write a night?
PEARSON: When I'm really going good, I might spend like five or six hours working on a piece. I like to write every day. Lately I've been so busy doing a variety of different things, I haven't been writing every single day. I've been catching up on a lot of my reading in preparation for other projects I want to engage in, but I would say for the most part I try to get five, six hours worth of writing done, at least five or six days a week.
LAMB: Who owns the Pacific News Service?
PEARSON: That's an interesting question. The Pacific News Service is a consortium of writers and scholars from around the country. Sandy Close is executive editor of Pacific News Service. It puts out about one story per day. I guess a better way to saying it is, it puts out about six stories per week in a packet that goes out to subscribers, but also we have subscribing newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and they pick up stories the same way they would an Associated Press story.
LAMB: What's your dream job?
PEARSON: My dream job would be, I'd say, as an independent author who for some time, well, maybe for a few years, would be connected with a major newspaper writing commentaries. But ultimately, say when I'm 50 years old, a person who's written in fiction, nonfiction, maybe a couple of plays. Ultimately that's what I'd like to do.
LAMB: What would you describe your politics as being today?
PEARSON: That's a very good question because I see myself independent probably.
LAMB: Left or right?
PEARSON: I really am reluctant to go to either side. I kind of like to take each issue as they come. One of the things that I'm amazing myself with is the fact that I think a lot of people who are branded as conservatives are -- I think it's worth the while of a lot of folks to really listen to what they're saying. I think that a lot of conservatives are too easily written off as racist, and I think that a lot of people in the left-liberal community can be every bit a racist as anybody who is identified as conservative. A lot of times conservatives, I think, espouse philosophies that are more respecting of black people and the potential of black people than people who are seen as liberal or leftist.
And in writing a lot of stuff I've written, I've been accused by a lot of people of being a neo-conservative conservative, you know, one of the black conservatives. But I reject that notion only because I just don't like labels because I think once you accept a particular type of label then if an issue comes down the pike, you say, OK this is the label under which I write, so let me figure out what I'm supposed to say per that label, and I don't like to do that. I do like to just get rid of all labels and examine what's being said. And again I want to emphasize that I think that a lot of people branded as conservatives, i.e., racist, by people on the left-liberal community are not really racist. I think that they are engaging in a real effort to figure out a way to solve some of our problems, and they just believe that you can't do it through the government.
LAMB: You say you grew up with a handicap, the name Huey.
PEARSON: Oh, I hated it when I was growing up.
PEARSON: I was picked on for that name incessantly.
LAMB: What's wrong with it?
PEARSON: I just never liked it. I think it sounds funny, and I never liked it. Huey Newton was the first person I ever knew, knew of, who was seen as a hero with that name, because it was connected with a cartoon character that I didn't really like, and I just didn't want much to do with the name. So that's why I don't even use it.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like, and on the book you show "Hugh" Pearson. So do people call you Hugh now?
PEARSON: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: “The Shadow of the Panther” -- it's a book about the civil rights movement, Huey Newton, his death, and black power in this country in the last 30 to 40 years. Thank you for joining us, Hugh Pearson.
PEARSON: Thank you for having me.
Copyright 1994 TapeWriter, Inc.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.