Carnegie Mellon University proved an unlikely spot for a discussion of the Black Panther Party -- even 30 years after the height of the Black Power movement.
Local blacks who lived during the '60s and '70s were present but were far outnumbered in the audience by whites, and by those who weren't born until after the Panthers' demise in 1982.
Carl Redwood, director of programs and services for the Kingsley Association in East Liberty, said later that few blacks attended probably because "that's CMU, and that's what CMU looks like." But he conceded that the racial imbalance wouldn't be unusual "if the lecture was held in the [black] community instead."
Robyn Spencer, an African and African American Studies professor at Penn State University, said that was testament enough to the impact the Panthers had not just on blacks, but on much of the world -- including chapters in Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Haiti and even Scandinavia. Say "the Black Panther Party" and people envision lines of bulked-up black soldiers with Afros, peering out from below black leather berets, strutting through the streets with shotguns in front of their chests. But that was just part of the story.
Indeed, said Spencer, the Panthers were notorious for their militant rhetoric and attire, shoot-outs with police, the combative leadership of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and disobedience to discriminatory laws. But Spencer also pointed out their free breakfast and lunch programs and the healthcare system they established in Oakland's black community, where they created infirmaries and clinics and kept track of epidemics.
The Panthers also regularly held classes and workshops on planned parenthood, remedial math, reading and the law -- the weapon they probably relied upon most heavily. It solidified their forces, said Spencer, which were growing like some new celebrity religion. "Struggles of gender, class and sexuality within the organization were waged as strongly as struggles to actualize the Panthers' political message externally," she noted. "The inner revolution was the liberation struggle inside the liberation struggle."
Adding to their legacy, said Spencer, was how they "revolutionized how scholars thought about the Civil Rights movement by focusing on local people, grassroots and a bottom-up perception."
The Panthers' political impact on blacks -- particularly in California's Bay Area, centered on Oakland -- is also lost in many people's recollection. Many Panthers sought political office at municipal, county and even national levels -- Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver ran for U.S. President in 1968; Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973. Although neither one's bid was successful, their campaigns paved the way for future black presidential candidates such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Carol Mosley-Braun. In 1977, Oakland voted in its first black mayor, Panther ally Lionel Wilson -- also the first Democratic mayor Oakland had seen in 30 years.
Joked a white middle-aged man from the audience: "My recollection of the general image from middle-class America [of the Panthers] was poor. We weren't getting any messages about voter registration or feeding lunches at schools or traffic stops. It was more pictures in magazines of them holding AK-47s."
This was intentional on the Panthers' part, said Spencer -- part of their allure for recruitment purposes. They were "masters of propaganda."
The Kingsley Association's Redwood noted that the Black Panther presence was not strong in Pittsburgh, although he subscribed to their newspaper. "Crucial to the understanding of black people with guns," he said of the Panthers' public image, "was that this was nothing new or different. You had to defend yourself against the Klan and other terrorists. The Panthers just enunciated that in a clearly legal manner."