Winston-Salem Black Panthers to be honored with placard

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, Winston-Salem, 1971
The Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party will get a commemorative marker at the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and East 5th Street near the location where the black power organization maintained its headquarters in the early 1970s.

The placard will be unveiled on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 3 p.m.

The Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission, a 12-member body comprised of representatives from Winston-Salem, Kernersville, Clemmons and the county, approved the commemorative marker. The application for the recognition was submitted by Larry Little, a Winston-Salem State University professor who was active with the Panthers and later served on the Winston-Salem City Council as a representative of the East Ward.

 “I would argue that the Winston-Salem chapter was probably the most effective Black Panther chapter in the Southern region,” Judson L. Jeffries, a professor at Ohio State University and author of On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities Across America, told YES! Weekly in 2006. “The chapter impacted a number of people. It did things like sickle cell anemia testing, and tuberculosis testing. They had a free ambulance service, something that not many of the other chapters had.”  

East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who was mentored by Little during his 2009 run for city council, said the ambulance service was significant because emergency services during the era when the Panthers were active often did not respond as quickly in African-American communities as in others. 

Montgomery said a previous application for a marker submitted by Little received “high marks,” but other applications took precedence because they scored even higher. City Manager Lee Garrity said city staff assisted with research to help make the second application stronger. 

The historic resources commission also approved a historic marker to commemorate the Katie B. Reynolds Memorial Hospital, a segregated facility that served the African-American community. That marker was unveiled on July 28 at the site of the former hospital on Highland Avenue, also in the East Ward. 

“People will demonize the Black Panther Party for their style and tactics,” Montgomery said. “You have to look at the positive impression they left n the community.” 

A web page describing Winston-Salem's historic marker program characterizes its purpose as seeking "to highlight the full range of endlessly interesting local history that our city has to offer." 

The FBI launched a covert action program called “COINTELPRO” in 1967 to disrupt and “neutralize” what it called “black nationalist hate groups.” A Congressional committee revealed in the 1970s that the program’s initial targets were black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Mohammed, but by 1968 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” 

The FBI’s Charlotte office opened an investigative file on the Panthers in 1969. 

One FBI informant report from 1970, part of a cache of declassified documents that were released in 1999, reference Little traveling to Black Panther Party headquarters in Berkeley, Calif. and returning to Winston-Salem with four boxes of party newspapers. Another report references Little and Nelson Malloy — also a future city council member — speaking at a May 1970 rally in support of Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. 

A report from the previous month undermines the claim that the organization was a national security threat: “The group operates a breakfast program at 1210 E. 5th St., five days a week feeding approximately 30 children eggs, grits and bacon. After feeding the children the Panthers eat their breakfast, have a training session and go out and sell The Black Panther newspaper.” 

The Church Committee, a select committee of the US Senate named after Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, reported that the FBI attempted to discredit the Panthers in the mass media as a tactic of disruption. 

More troubling, the agency often used manipulation and trickery in attempt to intensify conflict between the Panthers and other groups. 

“Although the claimed purpose of the Bureau’s Cointelpro tactics was to prevent violence, some of the FBI’s tactics against the BPP were clearly intended to foster violence, and many others could reasonably be expected to cause violence,” the Church report found. “For example, the FBI’s efforts to ‘intensify the degree of animosity’ between the BPP and the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang, included sending an anonymous letter to the gang’s leader falsely informing him that the Chicago Panthers had ‘a hit out’ on him. The stated intent of the letter was to induce the Ranger leader to ‘take reprisals against’ the Panther leadership.” 

The report went on to say that the FBI, “which was charged by law with investigating crimes and preventing criminal conduct, itself engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest.”

Read the FBI's declassified files on the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party and other North Carolina investigative targets (link).

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