Radical Reflections: Oakland's Elaine Brown on leading the revolutionary Black Panther Party

Musician, author, and most famously a former leader of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Elaine Brown is still politically active, still a force of nature, even at 78-years old. 

"As long as I can walk and talk, I'm going to be putting in my two cents and do something. Even if I am an army of one," Brown said recently.

On the walls of her Oakland apartment, there are portraits of her friends and former revolutionaries such as Huey Newton, who co-founded the 1960s and '70s Black militant organization, the Black Panthers.

"I met Huey and to put it quickly, he became my lover and my leader," Brown said.
Brown was raised in Philadelphia but moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where she saw the poverty in Watts and the well-documented abuse of Black people by L.A. law enforcement.

She says he was moved by a group of children in a housing project where she was giving piano lessons in 1967.

"Here they are and I am doing nothing for them. They are living like (expletive) in Watts and what am I doing?" she said. "I became immersed in the Black organizations around me...I walked into the Black Panther office and said, ‘I surrender my life to the revolution.’ I meant that then and I mean it now."

By 1971, at Newton's urging, Brown moved to Oakland largely to edit the Black Panther newspaper.

The Panthers, with their black berets and leather jackets, set up armed citizen patrols for what they said was for self-defense.

Brown, like all members, was trained in using a gun. The Panthers wanted to change. Radical change centered around Black empowerment.

"Challenging the very foundation of the oppression of black people going back 400 years to slavery.

It was the most glorious time I could imagine, much less of my life," she said.

The Panthers established free lunch programs for children in low-income neighborhoods, along with free health clinics. But there would be shoot-outs with police which led to the deaths of an Oakland police officer and Black Panthers.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called the group, "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

"We weren't going to be crying and protesting that Black Lives Matter. We're saying we are armed too," Brown said.

By 1974, Newton had fled to Cuba to avoid criminal charges. He chose Brown to run the operation – almost unheard of for a woman in those days.

"In the beginning, I was a little heady with power. But I learned the other side of that is you are responsible. The decisions I would make would affect people. And that was a life and death operation."

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The Panthers would later dissolve, but Brown remained active fighting for prison reform and better education for low-income children.

Her non-profit Oakland and the World Enterprises is currently about to break ground on a 79-unit affordable housing project on a lot in West Oakland.

Brown says she has no plans to slow down.

How would she like to be remembered? "I meant everything I said. And I was a revolutionary. That's all," she said.