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From Panthers to Palestine

In both Britain and the US, a shared history of oppression inspired a history of Black-Palestinian solidarity – and spurred an international struggle against racism and imperialism.

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

In the summer of 2020, the world was rocked by the execution of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States. The outpouring of collective grief and rage at the killing of yet another black man at the hands of the state reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which had begun to simmer following its inception in 2014.

While BLM was conceived as a movement to bring attention to the oppression of black people in America, it blossomed into an internationalist movement that reawakened the long-standing solidarity between the black population and Palestinians. All too familiar with the reality of state repression, Palestinians took to social media in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, United States, to advise demonstrators how to handle the threat of tear gas — a common reality of life under occupation.

After this online solidarity, a delegation of Dream Defenders, BLM, and Ferguson activists embarked on a historic visit to Palestine, where they saw first-hand what life was like in the apartheid system. They forged close relationships with their Palestinian comrades and poignantly performed the dabke — a traditional Levantine folk dance.

After the spike in settler and state violence against Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in May 2021 and a ferocious Israeli assault on Gaza, the BLM movement publicly declared its support for the Palestinian liberation struggle: ‘Black Lives Matter stands in solidarity with Palestinians. We are a movement committed to ending settler colonialism in all forms and will continue to advocate for Palestinian liberation.’

The UK wing of BLM took a similar line the previous year. ‘As Israel moves forward with the annexation of the West Bank, and mainstream British politics is gagged of the right to critique Zionism and Israel’s settler colonial pursuits, we loudly and clearly stand behind our Palestinian comrades,’ it proclaimed, before ending with an injunction: ‘FREE PALESTINE’.

In the wake of BLM demonstrations that took place across the world, raised fists alongside the tricolour of the Palestinian flag became a common sight. In Gaza, artist Ayman al-Hasari painted a mural depicting George Floyd. The message was simple: we share a common struggle.

The mutual solidarity between oppressed black peoples and Palestinians has a storied history, as highlighted by the 2015 delegation to Palestine: ‘In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.’

From Harlem to Gaza

In late 1964, the towering figure of Malcolm X entered the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, dressed in his familiar black suit and tie. In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, around 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee or had been exiled — this mass exodus and trauma are etched into Palestinian history as the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’.

Malcolm himself was no stranger to having to flee from home under threat of racist violence. His family members were repeatedly targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, forcing them to escape from Nebraska to Milwaukee and later to Michigan. On 7 November 1928, his home was burned down by white supremacists and in the winter of 1931, his father, Earl Little, was killed in what was officially reported as a ‘streetcar accident’.

During his time as a leading member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm had visited the Arab world in 1959 and met with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Anwar al-Sadat, who would later become vice-president of Egypt (he would also briefly visit East Jerusalem). Subsequently, Malcolm spent time with anti-colonial revolutionaries such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Guinea’s Sekou Ture, in the course of which he expanded his knowledge of imperialism and the unified struggle against racist domination in many places and among many peoples.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm attended a summit of the Organisation of African Unity in Cairo. There, he denounced Israel and supported ‘the right of the Arab refugees to return to their Palestine homeland’. He then travelled to Gaza, where he was greeted by Palestinian poet Harun Hashim Rashid, and visited hospitals, toured refugee camps, and ate with leading Islamic religious figures.

‘First he attended a September 15, 1964, press conference given by Ahmad Shuqayri, chair of the newly founded Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO),’ wrote Michael R. Fischbach. ‘Afterward, he met with Shuqayri and posed for pictures with him and other PLO officials. Two days later, he published a major statement about Zionism and the Palestinians in the Egyptian Gazette, an English language Egyptian newspaper.’

Entitled ‘Zionist Logic’, the piece was a scathing attack on imperialism in which Malcolm challenged the foundational logic of Zionism:

Did the Zionists have the legal or moral right to invade Arab Palestine, uproot its Arab citizens from their homes and seize all Arab property for themselves just based on the ‘religious’ claim that their forefathers lived there thousands of years ago? Only a thousand years ago the Moors lived in Spain. Would this give the Moors the legal and moral right to invade the Iberian Peninsula, drive out its Spanish citizens, and then set up a Moroccan nation where Spain used to be, as the European Zionists have done to our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine?

Malcolm did not live to see the impact his Palestinian solidarity efforts would have on his black comrades in America — his life was cut short by a hail of bullets in New York on 21 February 1965. Despite his assassination, Malcolm’s prominent advocacy for Palestinians sowed seeds that would be nurtured and grown by those inspired by him in the years that followed.

SNCC, Black Power, and Palestine

In August 1967, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) published a newsletter under the heading ‘Third World Roundup: The Palestinian Problem: Test Your Knowledge’. In it, readers were tasked with learning from a selection of thirty-two facts about the colonisation of Palestine and the outbreak of the 1967 Arab–Israeli War.

The ‘Third World Roundup’ also connected foreign aid to colonialism, noting that ‘under the disguise of “foreign aid”, the Israeli Labor Organisation has gone into African countries, tried to exploit their economies, [and] sabotaged African liberation movements’. While SNCC had been conceived as a southern-based civil rights organisation, it was Malcom X’s emphasis on internationalising the black freedom struggle that laid the groundwork for this development.

The author of the SNCC article, Ethel Minor, had long been a follower of Malcolm X, joining the Nation of Islam in 1962. After Malcolm’s split with the Nation, he employed Minor as secretary for his fledgling Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAUU); following Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, Minor began to engage with the SNCC.

A staunch ally of the Palestinian cause, Minor used her position as communications director to shift the SNCC towards linking the plight of African Americans with the oppression of Palestinians. Her ‘Third World Roundup’ would cause an explosion of controversy, reaching the mainstream media and prompting some SNCC donors to withdraw funding from the organisation.

Minor forged a lasting friendship with the revolutionary Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) during their time at SNCC and was influential in broadening his knowledge of Palestine through her Middle East study group. Notwithstanding the wave of hostility that met the publication of ‘Third World Roundup’, among the student population it was widely popular, with SNCC member Phil Hutchings recalling that the issue was sold out within five minutes.

The emergence of SNCC as a voice for Palestine reflected the rapidly evolving consciousness of the African American population, who increasingly began to connect oppression abroad with their own. From Vietnam to Palestine, they were taking part in a shared struggle.

The Panthers and Palestine

Founded in late 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party (BPP) is known today as one of the most prominent Black Power organisations in history. While their domestic activities are widely covered, the organisation’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and condemnation of Israel is perhaps less commonly discussed.

Less than a year after the formation of the party, the Panthers republished an English translation of a Chinese denunciation of Israel in their Black Panther newspaper. The following year, the party publicly endorsed al-Fateh, which took leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1969. In 1970, the BPP released their first official statement on Palestine: ‘We support the Palestinians’ just struggle for liberation one hundred percent. We will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join in our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live.’

Notably, after the assassination of Black Panther Field Marshall George Jackson (author of Blood in my Eye) in August 1971, a collection of Palestinian poems published by ex-SNCC members was seized from his jail cell. In a move that would forever immortalise the connection between the Panthers and Palestine, the collection, entitled ‘Enemy of the Sun’ by revolutionary Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim was published under Jackson’s name in the Black Panther paper. Samih al-Qasim’s poetry was known for its anti-imperialist themes and strong messages of solidarity. One, for example, entitled ‘Patrice Lumumba’ lamented the tragedy of Lumumba’s assassination, crowning him the ‘great eagle of Africa’.

The Black Panther was the party’s primary propaganda outlet and its pages were regularly filled with revolutionary slogans such as ‘Victory to the people’s struggle of Palestine!’, ‘Victory to Al-Fat’h!’, and ‘Victory to Al-Assifa [the military wing of al-Fateh]!’. Meanwhile, leading Panthers such as Huey P. Newton gave interviews in which they praised ‘not only Fidel and Che … [but] the Palestinian guerillas who are fighting for a socialist world’.

The most prominent display of Panther–Palestinian solidarity came from Eldridge Cleaver, the exiled information minister who was underground in Algeria. In July 1969, flanked by an al-Fateh official, Cleaver described Israel as a US ‘puppet and pawn’ before declaring ‘al-Fateh will win’. This declaration came at the opening of the new Afro-American Information Centre in Algiers. Al-Fateh issued a statement at the event and published an English pamphlet entitled ‘To Our African Brothers’, contending that although they did not belong to ‘Africa the continent’, they wholeheartedly supported — and were part of — ‘Africa the cause’.

Cleaver went on to meet with Yasser Arafat, leader of both al-Fateh and the PLO, in late 1969, before formally opening the Black Panthers’ international section office in Algiers in 1970. The office was largely run by his wife and BPP communications officer Kathleen Cleaver, who was influential in establishing networks with PLO cells across Algeria and beyond.

The party’s position on Palestine was not to last, however. Under threat from the US government’s clandestine COINTELPRO programme, factionalism ran rife, leading to a rift between Cleaver’s international section in Algeria and Newton’s domestic Panthers. What was once an armed revolutionary organisation would, in a bid for survival, gradually become a reformist party, with Bobby Seale running for mayor of Oakland, California. This shift was reflected in the change in stance towards Palestine too, with Newton coming out in favour of a two-state solution.

But the Panthers’ solidarity with Palestinians continued to influence Black Power politics for many years to come. In the words of former Panther Mumia Abu Jamal,

To the average Panther, even though he worked daily in the ghetto communities of North America, his thoughts were usually on something larger than himself. It meant being part of a worldwide movement against US imperialism, white supremacy, colonialism, and corrupting capitalism. We felt as if we were part of the peasant armies of Vietnam, the degraded Black miners of South Africa, the Fedayeen in Palestine.

From Malcolm X through to the Black Panthers and most recently Black Lives Matter, the struggles of oppressed black people and Palestinians have been intertwined. Through celebrating the history of this shared struggle, those fighting for freedom today pick up the mantle of revolutionaries long past, continuing to highlight the importance of transnational solidarity in challenging the racist and imperialist structures that govern our lives.