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Donald Cox: Tale of a Panther

Donald Cox was the Black Panther Party’s Field Marshal. He trained party members in the use and care of weapons. During the time he was involved with the Party in the United States, he served as a primary strategist for various operations. After he left the US, he went to Algeria where he was a guard for the Panther compound in Algiers. He left the compound and the Party in 1971. He moved to France where he spent the rest of his life. Cox died in 2011.

His memoir of that time was recently published. Titled Just Another N*gger: My Life in the Black Panther Party, Cox’s volume is a narrative of a time when revolution was a possibility seriously considered. Men and women gave up their previous lives to commit themselves to creating a world where liberation and socialism would become reality. From Oakland, CA to Hanoi, from Paris to Palestine and all around the world, millions of people were actively involved in a struggle against capitalism and US imperialism. In the United States, the Black Panther Party was considered by many to be at the front of that struggle. The reasons for this were numerous, but the essential one was the Party’s militancy in the face of police and the system the police defended.

Cox begins his memoir with the story of his youth in rural Missouri. It was there that he learned how to shoot a rifle and his family’s past in slave-holding territory. At the age of seventeen, he took a train to Oakland. He spent the next several months living with his aunt’s family in San Mateo, going to school and working. Eventually, he moved out of his aunt’s house, got a job as a printer and married. He also began freelancing as a photographer. Politically, he remained an observer, following the news especially as it related to the growing civil rights movement. A friend of his introduced him to Black and socialist writers, including WEB DuBois and James Baldwin. Cox joined the civil rights organization CORE in fall of 1963. By 1967, when the Black Panthers began observing and documenting police interactions with Black citizens in Oakland, Cox and some of his friends were ready to join them. However, they waited and undertook their own guerrilla attacks on police installations in response to murders of Blacks by police. By 1968, he was a main representative of the newly formed San Francisco chapter of the Black Panther Party.

The party Cox describes is the Party that existed from 1967 until around 1973. It is one more set of recollections of the Party’s activities and politics told by a high-ranking member. Given that his focus was the military element of the party, Cox’s narrative mostly focuses on that aspect. Although he ended up in Algiers with Eldridge Cleaver and the Panthers’ international wing, his telling is quite free of the negative criticism of the Oakland wing led by Huey Newton after his release from prison. His text, while slim in volume, is filled with insights regarding the differences between the West Coast branches of the Party and those on the East Coast. It also confirms the disastrous role played by law enforcement, US intelligence agencies and those informers in their pay as part of the COINTELPRO program.

Even so, Cox downplays the effects of COINTELPRO in his afterword. He argues that every time COINTELPRO repression came down hard, it actually brought the Party more support. While this may be true, I think it can be fairly argued that the long term effects of he counterinsurgency waged against the Black Panthers was instrumental in destroying it. After all, it removed dozens of its leaders via assassination and imprisonment, destroyed the reputations of many members by spreading lies about their allegiances, and placed informants inside the Party who made certain the Party’s politics and actions would alienate its long-term support. At the same time, Cox’s assertion that the Party did things that caused it to self-destruct is true. Among these practices was the treatment of women in the Party by some of its male members. In what might be his most insightful observation regarding the mistakes of the Panthers, he points out that the near idolization of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver was a mistake. This wasn’t because of the particular individuals, but because that idolization limited both the leaders and the rank and file from seeing and rectifying their faults. Cox wrote: “We killed Huey with our love!” Like other left formations, personality superseded politics, a scenario which can lead to a cult or organizational suicide.

Just Another N*gger is an important addition to the growing library of Panther histories and memoirs. Plainspoken and direct, Cox’s writing achieves an eloquence that makes it exceedingly readable, never losing the drama of the story he is telling.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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