August 1974 was a “pivotal moment” for a woman in the black power movement. Elaine Brown had then been chosen to lead the Black Panther Party at a time no woman was leading any major civil rights group or political organization.
Brown took over as chair of the party when founder Huey Newton went into exile in Cuba to avoid murder charges, according to reports.
“I have all the guns and the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within,” Brown told party members when she was chosen by Newton to lead, according to her 1992 memoir, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.”
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“I haven’t called you together to make threats, Comrades. I’ve called this meeting simply to let you know the realities of our situation. The fact is, Comrade Huey is in exile. The other fact is, I’m taking his place until we make it possible for him to return” she said in 1974.
“…I am, as your chairman, the leader of this party as of this moment. My leadership cannot be challenged. I will lead our party both above ground and underground. I will lead the party not only in furthering our goals but also in defending the party by any and all means.”
Brown had assumed leadership of a party that “was the target of the most violent aggression of the police forces of America,” she wrote.
Newton, who had been her lover, and fellow student Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party, originally the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, in 1966 to fight police brutality against the black community in Oakland. The party took on a militant stance coupled with the burgeoning pride associated with the black power movement.
The Panther Party became infamous for brandishing guns, challenging the authority of police officers, and embracing violence as a necessary by-product of revolution. The Panthers were not just about being menacing, however, as the group introduced a series of goals such as fighting for better housing, jobs and education for African-Americans.
Nevertheless, the group’s militancy made it a target of law enforcement officials and many of its members would be imprisoned and killed in gun battles with the police.
Philadelphia native Brown was an accomplished pianist and singer when she joined the group in her mid-20s. Newton had then been convicted of killing an Oakland police officer during a traffic stop but the conviction was later overturned by an appeals court, reported the Washington Post.
Brown, after attending her first Black Panther meeting in 1968, quickly rose through the organization and helped found its free legal-aid program as well as edited the party’s official newspaper. In 1971, she was elected to the Panther Central Committee, becoming its first female member and two years later, she started recording songs for the party, creating the album “Until We’re Free” and writing the party’s national anthem.
When she was made leader of the party in 1974 after Seale’s departure and Newton’s exile, she got involved in “electoral politics and community service” and helped develop the Panther’s Liberation School, which the state of California recognized as a model school. But when she began placing women in key administrative positions, she incurred the wrath of some men in the radical organization.
Brown recalled an exchange in her book: “‘I hear we can’t call them bitches no more,’ one Brother actually stated to me in the middle of an extraordinarily hectic day. ‘No, [expletive],’ I reasoned unendearingly, ‘you may not call them bitches ‘no more’.”
That began opposition to her leadership. And when Newton returned from exile in Cuba in 1977, he allowed the beating of a female Black Panther member “for a minor transgression.” The woman, Regina Davis, was hospitalized with a broken jaw from the beating, Brown wrote in her book.
That was the moment Brown realized she could no longer be with the party. “The beating of Regina would be taken as a clear signal that the words ‘Panther’ and ‘comrade’ had taken on gender connotations,” Brown wrote, “denoting an inferiority in the female half of us.”
Thus, after three years, Brown stepped down from the party but to date, she continues to work for social justice and criminal justice reform.
In 2018, she made headlines when she won a $4 million lawsuit against an Oakland councilwoman who punched and pushed her during an argument over housing.
Brown, who is now 77 and a mother of one daughter, Ericka Abram, is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls and attended Temple University, UCLA, Mills College and Southwestern University School of Law, her website says. Currently residing in Oakland, California, Brown has lectured at colleges and universities across the world, and her papers have been acquired by Emory University.
In her 1992 book, she wrote about her experience as Black Panther Party leader:
“A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people…I knew I would have to muster something mighty to manage the Black Panther Party.”