It seems to be race week at Witness to Transformation, so I pulled up a piece that had regrettably drifted down toward the bottom of my inbox. Ben Young, a history grad student at George Washington University, passed along his master’s thesis, “’The Enemy of Your Enemy is Your Friend’: The Black Panther Party’s Relations with North Korea, 1969-1971.” For me, reading it was like entering a time-warp from my childhood.
For those of you too young to remember them, the Black Panther Party was a relatively small revolutionary group that emerged in Oakland, California out of the racial tumult of the 1960s. While they started out organizing as essentially an alternative social welfare agency in poor urban black neighborhoods, they are best known for violent confrontations with law enforcement authorities. (As leader Huey Newton observed, the shooting started over their desire to serve hungry schoolchildren grits.)
While the Panthers definitely made it onto my young cognitive radar, the odd story of their relationship with the DPRK certainly did not. According to Young, the Panthers, and more specifically Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, first encountered North Korea in 1969 when invited to a conference of Third World revolutionary movements. It was not difficult to imagine Black America as a series of segregated enclaves or colonies within the American landscape, and the North Korean ideology of juche or self-reliance had obvious appeal, as the notion of self-reliance had a long history in African-American thought. That the North Koreans had defeated the US government (or at least fought it to a standstill) was undoubtedly appealing to the under-gunned Panthers who were being steadily decimated by law enforcement.
Cleaver himself was nothing if not self-promoting, and with leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale imprisoned when he returned, he used his editorship of the party newspaper to publicize North Korea and his exploits there. Indeed, Cleaver used juche rhetorically to spar with the Communist Party USA and justify the Panthers own unique take on Marxism-Leninism.
What the North Koreans made of the Panthers is harder to say. Young understandably is forced to rely primarily on published materials. While Pyongyang reveled in its patronage of Third World revolutionary forces, there were cultural hiccups: Kim Il-sung, sounding a bit like Adolph Hitler, described the African-American art form of jazz as “degenerate” as “it depraves and emasculates the youth and dulls their revolutionary consciousness.” And it’s not so clear how Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver reacted when Kim Il-sung appropriated the right to name their Pyongyang-born child, or more specifically, change the name of the child from the name given by her parents.
The BPP-DPRK relationship apparently began to cool in 1971, partly a casualty of the rift within the BPP between the home faction led by Newton and the international section led by Cleaver, a split encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Young infers that Pyongyang may have also decided to calm relations with Washington, and toning down support for the Panthers would be consistent with this vision. In the end the relationship was instrumental on both sides.