Yohuru Williams, PhD, history professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield, believes that “the past leaves us clues.” He speaks from firsthand experience. When Dr. Williams was a boy, his father left the clue on the family refrigerator that launched his personal and intellectual journey.
“My father is an artist and musician and he used to make collages out of old newspaper clippings,” said Dr. Williams, who grew up in Bridgeport. “One of his collages included a photograph of Ericka Huggins sitting in court. I was curious about that.”
Huggins was a member of the Black Panther Party. She stood trial in 1970, along with the party’s cofounder Bobby Seale, for the murder of Alex Rackley, a fellow Panther. The photo came from her trial.
At the time, the Black Panther Party—founded in Oakland, Calif. in 1966—was the best-known group among those in the Black Power movement in America. They had opened chapters around the country, including two powerful Connecticut chapters in Bridgeport and in New Haven, where Huggins’ and Seale’s trial was taking place.
Huggins “was sporting a towering Afro in the photograph, and she looked like one of my neighbors or older cousins, definitely not like a threat,” said Dr. Williams, who was born in 1971 and therefore missed out on the events depicted in the collage. “I asked my mother and father about the picture. They answered my questions the best they could but each answer only raised more questions.”
In particular, he detected an undercurrent of fear in his mother, who worked for an anti-poverty program in Bridgeport. When Dr. Williams was 15, some of his mother’s fears were confirmed when a Bridgeport man named Lawrence Townsend, claiming to be a former Black Panther (though never an actual member), gunned down the head of a government program in the same building where Dr. Williams’ father worked.
“I never could reconcile the wonderful people I knew as a kid in Bridgeport, with this level of fear and violence their image carried,” said Dr. Williams. “They had run free breakfast programs for children, started free medical clinics and schools. Why not celebrate these things?”
More than 40 years later, Dr. Williams found himself working on a project on Huggins, now a professor of sociology in California. Huggins was just one of about 50 former Black Panther Party members interviewed for his new book, The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution (Nation Books). Written in collaboration with photojournalist Bryan Shih, the book has been praised in reviews in The New York Times and other prestigious publications.
Dr. Williams was heartened to learn during his research for the book that these former Panthers still live today by the same ideal they espoused back then: to defend and improve the lives of those in their communities. Also, as Dr. Williams dug deeper, he gained a respect for the rank and file members, “the dedicated activists who carried out the day-to-day functions of the party, the women and men unheralded in national accounts who formed the backbone of the party.”
Previous historians have focused on charismatic leaders like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, the violence that seemed to follow them and their inevitable falls from grace. It therefore became important for Dr. Williams to understand their stories in relation to the larger Panther movement, which focuses on social justice for the country’s African American population. The former rank and file members he interviewed for the book, Dr. Williams said, continued their dedication to that larger vision of a more equitable society.
“Nothing changed about them as people after they left the Panthers,” he said. “Each continued a life of service. Each was deeply committed to social justice.”
Dr. Williams may not have been aware of the Black Panther Party when it was in its heyday, but growing up in Bridgeport, just minutes from the Fairfield campus, he felt the aftershocks. “It was a special time in Bridgeport in the 1980s,” said Dr. Williams. “So many positive programs were happening then and many former activists were a part of those efforts.”
As a teenager, Dr. Williams attended Fairfield Prep, where he received grounding in Jesuit ethics, which he found harmonized with his own journey.
“Fairfield Prep was my entrée into Jesuit principles,” he said. “I grew up on this campus. When I saw the opportunity to teach here, no question I was going to take it. The interesting thing about the Jesuit values is that they cohere with what I want to do, which is to help young people to reach their highest potential and to use their talents in service to others.”
Dr. Williams, who joined the Fairfield faculty in 2005, was described in Diverse Issues in Higher Education as “one of the most exciting scholars of his generation,” and is known for his direct and energetic teaching style.
“Students, not just at Fairfield but across the board, come up in a media bubble and no longer have the benefit of more objective news sources,” he said. “Now, young people can retreat into corners, hearing what they want to hear and only what reinforces their worldview. I’m trying to get them to break through that.”
To help his students decipher the distortions of the media, Dr. Williams tries to bring original documents from the period being studied into the classroom. For instance, he shares the Black Panther Party’s widely distributed Ten-Point Platform and Program (e.g., “We want full employment for our people,” “We want decent shelter, fit for the housing of human beings,” “We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression,” etc.).
“It all seems so reasonable to us now,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that they had to ask for these things.”
Presenting documents like the Ten-Point Platform directly to his students to read for themselves “liberates the class from my narrative or the textbook narrative,” he said. “I do lecture, but the documents are always the most important thing.”
Dr. Williams did not, at first, want to work on a new Black Panther book. He had written two earlier books and his doctoral dissertation about the party. His duties as the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and his role as chief historian for the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Museum in New York, N.Y. were already demanding much of his time. Plus, he longed to get back into the classroom.
Therefore, two years ago, when photojournalist Bryan Shih contacted Dr. Williams at Fairfield and asked if he would consider collaborating on a book about the Black Panthers, Dr. Williams declined.
But Shih was persistent. He had already traveled around the country, taking portraits of former Black Panther Party members and he was eager to work with Dr. Williams.
“He called again and said, ‘I wish you’d reconsider…do me a favor and just look at the pictures’,” said Dr. Williams. “Once I did, I was sold.” ●F