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Could We See a Black Panthers National Park?

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Fred Hampton, of the Illinois Black Panthers, speaks at a rally at Chicago’s Grant Park in September 1969. Editors note: There is damage to this historic print. — Chicago Tribune historical photo

This is a horrible time in American history, but it’s also one that we can step back at and look with some confusion. The Republican Party is seeking to turn back the entire civil rights movement, not to mention the entire American government post-1933. Democrats are too weak and milquetoast to do much about it, but they are opposed to it. So at the same time the Voting Rights Act is effectively null and void and the Supreme Court has taken a case that threatens to return the South to something pretty close to Jim Crow politics, Democrats are seriously considering creating a National Park Service site to commemorate the Black Panthers, not to mention other civil rights organizations.

On a cool spring day, Fredrika Newton — the widow of Black Panther co-founder, Huey P. Newton — stands next to a bronze bust of her late husband. It’s situated in a wide, landscaped median in the west end of Oakland that the Panthers called home.

“The Black Panther Party is an American story, and that’s the job of the National Park Service is to tell the American story,” Newton says.

Once upon a time, former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers the “greatest threat to internal security.”

A half-century later, as perspectives have mellowed, the Huey Newton statue could eventually become part of a National Historical Park. Other possible stops: the former Panther party headquarters, locations of the group’s free medical clinics and free children’s breakfast program, and the spot where Newton was murdered. All of it may one day be patrolled by a park ranger in a traditional NPS flat hat.

The exploration of a Black Panther historical site is just one example of how the National Park Service is striving to incorporate more Black history into its storytelling about America. The Park Service has a growing network of national historic sites across the Deep South that recognize achievements and atrocities during the civil rights movement. But the idea of a Black Panther Party National Historical Park is singularly controversial. In 2017, the Park Service had to cancel the idea after police groups complained to President Donald Trump that the nation was commemorating a violent separatist group.

“It’s one of the most misunderstood legacies of this party,” Fredrika Newton says. “It wasn’t hate. It wasn’t a nationalist organization. It was not a racist organization. Our mission was to fight oppression for all oppressed people.”

But with a Democrat in the White House, the project is back under study.

I completely support this idea. But it is such a weird moment in America.

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