Page One

Merritt College Class Celebrates Black Panthers’ 40th Birthday

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 01, 2006

One of the enduring legends of both Oakland and the Black Panther Party is that Oakland’s Merritt College was the birthplace of the party, and that it was formed in 1966 by two Merritt students—Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. 

Merritt was certainly a swirl of radical political activity in the mid-’60s, with its campus and students prominent in the mix of the Black Power, black nationalist, civil rights, Free Speech, and anti-Vietnam War movements. 

Merritt, in fact, was the birthplace of one of the first black student unions in the country—the SoulStudents Advisory Council (SSAC)—of which Newton and Seale were active members. 

While many of the ideas that later became the founding principles of the Panther Party were hammered out in Merritt’s cafeteria or on the college’s front steps—where students regularly held heated political debates—it is likely that the party itself was officially formed in Bobby Seale’s North Oakland house, which was located within walking distance of the college 

In addition, while the old Merritt College building still exists on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the college itself has gone literally upscale, moving some years ago out of the North Oakland flatlands community where it was born and up into the Oakland hills, where it commands a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay. 

Still, as Merritt English instructor John Drinnon says, “Merritt is still Merritt,” and this year being the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Panthers in October of 1966, Drinnon’s English 5 Critical Thinking class held what it called a “belated birthday celebration” on the campus this week. 

Two of the three featured former Panther members scheduled for the scheduled two-hour long panel discussion and question-and-answer session did not show. 

Mary Williams was represented by her daughter, Theresa Williams, a professor at Merritt, who spoke briefly from the audience about her experiences growing up in the party. 

The featured speaker, Billy X (formerly Billy Jennings), who joined the party while at student at Laney College in 1968, simply did not appear. Drinnon said that he had spoken with Billy X by telephone on the morning of the event, and had expected him to attend. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I’m disappointed.” 

That left the burden of the presentation, with some 150 students in attendance in a cavernous room in Merritt College’s A Building, on Kevin Johnson, a Merritt teacher’s aide. Johnson’s association with the Panthers began when he was 9 or 10 years old, when the Panthers international headquarters on Shattuck Avenue was next door to his parents’ home. 

“There was a hair parlor down the street where the pimps used to get their hair done,” the soft-spoken Johnson said. “And they got into a clash with the Panthers, which ended up in a firefight in our backyard. That’s when my father decided we needed to move.” 

But Johnson said he was inspired by the image of the Panthers—young, armed black men with pistols and rifles in their hands, wearing their inner city uniform of black berets and black leather jackets—and said he used to march around in his new back yard and repeat the familiar Panther chants, “Bobby Is Free,” and “Free Huey.” 

Eventually he joined the party, with several other relatives. One brother, Fred Noldan, was killed on Shattuck Avenue in 1988, with Johnson saying he had a “sneaking suspicion that it was the work of the police.” A cousin, Don Cox, eventually went into exile with Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, first to Algeria, and then to France. 

“To this day, if he steps foot on United States soil, he will be arrested on various charges” stemming from his days with the Panther Party, Johnson said. 

While Johnson praised the work of the Panthers, saying how armed party members patrolled the streets of West Oakland “looking out for the people,” and called the organization’s free breakfast program “genius,” he also did not shy away from the errors that led to the group’s eventual downfall. 

“Huey had a drug problem, and that led him into malaise and downfall,” said Johnson, who admitted that he had to beat a 37-year drug habit himself. “That was a problem with a lot of the Panthers. They had a great idea and they attacked a giant monolith of an enemy, but eventually, many of them became their own enemies.” 

Much of the question-and-answer session of the mixed-age group ranged back and forth between older students who remembered the Panther days, and younger students eager to know how it was and what it meant. 

Pointing to a handout of a recent Laney College Tower newspaper article that reprinted a 1970 picture of Huey Newton speaking at Merritt College in 1970, one older man who identified himself only as Ron said that he had attended that 1970 meeting, and was a longtime follower of the Panthers. 

“It was more of an exciting experience for me than fearful,” he said. “It was exciting seeing the Panthers going up to the state capitol with guns, seeing black men standing up.” 

Speaking directly to the younger students, he said, “We paved the way for y’all to have everything you have now. All the little freedoms you have, don’t take them for granted. It came with a cost.” 

Following the meeting, Drinnon, a ‘60s era Berkeley activist himself, said that he was pleased with the event. “It turned out fantastic,” he said. 

Noting that two semesters ago, his class organized a teach-in at Merritt on the Iraq War, Drinnon said that “if the opportunity presents itself” to do a another, similar event “I would love to do that.” 


Kevin Johnson, a Merritt teacher’s aide and former member of the Black Panther Party, speaks to the students at the party. Photograph by  

Ted Overman/ Progressive MediaWorks