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Richard Pryor among the Panthers

It was uncanny. Like Zelig, Richard Pryor perpetually found himself where it was at, in the company of those who were it. Whatever "it" was.

On the Midwestern Chitlin' Circuit in the 1950s, he toured with Chuck Berry, Redd Foxx, and LaWanda Page; in the early '60s Greenwich Village he shared cellar club stages with Woody Allen, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Ritchie Havens; on Ed Sullivan with Alan King, Ben Stiller, and Boots Randolf; on afternoon talk shows with Joey Heatherton, Truman Capote, Ruth Buzzi, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Steve McQueen; in Vegas he rubbed shoulders with Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Sinatra, and Shecky Greene; in West Hollywood with Janis, The Doors, Van Morrison; and then in Berkeley — especially in Berkeley — where he had his political awakening discussing Black Power and Malcolm X with literary lights such as Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, Claude Brown, Al Young, and Black Panther Party leaders Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seal, and Angela Davis.

Gilbert Moore, in his book A Special Rage (expanded from a Life magazine assignment to cover Huey Newton's murder trial — reportage the magazine declined to publish) told how Newton, Seale, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and 16-year-old "Lil' Bobby" Hutton, acting completely within the law, had the temerity to arm themselves and begin patrolling the police."

White leaders conceded, when pressed, that, even though there was no legal basis for denying African Americans their full civil rights and liberties, society was simply not ready for an upheaval of such seismic proportions. In other words, blacks would just have to wait until whites were ready.

An alarming headline ran on page one of the April 30, 1967, San Francisco Examiner:

It's All Legal
Oakland's Black Panthers
Wear Guns, Talk Revolution

"If a Hollywood director were to choose them as stars of a movie melodrama of revolution, he would be accused of typecasting," the story began. The writer marveled that the Panther's "lithe, slender, saturnine and handsome" leader — his good looks marred by the "blunt, ugly riot gun" in his hands — was "a Negro who doesn't use that word but calls himself black."

"What man in his right mind," the reporter asked parenthetically, "would call himself black?"

Early on, the Panther Party bought their guns and funded their Free Breakfast for School Children program by selling Mao Tse-Tung's "Little Red Book" to students at Berkeley.

Huey Newton had seen a story on the news about the growing popularity of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. The reporter mentioned that China Books on 24th Street in San Francisco sold the book for 30 cents. Huey called Bobby Seale and said, "I know how we can make some money to buy some guns." They bought 60 copies and sold them for a dollar apiece to the student radicals outside Sather Gate on UC Berkeley's campus. "We popped up right in the middle of an already ongoing nationwide civil-human rights protest, anti-war movement," Seale says. "It was already going on."

Seale still delights in reenacting his sales pitch: "Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung! Get your Red Book, one dollar. All you free speechers up here who lost Mario Savio, read the Red Book and do it like the Red Guard did it." They sold out in less than an hour, then went back to the store and bought every copy in stock, even talking the owner into giving the Panther Party an organizational discount. "We made two or three hundred dollars that first day," Seale recalls. "Went out and bought two shotguns."

The Panthers provided the students with a connection to things exotic and dangerous, if only within the confines of that small patch of real estate outside Sather Gate. The question was — and still is — which ones were wearing costumes and which were wearing disguises?

There was one thing they all had in common, though; they were all groping their way through a brave new wide-open and uncharted world that neither side's parents would have cared to imagine. And here's one more thing the Panthers had in common with the students who bought their copies of Mao's book: none of them had read it. "We must've sold the durned thing for two or three months," Seal said with a laugh, "before we decided to open the thing up and actually read the Little Red Book."

÷ ÷ ÷

David Henry is a screenwriter, and his brother Joe Henry is a songwriter/singer as well as a music producer. Furious Cool is their first book. They are also at work on a screenplay based on Pryor’s life and career.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the... Used Hardcover $11.95

David and Joe Henry is the author of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

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