Black Panthers ’67 incursion into California Assembly had an impact

I was in the California State Assembly chambers on May 3, 1967 when a posse of Black Panthers marched into the legislature brandishing their weapons.

The magazines were not loaded.

The Panthers were protesting the brutality inflicted upon them by the Oakland cops. The Panthers wanted the legislature to know they had to be able to defend themselves.

The general public did not view the situation in a similiar manner. Following the Panthers incursion into the legislative chamber law enforcement cracked down viciously on the Black Panthers.

My reason for being there was a journalism assignment for the College of Marin Times. I went to Sacramento with the political reporter for the Independent Journal, Wat Tatkeshita and accompanied him on his beat.

By coincidence I was present at a pivotal moment in the history of the up to the time generally unknown outside the Bay Area Black Panther Party.

Back in Marin I wrote a story which is today somewhere out in news world cyberspace.

Photo above – A young Assemblyman Willie Brown parleying with a Panther.

In 1966, it was legal to openly carry loaded firearms in California — a legacy of the Gold Rush. In Jackson, a Sierra foothills town that retained that era’s flavor, one state senator was often seen wearing a holstered pistol.

But the Black Panther Party, founded the year before, 1966, in Oakland, was engaged in perfectly legal, if unorthodox, lobbying. Its leaders, including Seale and Huey Newton, openly carried loaded guns to protect black people from racist police. In response, Oakland’s Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford had proposed a measure abolishing open carry in California. He called it the “Panther Bill.”

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But a year later, the Legislature abolished open carry. It took a moment of racial dramatics at the state Capitol in Sacramento, where I was a reporter.

One May 3, in 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan was scheduled for lunch with eighth-grade schoolkids on the Capitol grounds. He’d been elected just a few months before, and the presence of a Hollywood-star-turned politician had increased the size of the press corps.

As the new team for KRON-TV in San Francisco, my cameraman and I were jostling for space on the steps of the staircase that descends to 10th Street on the Capitol’s west side. Veteran newspaper reporters were grumbling about the trivial “picture stories” they were now being required to cover.

About two dozen African American men and women, some wearing leather jackets and black berets, started toward the Capitol carrying rifles, shotguns and pistols. They were not holding the weapons in a threatening manner; they were pointing them in the air as they marched into the building. The news horde — with cameras rolling — stumbled backward ahead of them, up the carpeted inner stairs and into the chamber of the Assembly, where a session was under way.

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When the armed group entered the chamber, Democrats and Republicans dived under their desks as the president pro tem called for order. Meanwhile, one of the armed men began a harangue about “gun control.” Speaking to the TV cameras, he denounced “the racist California Legislature” for “keeping the black people disarmed and powerless.”

After about five minutes, three State Capitol Police officers showed up at the back of the chamber, and asked the demonstrators to hand over their guns. In a startling gesture, the little army complied.

The officers then led the way to another part of the building. The news crowd followed along, shouting questions: “Who are you? What are you here for?”

But the armed demonstrators had made their point; they weren’t talking any more. The Capitol Police determined that the guns were not loaded. (Some reporters’ accounts said the guns were brought in loaded, and later unloaded inside the Capitol, but I don’t remember it that way). Even if they had been, that was legal under state law, so long as they weren’t pointed at anyone. The demonstrators took their weapons back to the cars on 10th Street, and drove away.

They were gone … but just for the moment.

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The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s 1967 Sacramento appearance was reported nationally as an “invasion” by newspapers and TV (KRON included). Bobby Seale, who read the statement indicting the Legislature as “racist,” would later run for mayor of Oakland.

As it turned out, the Panthers’ opposition was a dismal failure. The “Panther Bill” — gun control that it was — had the support of the National Rifle Association of the day. The 120-member Legislature (with six blacks, three women, and all the rest white men) overwhelmingly passed the measure. Reagan signed it into law saying, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

Today, the NRA advocates guns in all kinds of public places. But open carry is still illegal in California. Now as then, the real issue is not the guns being carried but, rather, who does the carrying.