KILLING THE BLACK REVOLUTION AT UCLA, 1969


Last month UCLA's student newspaper reported on student efforts to preserve a long covered-up mural in the campus' student center. Now partially behind a stomach-churning Panda Express© and a false wall, the mural of seven black UCLA alumni entitled "The Black Experince," was painted by students in 1970 after protests in response to the student killings at Kent State. A year earlier, Black Panther Party leaders Bunchy Carter and John Huggins were murdered in Campbell Hall at UCLA. Below, the story of those murders as recounted in Martha Biondi's recent book The Black Revolution on Campus
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In distinction to the Bay Area. where the Panthers were predominant, the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party was embroiled in a sharp rivalry with US, a cultural nationalist organization headed by Maulana Karenga. Both groups emphasized physical prowess and training in weaponry. But in contrast to the leftist, anti-imperialist politics of the Panthers, who criticized the government and built dynamic community-based programs, cultural nationalists tended to emphasize African roots, cultural grounding, and gender hierarchies as remedies for contemporary racism. Their conflict culminated on January 17, 1969, with the shooting deaths of Panther leaders Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins by US members after a Black Student Union meeting on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles. Subsequent accounts revealed that the FBI had infiltrated and provoked discord between the two groups. [1968 San Francisco State College strike] leader and Panther minister of education George Murray believes those bullets were actually for him.

Even though the Black student movements in Los Angeles was deeply marked by the Panther-US rivalry, the students who spearheaded the creation of the Center for Afro-American Studies at UCLA endeavored to withstand these ideological currents. And in many respects they stood in contrast to the students who devised Black studies at San Francisco State. Black students did not always agree on the form or function of African American studies, and the local political landscape shaped their thinking. The UCLA student leaders tried to resist the efforts of community leaders to gain influence over Afro-American studies, and endeavored to imbue the program with academic rigor and independence. The creation of the center gave rise to a fierce battle for "control" between these student leaders and members of the Community Advisory Board, who wanted the center to be a social and political force in the Black community. The Black Student Union itself was divided over the issue. According to Mary Jane Hewitt, an African American administrator and advisor to Black students at UCLA, "The prime movers in getting that Center started" were Virgil Roberts, Arthur Frazier, Mike Downing, and Tim Ricks. She remembers them as "a group of very bright, very energetic, and very determined young African American students." They also helped design and administer the High Potential Program, and affirmative action program that actively utilized Black students in student recruitment. Members of the US organization as well as the Black Panther Party, including Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, were recruited to UCLA through High Potential. Beginning in the summer of 1968, Roberts, Downing, Frazier, and Ricks researched Black studies programs and proposed an interdisciplinary center consisting of four ethnic studies units. As part of their proposal, they called support for an academic journal (which later became the important Journal of Black Studies) and funding for conferences and research. The students visited San Francisco State to examine how Black studies was evolving there and borrowed some of their ideas. But in the end, they advocated creating, and won, a center rather than a department, incorporating Asian American, Mexican American, and Native American units, because, in their view, this promised to "be more salable politically."

It was a time of intense nationalism, but they built alliances, in part because the number of Black students at UCLA was small. Roberts recalls that Black students and faculty were unified in their desire to create the center. "The conflict later on came over who the people were going to be. We had this conflict with Maulana (Ron) Karenga and our Community Advisory Board." But the president of the BSU, history graduate student Floyd Hayes, opposed the plan and virtually "excommunicated" Roberts, Frazier, Ricks, and Downing. "There was a meeting in which the BSU members said they were going to kill all of us," Roberts recalls, still taken aback at the threats and level of vitriol. The four students felt betrayed and ostracized, he says, after having given so much of themselves to build the center, so much so that Virgil Roberts stopped wearing his dashiki in favor of a suit and tie when he came to campus, so as not to be associated with the BSU.

Students and community leaders had contending visions for he center. Dr. Alfred Cannon, a psychiatrist at the medical school and prominent community leader, sat on the Community Advisory Board for the Center for Afro-American Studies and promoted as director of the new center Dr. Charles Thomas, the director of a health center in Watts. Ron Karenga, who also sat on the Community Advisory Board as head of the US organization, supported Thomas as well. "Take the community to the campus, bring the campus to the community--there's no way around it," Karenga later described his stance. Hewitt, who directed the EOP and High Potential programs, recalls that US members had given the very first director of the center, UCLA political scientist Sylvester Whittaker, "a bad time," helping hasten his departure to Princeton. Among some students and faculty, there was a concern that Karenga and the advisory board were overreaching in campus affairs. Roberts and several other students came to view Thomas as "unacceptable" after he visited campus and gave a job talk. They questioned his ability to hold his own in a rigorous academic environment. "We wanted to have a really heavy brother come in who could deal with UCLA, and we were convinced at the meeting that there's no way he could deal with UCLA--you know the faculty would be able to just push him over."

At a packed meeting in Campbell Hall--where the shootings would happen two days later--the students related their opposition to Thomas to the Community Advisory Board. Virgil Roberts was there, along with Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. The Simbas, the appointed muscle for the US organization, were out in force. Roberts remembers that advisory board members went "ballistic, especially Maulana." The students adjourned to another room and Karenga began lecturing them about what was in their best interest, when Mary Jane Hewitt stood up and confronted him. "I just remember saying to him I thought he was damned irresponsible to be playing this kind of role and bringing this kind of madness to campus," she later recalled. "I chastened him. I can remember saying that 'you ought to know better than to do this kind of thing, manipulating young people like this.'" Community groups should advise, she told him, not dictate. Virgil Roberts remembers her upbraiding Karenga: "The students (were) cheering and stuff," but Karenga "was totally upset." Meanwhile, Panthers and US members lined the hallways of Campbell Hall in long coats, which allegedly concealed their weapons. Before departing, the students formed a new search committee on, which Carter and Huggins were appointed to serve.

Two days later, an alleged FBI operative in the US organization gunned down Carter and Huggins in Campbell Hall, killing them both. Claude Hubert, the alleged gunman, was never apprehended, but Donald Hawkins and brothers Larry Stiner and George Stiner were convicted of conspiracy and second-degree murder. In 1974 then Stiners escaped from the maximum security prison at San Quentin and went to live as fugitives in South America. All three men had been members of the Simbas. A group of Simbas, Virgil Roberts said, "came in, walked in, shot in the hall and ran out." The killings traumatized students and ushered in a long period of political quiescence, anxiety, and fear on campus. There were many witnesses, including some who lived under police protection for the rest of the quarter. FBI counterintelligence operations against the Panthers, including assassination, have been well documented, yet neither the Panthers nor US shied from armed struggle. Members of both groups carried weapons and "physically disciplined" members; Karenga was himself imprisoned in 1971 for ordering the beating of a woman. But after gaining an early release, he embarked on a long career teaching Black studies at California State University in Long Beach and, most famously, developed the African-inspired holiday Kwanzaa, which became popular among many African Americans nationwide. [Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, p. 68-71.] 

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