Blog

February 22, 2017

A conversation with Ericka Huggins

A Black Panther Party visionary on education as political liberation, women as game-changing activists, and meditation as spiritual healing

By OMCA Staff

It’s remarkable that Ericka Huggins has held so true to her calling—this fierce and gentle woman, who at age eighteen led the Black Panther Party’s Los Angeles chapter with her husband, John Huggins, only to have to cope with his killing; who endured two years in jail, including a month in solitary confinement, while awaiting trial with fellow party leader Bobby Seale on conspiracy charges; and who went on to become director of the party’s groundbreaking Oakland Community School. In subsequent years, Huggins was a professor in the Peralta Community College District and is now a sought-after speaker and teacher who, among other things, engages audiences at leading universities and offers occasional relaxation classes in youth correctional facilities.

 

You were among the community advisers OMCA invited to help plan All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. What were those discussions like?

Really amazing—sometimes heated, sometimes emotional, sometimes full of laughter. We realized that the Museum can’t be responsible for all the different things that need to be done, but the exhibition can be a spark. Conversations need to be happening all the time, not just about the Black Panther Party but also about race and other inequities in the United States.

What did you take away from those discussions?

I felt affirmed in the importance of pausing and assessing, spending time with oneself, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I watch the Black Lives Matter network [which includes a group called black.seed], for example. They practice self-care. Yeah, they closed down a bridge. And then they give each other neck-and-shoulder massages; they sit quietly with each other.

What connections do you see between the activists of today’s generation and the party?

We started the Black Panther Party by focusing on police brutality and community patrols of the police. Black Lives Matter is continuing this focus in the twenty-first century. They’re careful not to do that thing called the cult of the personality. There are chapters everywhere, but it’s a network, not a top-down leadership. They pay attention to history. I love what they’re doing. I appreciate them out loud, everywhere I go. I think we have a responsibility to support young people who are doing their best to carry forward the work of transforming society for all.

You speak about the importance of spiritual practice in social justice work. How did your own practice begin?

This came up recently when I visited fifth-graders at Malcolm X School in Berkeley. A boy asked, “How did you handle such sadness and sorrow (referring to John Huggins’ assassination and the separation from my baby daughter)—and you were in jail?” I told him that, at one point, my heart felt like shattered glass. I asked my lawyer, Charlie Garry—who did a headstand every morning before he entered the courtroom—to give me a book on Hatha Yoga and meditation. I told the fifth-grader that I needed to sit still, to quiet my mind. Doing this, I was able to feel my heart becoming whole again.

Does teaching youth continue to be a force in your life?

I love it. It’s for my growth as well as theirs. It keeps me on purpose. For two years I taught a class at Merritt College called “The Black Panther Party: Strategies for Organizing the People.” We not only explored the truth of the Black Panther Party, but also the Brown Berets, Yellow Peril, the Young Lords Party, the American Indian Movement, the early women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, and the anti-war and student movements. One of the joyful things was to mention names they hadn’t heard of and have them researched and revered.

What would be on your political and personal bucket lists?

Facilitating conversations about racial inequity with police departments. I believe all humans can be educated or reeducated depending on the approach. I saw this kind of opening in the officers who took me to the courthouse every day for six months in 1971. It isn’t whether we wear a uniform, it’s how we’re trained by the larger society—and what we allow inside. I also want to write a children’s book about the Black Panther Party and about the myths of race, gender, and class. I must finish my memoir. I want to be part of abolishing prisons, especially those for children; that’s at the top. Get them out of cells and into programs that will help them live the lives of their dreams.


Special exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 closes on February 26, 2017.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.