Florestan Fernandes and the Black Panthers

Writer and activist Jamu Minka with sociologist Florestan Fernandes, at the launch of Cadernos Negros, at Livraria Teixeira, São Paulo, 1978.


Commentary on a sociologist interview

In July and August 1995, a few days before the medical error that claimed the life of Florestan Fernandes, journalist Paulo Moreira Leite conducted two thought-provoking interviews with the sociologist. Some excerpts were published that same year: in the magazine Veja, on the 9th of August, and on the Jornal da Tarde, on the 19th of August. Years later, Leite revisited these works in the essay “The master who came from below”.[I]

Among the themes analyzed by Florestan Fernandes in these interviews is the political and police persecution that the Black Panthers suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. from the archive with the original transcripts of the interviews.[ii]

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was created in October 1966,[iii] after a long period of peaceful protests in the United States against racial segregation and in defense of civil rights.[iv] On several occasions, white supremacist groups have reacted with violence. In response to demonstrations organized by high school and university students, such as the sit ins and freedom rides, people associated with the Ku Klux Kan promoted bombings and assassinations.

As highlighted by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton, authors of the book Black power: the politics of liberation in the United States, the police also curbed peaceful protests with extreme violence.[v] In a speech entitled "The Vote or the Bullet", delivered in April 1964, Malcolm X [vi] questioned the effectiveness of peaceful protest strategies against racial segregation. A few months later he was murdered.

Inspired by Malcolm X's speeches, but also by Fantz Fanon's books, black men and women of the Black Panthers, mostly young university students, envision other resistance alternatives. It was about defending black power! In a tone of relief, says Kwame Ture: “once and for all, black people will use the words they want and not the words that white people want to hear”.[vii] In their program, the Black Panthers demand an immediate end to police brutality and killings of the black population.[viii] Guided by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the Black Panthers justify the use of violence as a form of self-defense, or rather, they advocate counter-violence.

In the first chapter of The Damned of the Earth, Frantz Fanon carefully reflects on the violence of the oppressors and the counter-violence of the oppressed in historic struggles for decolonization.[ix] In the same perspective, Huey Newton, militant and theorist of the Black Panthers, points to the relationship between police brutality and the revolutionary fervor of the black community: “when things get tough, oppressed people feel the need for resistance and revolution”.[X] Precisely because they are the most affected by oppression, for both Fanon and the Black Panthers, the miserable, those whom Karl Marx claims to be part of the rag proletariat, can become fundamental subjects in a revolutionary process. [xi] In May 1971, when she was still imprisoned in a California jail, the black panther Angela Davis emphasizes: “It already exists in black and brown communities, the rag proletariat included, a long tradition of collective resistance to national oppression”.[xii]

From an early age, the academic works of Florestan Fernandes approached the organized groups of the black movement. In 1950, Florestan was part of the São Paulo entourage that participated, in Rio de Janeiro, in the 1st Colóquio do Negro Brasileiro, coordinated by Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN).[xiii] In the early 1950s, Roger Bastide and Florestan were commissioned to direct the UNESCO survey on race relations in the city of São Paulo. This research had the contribution of several militants of the black movement.[xiv]

The first edition of the Caderno de Cultura da Associação Cultural do Negro (ACN), published in 1958, registers a thank you to Florestan for a conference he held at the association.[xv] In addition to guiding the doctoral research of some of his main students on the racial issue in Brazil,[xvi] Florestan Fernandes disseminated and analyzed in academia and the mainstream press the demands and productions of intellectuals linked to the black movement.[xvii]

At the end of the 1970s, upon returning from exile in the United States and Canada, Florestan participated in meetings with university students linked to the effervescent black socialist movement that was beginning to emerge at that time in Brazil.[xviii] Among other scandals of racism and police violence, the torture and murder of black merchant Robson Silveira da Luz, portrayed in an article by journalist and activist Hamilton Cardoso,[xx] would motivate a huge demonstration of protest, on July 7, 1978, in front of the Municipal Theater of São Paulo. With the presence of black leaders from different generations, this demonstration was an important step towards the creation of the Unified Black Movement (MNU).

It is likely that the positions defended by the Black Panthers militants have shaped the reading and incorporation that Florestan Fernandes makes of Fanon's books. Coordinator of the Great Social Scientists Collection, published by Ática publishing house, Florestan even asked, in the late 1970s, for Renato Ortiz to write a special volume on Fanon. [xx] In 1980, at the request of the students, Florestan Fernandes taught a class with the title: “In the landmarks of violence”. At the end of his explanation, Florestan argues that the role of the militant sociologist is to help the worker to understand that: “class struggle is reciprocal violence and that the working classes can only liberate themselves, in any sense and in any direction, through mature employment of their political capacity to constructively use revolutionary violence”.[xxx]

In the following year, Florestan published what is revolution. In this book, Florestan suggests that revolutionary people read and reread the communist manifesto, by Marx, but not as if it were a catechism, since, “the historical world to which it was calibrated no longer exists.” [xxiii] When asked about the conditions of a socialist revolution in Brazil today, Florestan quotes Fanon: “This is the great dilemma of the social scientist: today you cannot identify a class that seems linked to the denial of order. I believe that in the periphery the problem is simpler. It is the workers, and especially the excluded, who Frantz Fanon called 'the damned of the earth'. They contain the major radicalization, the one that demands that the existing order be turned upside down”.[xxiii]


Excerpt from Florestan Fernandes' interview with Paulo Moreira Leite, August 2, 1995.[xxv]

“Florestan Fernandes – In a country like the United States, the severity with which the forces of order operate is overwhelming. I was in Canada when the Black Panthers were persecuted, I was able to follow what was actually happening through newspapers in Canada and the United States, through personal sources and on my trips to the United States.

The Panthers used that weapon as a symbol of self-determination, that is, that was the mark that they would defend themselves and could also attack in defense of certain principles. But those were symbols, in fact, their practical activity was much more helpful, for example, in Harlem. [xxiv]

Paulo Moreira Leite – Did they do assistance work in Harlem?

Florestan Fernandes – In several regions. They were aware that they constituted a small group and that they could not propose an effective and immediate revolutionary solution.

The elaboration of their thought was complex, because it made a synthesis between African knowledge and Western knowledge. In the long run, they were revolutionary, because they said that the Negro's alternative was to achieve equality which lay not in gradual change but in profound transformations of the existing order. It is one thing to think about a future that is remote and that can define general principles of a political philosophy, and another thing is to put this into practice with the idea of ​​bridging the present and the future in a way functional, so that it reached the white population.

What came next? Then came the insubordination of the Panthers, who did not passively accept racial domination, they ended up being defined as enemies of order that should be destroyed. So the basic reasoning was: the good Panther is the dead Panther.

Paulo Moreira Leite – They killed many.

Florestan Fernandes – The police were called and there is a lot of material about that in the American and Canadian press, in magazines and now also in analyses.

Paulo Moreira Leite – Was there once a Black Panther in your house?

Florestan Fernandes – I omit.

With this macabre idea that the good Pantera is a dead Pantera, when the Panteras gathered in a place, in apartment buildings, for example, the police were already warned and would appear there to arrest and take to jail, submit to prosecution legal. They appeared shooting to exterminate”.[xxv]

* Paulo Fernandes Silveira Professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and researcher at the Human Rights Group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at USP.


[I] LEITE, Paulo Moreira. The master who came from below. In. LEITE, p. The woman who was the general of the house: stories of civil resistance to the dictatorship. Porto Alegre: Editorial Archipelago, 2012, p. 76-91.

[ii] The transcription of the interviews is accessible for consultation at the Community Library of the Federal University of São Carlos. The scanned copy of this file was given to me by my friend Diogo Valença de Azevedo Costa, professor and researcher at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB).

[iii] Its original name was Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. On the history of the Black Power movement, see the book: OGBAR, Jeffrey. black power: radical politics and african american identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

[iv] Check on the subject of non-violent protests: SILVEIRA, Paulo. Fights and songs against racial segregation in the United States, GGN newspaper, 19/02/2022. Available in: https://jornalggn.com.br/eua-canada/lutas-e-cancoes-contra-a-segregacao-racial-nos-estados-unidos-por-paulo-fernandes-silveira/

[v] TURE, Kwame (Stokely Carmichael); HAMILTON, Charles. Black Power: the politics of liberation in the United States. São Paulo: Jandaíra, 2021.

[vi]  X, Malcolm. The vote or the bullet. In: X, Malcolm. Speech. São Paulo: UBU publisher, 2021, p. 44-85.

[vii] TURE, Kwame (Stokely Carmichael). that we want March Notebooks, (special edition on “El Poder Negro”), n. 12, 119-125, April 1968. Available at: https://anaforas.fic.edu.uy/jspui/handle/123456789/38806

[viii] NEWTON, Huey. To die for the people. The writings of Huey P. Newton. New York: Vintage Books, 1972, p. 4.

[ix] FANON, Frantz. The Damned of the Earth. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1968. On Fanon's counterviolence, see the text: BUTLER, Judith. Violence, not violence. Sartre around Fanon. In. FANON, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2009, p. 193-216.

[X] NEWTON, Huey. To die for the people. The writings of Huey P. Newton. New York: Vintage Books, 1972, p. 18. On Fanon's influence on Huey Newton's positions, see the book: SEALE, Bobby. Grab the time. The History of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. Madrid: Postmetropolis Editorial; Euro-Mediterranean University Institute, 2018, p. 39-49.

[xi] According to Marx, in the insurrections of 1848, people from lumpenproletariat fought for money against French workers: “For this purpose the provisional government instituted the 24 battalions of the Mobile Guard, each made up of a thousand men recruited from among fifteen to twenty year olds who came largely from the lumpenproletariat, who, in all the big cities, made up a mass that was clearly distinguished from the industrial proletariat and from which thieves and criminals of all kinds were recruited, who lived off the leftovers of society, people without fixed work, vagrants (...), capable of greatest heroisms and the most exalted abnegation, as well as the most base banditry and the most disgusting venality.” MARX, Carl. Class struggles in France. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2012, p. 55.

[xii] DAVIS, Angela. (Ed.). If they come in the morning: voices of resistance. London; New York: Verso, 2016, p. 36. Translation of the cited chapter available at: https://revistageni.org/11/prisioneirxs-politicxs-prisoes-e-libertacao-negra/?fbclid=IwAR2m6qHT1MtIdArJ-joeSis3OLcRfN3GGBoEhh6ah5i4vm2RUySP4SCTQ0E The Black Panthers intended to be representatives of the proletarian mass (lumpenproletariat): TURE, Kwame (Stokely Carmichael). Stokely speak. From Black Power to Pan-Africanism. African Diaspora: Editora Filhos da África, 2017, p. 219. On the revolutionary power of lumpremproletariat for the Black Panthers, see text: CLEAVER, Eldridge. On the ideology of the Black Panther. Part 1. San Francisco: Ministry of Information Black Panther Party, 1967. Available at: http://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/Black%20Liberation%20Disk/Black%20Power%21/SugahData/Books/Cleaver.S.pdf Translation available at: https://traduagindo.com/2019/05/26/sobre-a-ideologia-do-partido-dos-panteras-negras/

The Black Panthers even had a soul band named The Lumpen, check the book: VINCENT, Rickey. party music: the inside story of the Black Panthers' band and how black power transformed soul music. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013. Between 1970 and 1972, in support of the Black Panthers, German university students edited the journal Voice of the Lumpen. Available in: https://content.wisconsinhistory.org/digital/collection/p15932coll8/id/35459

[xiii] Check out the article: “1st Colloquium of the Brazilian Negro”, Quilombo newspaper, year II, n.10, 3, jun-jul 1950. Available at: https://ipeafro.org.br/acervo-digital/leituras/ten-publicacoes/jornal-quilombo-no-10/ In this edition, the name of Florestan Fernandes is registered as: Florestino Fernandes.

[xiv] Check the book: BASTIDE, Roger; FERNANDES, Florestan. Race relations between blacks and whites in São Paulo. São Paulo: Anhembi, 1955.

[xv] Check the text signed by the Executive Board of Associação Cultural do Negro: “The year 70 of Abolition”, ACN Culture Notebooks, no. 1, 4, 1958. Available at: https://lemad.fflch.usp.br/node/43

[xvi] Among the PhDs supervised by Florestan on the subject, the following stand out: CARDOSO, Fernando Henrique. Capitalism and Slavery in Southern Brazil: the black in the slave society of Rio Grande do Sul. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2003; IANNI, Octavio. The Metamorphoses of the Slave: apogee and crisis of slavery in Southern Brazil. São Paulo: Diffusion Europea do Livro, 1962.

[xvii] Some of these texts by Florestan can be found in the collections: FERNANDES, Florestan. The Black in the World of Whites. São Paulo: European Book Division, 1972; FERNANDES, Florestan. Meaning of black protest. Sao Paulo: Cortez; Associated Authors, 1989.

[xviii] About these encounters between Florestan and the black movement, see the interview with Milton Barbosa (Miltão): DALLE, Isaías. Miltão, from the Unified Black Movement: “For sure, we are going to move forward”, Outskirts. Perseu Abramo Foundation, 29/12/2020. Available in: https://fpabramo.org.br/2020/12/29/miltao-do-movimento-negro-unificado-com-certeza-vamos-avancar/

[xx] CARDOSO, Hamilton. Ceremonies for the murder of a Negro, Newspaper Versus, no. 22, 38-39, Jun-Jul 1978. Available at: http://www.marcosfaerman.jor.br/Versus22.html?vis=facsimile On Hamilton Cardoso's work and activism, see the article: OLIVEIRA, Fábio; RIOS, Flavia. Black Consciousness and Socialism: the trajectory of Hamilton Cardoso (1953-1999), Contemporânea – Journal of Sociology at UFSCar, v. 4, no. 2, 507-530, 2014. Available at: https://www.contemporanea.ufscar.br/index.php/contemporanea/article/view/249

[xx] Check on this topic: ORTIZ, Renato. Frantz Fanon: a political and intellectual itinerary, Contemporânea – Journal of Sociology at UFSCar, v. 4, no. 2, 425-442, 2014. Available at: https://www.contemporanea.ufscar.br/index.php/contemporanea/article/view/241

[xxx] FERNANDES, Florestan. In the frameworks of violence. In. FERNANDES, F. The dictatorship in question, São Paulo: TA Queiroz, 1982, p. 162. On counter-violence in Fanon and Florestan, see the text: SILVEIRA, Paulo. Counterviolence in Fanon and Florestan, Psychoanalysts for Democracy, January 2019. Available at: https://psicanalisedemocracia.com.br/2019/01/a-contraviolencia-em-fanon-e-florestan-por-paulo-henrique-fernandes-siqueira/

[xxiii] FERNANDES, Florestan. what is revolution. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2018, p. 50.

[xxiii] FERNANDES, Florestan. Florestan Fernandes by Paulo de Tarso Venceslau. In: AZEVEDO, R.; MAUÉS, F. (Orgs.). Rememory: interviews about Brazil in the XNUMXth century. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 1997, p. 23. Available at: https://fpabramo.org.br/publicacoes/estante/rememoria-entrevistas-sobre-o-brasil-do-seculo-xx/

[xxv] LEITE, Paulo Moreira. Interview: Florestan Fernandes [19950802]. São Carlos: Florestan Fernandes Fund (FFF). Community Library of the Federal University of São Carlos, 1995, p. 13-15.

[xxiv] Among the social programs developed by the Black Panthers are free meals for underprivileged young students and community medical care. On this subject, check out the book: HILLIARD, David (Ed.). The Black Panther Party: service to the people programs. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. Available at: https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/ Influenced by the Black Panthers, Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement also developed social programs in South Africa: HADFIELD, Leslie. Restoring human dignity and building self-reliance: youth, woman, and churches and Black consciousness community development, South Africa, 1969-1977. Doctoral Thesis, Michigan State University, 2010. Available at: https://d.lib.msu.edu/etd/10269. See also: SILVEIRA, Paulo. Paulo Freire and Steve Biko, the earth is round, 19/12/2021. Available in: https://aterraeredonda.com.br/paulo-freire-e-steve-biko/

[xxv] In the December 13, 1969 issue of the magazine The Black Panther, the main leaders of the Black Panthers pay tribute to militants Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, murdered in their apartments by police agents. Available in: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/black-panther/04%20no%202%201-20%20dec%2013%201969.pdf  That same year, Hannah Arendt published an essay based on her articles written for the mainstream press in which she analyzes student violence at American universities: “Serious violence took over the scene only with the appearance of the movement Black Power our fields. Black students, most of whom were admitted without academic qualifications, conceived and organized themselves as an interest group, the representatives of the black community.” ARENDT, Hannah. about the violence. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumara, 1994, p. 22. Following the essay, Arendt criticizes the reading that Fanon and the students made of the texts of Marx and Engels, for the fact that they took the rag proletariat as a revolutionary social class and, even so, affirm themselves as Marxists.


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