Black Panthers in Dorchester

accessed June 10, 2018

By Devin Helton on Mar 24, 2016

The Black Panthers in Dorchester: A Forgotten History

Last month after the Super Bowl, a liberal acquaintance complained about the “Boycott Beyonce” movement among her Facebook friends. I replied: “Well, Beyonce did give an homage to the Black Panthers. And the Black Panthers were a racist hate group, akin to a reverse image of the KKK. So if as a society, we would ostracize anyone who shows approval for the KKK, it would make sense to boycott Beyonce too.” This reply was quite shocking to her.

Now you might think it is outrageous for me to equate the Black Panthers with the KKK. Weren’t the Panthers fighting for the empowerment of a historically downtrodden minority? Am I some political hack trying to score points by making some bogus equivalency? Doesn’t Vox magazine tells us that, the most radical thing the Black Panthers did was give kids free breakfast?. Am I some ignoramus unaware of all the good work the Black Panthers did?

Well no, I do not think I am being unfair. If you think I am the ignorant one, please continue reading, I have some history to share. The source for this history is the book The Death of an American Jewish Community. It is written about Dorchester, Boston during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book is based both on the connections of the authors, and on hundreds of interviews and newspaper accounts. The authors are hardly rabid right-wingers; both are liberal. One is a Boston University professor and the other a Boston Globe journalist.

Let us start with an excerpt about a Jewish shop keeper in the late 1960s, and his experience with the Black Panthers moving in across the street:

Like many businessmen and police officers who witnessed riots in Roxbury, Goldstein [the shopkeeper] was totally convinced that they were finely orchestrated proceedings rather than spontaneous bursts of rage. He claimed to have witnessed cash awards to schoolboys from leading members of the city’s black radical organizations for, as he called it, “outstanding performances in the category of urban rioting.” Since the welfare mothers’ riot, however, Goldstein had kept a two-foot length of pipe fitted with a bamboo handle near his cash register. Things had seemed particularly ominous since the Black Panthers had taken over a former dry cleaning store on lower Blue Hill Avenue for their headquarters. The storefront was plastered with revolutionary posters, including one labeled “Target No. 1: the Pig,” depicting a pig in a police uniform superimposed on a bull’s eye. The Hat Man had always maintained civil relations with his most radical customers, but he couldn’t abide the Panthers. With the Panthers, everything had turned upside down. Here, he believed, was a group of hoodlums who engaged policemen in deadly gun battles while their ridiculous white supporters prattled on about the pancake breakfasts the Panthers served to poorly nourished schoolchildren. In Panther lexicon, some hophead picked up for robbing a ma-and-pa grocery store was a “political prisoner.” The worst of it was that the Panthers had chosen his corner to sell their journals filled with antisemitic poetry: “Jew land, On a /summer afternoon/ Really, Couldn’t kill the Jews too soon/ Now dig, The Jews have stolen our bread/ Their filthy women tricked our men into bed…”

Goldstein moved instinctively for the length of pipe whenever one of the Panthers came into the store. He had vowed never to be shaken down by the antisemites. Once, they had threatened to burn him down and he had insouciantly tossed them a book of matches. One Panther seemed to take particular delight in trying to intimidate Goldstein. “Hat Man, one day I’m going to take care of you,” the Panther said, placing his hand threateningly in the pocket of his coat.

Threats like these mattered, they were not just silly bluster. In one instance, black activists used the threat of violence to try to get the Jewish community to transfer them a temple that was on the edge of a black neighborhood:

At 5: 00 A.M. Grossman was awakened by a loud knock at his hotel door. He shuffled to the door and opened it, revealing three black men he had never seen before. Only one man spoke. “We get the temple mortgage free or else we burn, baby, burn.” The men left abruptly, leaving Grossman shaken and confused. Later that day Grossman huddled with officers of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston in a meeting room at the Brighton Jewish Community Center to discuss the threat and their response to the riots. Led by Al Rosen, the federation’s public relations director, the leadership discussed the harsh anti-Jewish sentiments that had boiled to the surface in recent days. All were aware of the growing antisemitic statements emanating from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which attempted to place the blame for America’s internal problems on Jewish landlords and for its external problems on Zionism. Grossman learned that he was not the only federation leader to receive threats regarding the fate of Mishkan Tefila. Others in the room had received similar messages that day, such as “Put the temple in the hands of the black community or we’ll burn it down with Jews in it.” The Jewish leaders did not believe the threats were emanating from anyone involved with Elma Lewis. More likely, they believed, the source of the threats came from the Black Panthers or other radicals whose publications of late had been filled with openly antisemitic articles and cartoons reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

And it worked – the Jewish group handed over the temple. The press was full of praises for the generous “gift”, while burying any mention of the violent threats:

On April 18 the lead story in the Jewish Advocate shouted out in unusually large type, “Jewish Gift for Negroes.” Boston’s major news media joined in to praise the transfer. The Boston Globe called the gesture “grounds for prayerful and universal rejoicing.” The New York Times, too, took note of the extraordinary generosity of Boston’s Jews. Congratulatory letters and telegrams poured in from the NAACP, the United Front, the Urban League, and scores of Jewish organizations. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the nation’s first Jewish federation, had charted new territory once again.

A young, idealist Rabbi moved into Dorchester. He had dreams of helping to revive the struggling community and bridge the divide between Jews and blacks. Shortly after he moved in, a few messengers greeted him at his house:

Shortly after arriving home, Zelermyer called his mother on the telephone. The conversation was interrupted by the chimes of the front door bell. Placing the receiver aside, Zelermyer, quite accustomed to unannounced visits from congregants, strode quickly to the door and swung it open. The two young men facing the rabbi were not congregants. One of the black youths, whose age Zelermyer estimated at seventeen, shoved a clumsily scrawled note into his hands. Zelermyer made out the words “lead the Jewish racists out of Mattapan” before the other youth, his face turned guardedly to the side, flicked what appeared to be a vial of white powder into the face of the startled rabbi. Zelermyer’s head snapped back from frightful pain. The assailants, having never uttered a word, dashed away as the rabbi, engulfed in blinding dust, leapt back and slammed the door shut.

After several minutes of frantic flushing, Zelermyer drove to the office of a nearby doctor. By the look of the wound, the doctor said, the substance was a strong and corrosive acid. It hit with greatest damage one-quarter inch below the rabbi’s right eye.

In the neighborhood as a whole, there was a rising tide of violence and disorder. Now, we do not know how much of this violence was committed by Black Panthers, and how much of it was by rogue individuals. But when we condemn the violence associated with the KKK, we do not always make a distinction between the violence committed by organized members of the organization, and violence committed by all those who are aroused by the culture of violence and hate. And we are correct not to make that distinction. When prominent organizations set the tone, many lone individuals will take advantage of the atmosphere to indulge predation.

And what was the result of the tone of violence in Dorchester? A Jewish Dentist who once practiced in Dorchester described the feeling in his old neighborhood:

Stone listed crimes against Jewish residents and business owners, including the recent shootings of two drugstore owners and a fellow dentist. “The elderly Jews live in fear for their lives and they are not wrong,” Stone wrote. “I know because my office is in Dorchester and I have to repair their broken teeth. I see the closing of the drugstores because of firebombings and severe beatings of the owners… When I see these bumper stickers ‘Save Soviet Jewry,’ I can’t see why we don’t give out stickers to ‘help Mattapan Jewry.’ I feel they are just as bad off and a lot closer to home.”

Shortly after dinnertime on the evening before Thanksgiving 1969, knots of elderly congregants began arriving at Congregation Chevra Shas, a modest red brick shul on Dorchester’s Ashton Street. Muggings had become so common of late that Dorchester’s elderly Jews scanned cabinets for household items that might double as instruments of self-defense. Because outrunning the young muggers was out of the question, survival, they believed, might depend on a good spritz of hair spray in the eyes of an attacker or a solid zetz on the nose with a ring of heavy metal keys….In recent weeks scores of elderly Jews had been beaten and one had been shot. Each week an average of thirty elderly Jews in the neighborhood suffered assaults or robberies. Many knew of neighbors who no longer left their homes, not even to attend the morning or evening services required of the observant.

One of the most heart-breaking stories was that of an old Jewish couple, trying to hold out in the neighborhood after all their friends had fled. For their refusal to flee, they were rewarded with a humiliating home invasion:

The largest of the intruders prepared a bed of wet garbage on the floor of Saul and Gertrude Pearlman’s living room closet before trussing the elderly couple back to back and tossing them in. “Get in there and stay in there, old Jews,” the man had told them. During the previous two hours the same man had held an enormous hunting knife at Saul’s throat while his two partners ransacked the eight-room apartment on Dorchester’s Kerwin Street. With the exception of a camera and a small amount of cash, the intruders were finding little of value. The discovery of a wall safe had prompted momentary excitement, but it yielded only mortgage and insurance documents and some precious family photos, all of which were contemptuously tossed aside. “Gonna kill you now, old Jews,” the disappointed intruder told the couple. The Pearlmans, married more than forty years, did not need words to communicate. In Saul’s eyes his wife could read the message to remain silent and not beg for their lives. Earlier, when the knife-wielder had ordered Gertrude to lie down on the couch and had covered her face with a towel, her husband had willed her not to speak. He felt somehow that if they did not speak they would survive.

Despite her husband’s protestations that the neighborhood was becoming too dangerous, Gertrude Pearlman had refused to leave Dorchester. Twenty years earlier, when they’d bought the spacious two-family Victorian, they had enjoyed living in the heart of Boston’s ninety thousand-strong Jewish community. By 1974, at the time of the assault, they were the only white family on their street. Gertrude had held religiously to the belief that white flight was cowardly and immoral. When the first black family moved in across the street ten years earlier, Gertrude welcomed them to the neighborhood with a basket of cookies and warm rolls. Saul, an oil burner mechanic, gave the heating system a once-over and warned the new family about a neighborhood oil distributor who poked holes in storage tanks and then billed new customers for costly repairs.

For Gertrude and Saul Pearlman, the dream of integration ended as they wriggled on their closet floor to free their binds. The assault, Gertrude recalled, “continued to play like a newsreel in my head.” The couple had adamantly refused to listen to the logic of neighbors who had fled to the suburbs. But now even their black neighbors were appealing to them to leave. “You’re older, Jewish, and vulnerable. It’s over for you here,” said a neighbor who had become particularly close to the couple. After the assault, arrangements were made for the Pearlmans to stay with out-of-town relatives. Before leaving, the couple visited the graves of loved ones at a Jewish cemetery west of Boston. After only a few days away, they mustered their courage and returned home. Stepping from their car, they saw three young men hacking away with axes at their basement door.

The Pearlmans moved from their home of more than twenty years in great haste.

The Dorchester Jewish community, a population of 40,000, fled and disappeared to almost nothing within two years. If this is not ethnic cleansing, I do not know what is. This is as bad as anything associated with any right-wing hate movement in the past fifty years.

And this violence still matters today. I myself walked through Dorchester a while ago. I was approached by two plainclothes who told me to get out of the neighborhood because it was the murder of capital of Boston and they said that I “didn’t look like I belonged.”

Now you might say that the Black Panthers deserve less condemnation, because they are not emblematic of a much bigger and greater pattern of white-on-black violence. Yet what is the pattern of racial disparities in violence? Statistically, in 2012/2013 there were 560,000 black-on-white violent crimes, versus 99,000 white-on-black violent crimes. That is a 5 to 1 disparity, an excess of 460,000 violent crimes against white people. For murders, there were 409 black-on-white homicides versus 189 white-on-black. That is a disparity of 200 murders a year. Extrapolated, that’s a rate of 2,000 a decade, 20,000 in a century. Compare that rate to the estimated 4,000 lynchings that occurred in the century after the Civil War. So no, I don’t think it is fair to say that we can downplay the Black Panthers, because they do not represent a broader pattern of violence. In the history of my lifetime, of my parent’s lifetime, that has not been true.

Furthermore, an argument that violence is justified due to slavery or historical oppression only makes sense if the violence is actually targetted against the oppressors. Were the assaulted residents of Dorchester oppressors of black people? No. Were they somehow responsible for the plight of black people? No. Do they bear moral responsibility for slavery or Jim Crow? No. Whatever the historical oppression that might justify violent resistance, a group that encourages terrorism and violence against complete innocents is itself a vile hate-group that should be denounced.

Of course, the worst problems of violence are within black communities. But here again, the Black Panthers influence was entirely negative. Their hatred and demonization of the police, their rhetoric of violence, and the murders and hit-jobs within their own ranks, all were gasoline poured into the fire of these communities. Their actions did not make these communities better, and they should be treated as a cautionary tale, not celebrated.

Finally I should note – I’m not actually asking you to boycott Beyonce. That’s not actually going to help anybody. I also think that words like “racist” and “hate group” have been stretched and abused to the point past all saving. Their use in modern politics is entirely one-sided and disingenuous, and I have no desire to start playing that game.

My reasons for relating this history are to help establish the following takeaways:

  1. Racial conflict in this country has been a lot more complicated than whites oppressing blacks. Just as often it has been one group of whites and blacks forming an unspoken alliance in order to oppress another group of whites. If we actually want to solve problems of violence, ethnic conflict, and urban decay, we need to know the full version of what happened.
  2. Liberal establishment media – (NY Times, Vox, NPR, PBS) – are continually very one-sided in this coverage. They will tell you all the bad things the KKK did, but will almost never relate stories like those above. They will freak out when a politician has the most tangential association with a right-wing “hate group” but ignore any much more direct association with left-wing groups like the Panthers. A lot of my friends don’t believe me when I tell them that the New York Times only gives one side of the story. The only way I can demonstrate this is by relating the side of the story that the Times is missing.
  3. Friends and family ask me why I’m not registered to vote, why I’m so apathetic about left-right party politics. Sure the Democrats have their flaws, they say, but aren’t the Republicans one hundred times worse? Well, no. What happened in Dorchester was truly awful, and the ramifications of the violence in places like Dorchester still have a massively negative impact on people in those communities, and people like me who live on the borders of such communities. And that violence was enabled and encouraged, and is still enabled, by those on the left. Now I don’t think the Republicans are any solution – far from it. My interest is in finding a third way, and until then, I try to stay out of the day-to-day partisan fights.

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December 26, 2021