CANDLELIGHT: UCLA student adds a light to the vigil in memory of slain students Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John J. Huggins Jr. PHOTO Courtesy of UCLA ASU
UCLA students commemorate the life and deaths of two former Black Panther Leaders
It’s not often one gets a first hand account of what happened in the 1960s from former members of the Black Panther Party, and it’s not everyday one hears a candid discussion between seasoned civil rights activists and young people. But in a Campbell Hall classroom at UCLA Friday, January 17 that is exactly what transpired.
Four UCLA alumni made up the panel of speakers invited by the university’s Afrikan Student Union. Ericka Huggins, Elaine Brown, Lamar Lyons, and the youngest, Vara Bacoum, led the discussion with over a hundred students and community members who gathered in remembrance.
The significance of the night and location of Friday’s meeting goes back 45 years. On January 17, 1969, in Campbell Hall, classroom 1201, two students, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, 26, and John Huggins Jr., 23, were slain.
Activists on campus and student body leaders, Carter and Huggins were recruited by UCLA to attend the university through the experimental “High Potential Program” – instated to increase the representation of minorities in the student body.
Gunned down at a meeting to organize the formation of a Black Studies program at UCLA, the death of Carter and Huggins is scarcely mentioned in the university’s history, leaving only a miniscule percentage of students that are even aware of what happened in 1969.
The Afrikan Student Union (ASU) and the Academic Advancement Program, are part of the population that is very much aware of what happened, and who are committed to keeping the memory of the slain leaders alive. For years, these two groups have hosted this event annually on the anniversary of the killings, commemorating the life and death of the two leaders.
On Friday, with food, discussion, poetry and a candlelight vigil, students, faculty, staff, and community members came together to honor the two leaders. In honoring Carter and Huggins the group found space to discuss their own potential to change injustices and inequalities on their campus and in their communities.
“Make a portal for students way younger than you to be here, students of all kind, not just an insular Black bubble,” encouraged panel member Ericka Huggins, who is the widow of the late John Huggins. Huggins, like her late husband, was a former leader of the Black Panther Party. “Use the skills the university has given you and turn it toward your community…we are all standing on someone’s shoulders, imagine someone is standing on yours,” Huggins charged.
“One thing we might want to think about is the context in which they were killed,” proposed panelist Elaine Brown a former leader of the Black Panther Party and also a graduate of the High Potential Program at UCLA.
Brown shared with the group the climate that was brewing in the late ‘60s, referencing the San Francisco State Strike (at the time the longest student strike in US history). Organized in large part by members of the Black Panther organization Brown explained how the momentum moved down the coast to Southern California and eventually across the country.
“We were affiliated with the Black Student Alliance here in California which was an alliance of all the Black Student Unions in the state. Our goal was to try to get students to do several things, one to take self control of their own destiny’s on the campuses, if you wanted Black studies programs, ethnic studies programs, to develop them and take control of them…” These comments struck a chord amongst the crowd, many of which were students apart of groups with the current agenda of getting African American Studies departmentalized on UCLA’s campus.
Brown continued to encourage the group, explaining what began programs such as the well known, Free Breakfast for School Children Program started by the Black Panther Party, which garnered national attention.
“...and also not to forget the community, to not have the disconnect between academics and the hood. We wanted everyone here to remember that you are here to serve a purpose and that your academic career should be geared toward what you can do to uplift your own people. That was the goal of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter on this campus and off this campus as they were leaders of the Black Panther Party.”
As the discussion flowed back and forth between the panel and the crowd students asked questions with a genuine desire to learn how they could “resurrect the spirit of student empowerment and self determination.”
One LACC student in the crowd asked a pointed question saying she knew no one her age or younger who would be willing to give their lives for the struggle, “considering all that your generation fought and died for, are you disappointed in this generation?”
With a collective headshake indicating a “no” from the panel, Brown took the question.
“[Let’s not] act like we were so special, let’s not get it twisted. Two years before I joined the Black Panther Party, I was a cocktail waitress at the Pink Pussycat up on Sunset Boulevard…don’t get mystical about what we were. Our conditions changed us, all this stuff was swirling around us…I joined the Black Panther Party, I didn’t create it, right now there’s no party for you to join.” An answer that made the party more relatable, encouraging students that the generation of the ‘60s was not so different from today, reiterating that more breakthroughs are possible.
Senior Chidera Izuchukwu transfer coordinator of for the ASU expressed a concern for the future of the movement, “what would you suggest for the education of the younger students coming in who don’t want to ‘ruffle any feathers.’ I’m noticing this generation after me that is very self-centered, they’re not interested in doing the work to change the atmosphere at UCLA. What’s the point of me doing all this work if the next generation is not willing to continue it? I’m literally scared, will there be an ASU next year? So many are not willing to engage.”
“You can’t afford to be defeated, you’re too young,” Brown related. “We faced the same challenges, this is not unique to you and this generation. But if you build it, they will come,” she encouraged.
“45 years…The Struggle Continues” read the top of the program at Friday evening’s event. At the onset of Martin Luther King weekend, the commemoration was a special opportunity to celebrate the lives of two unsung civil rights leaders and also to fuel the movement forward.
PANTHERS: Bunchy Carter (top) and John Huggins were campus and community leaders at the time of their assassinations on UCLA's campus in 1969 PHOTOS AP