National Beat Reporter
“Good evening. You all look so beautiful … your smiles are so big.” Ericka Huggins, a human rights activist and former Black Panther party leader, addressed a packed Campbell Hall last Thursday, Feb. 21. Her lecture came as part of the Black Student Union’s Heart & Soul Case Series, a two-day event meant to celebrate Black art forms, expression, and entrepreneurship during Black History Month, which takes place in February.
Huggins spoke on three topics over the course of the evening: identity, activism, and change, showcasing a perspective built on a diverse set of experiences.
Now 71 years old, Huggins has lived a life defined by diversity in a variety of ways, from ethnic diversity to diversity of thought. In 1968 she joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party, a militant civil rights organization that sought to elevate the economic and political status of African Americans throughout the 1960s.
One of Huggins’s most notable contributions as a member of the Black Panthers was an eight-year stint as the Director of the Oakland Community School, an elementary school in Oakland, California that the Party founded to provide children an alternative to the curriculum employed by the local school district. Huggins served as the school’s director from 1973-1981, according to her website.
In 1969 Huggins was placed on trial along with Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale for charges related to the torture and death of Party member Alex Rackley. Over the course of the two-year trial, Huggins spent time in solitary confinement, where she began to practice meditation.
Following her acquittal in 1971, Huggins never lost her newfound spirituality. On her website, she writes, “From that time [in prison] I’ve incorporated spiritual practice into my community work, as a speaker and facilitator, teaching as a tool for change — not only for myself, but for all people, no matter their age, race, gender, sexuality or culture.”
Throughout the evening, Huggins rarely hesitated to incorporate memories from her past into her message. She didn’t shy away from her time in prison and provided an anecdote from her incarceration while addressing what she perceived to be the difference between social change and transformation.
Social change is the historical struggle for civil rights, dependent on the rule of law to achieve equality, according to Huggins. To illustrate the concept of transformation, Huggins told the story of a police officer whom she befriended during her time in prison, recounting how he would make small talk and help her into the squad car safely as she was shuttled between her cell and court.
“He treated me like a human being,” she told the audience. To Huggins, the distinction between social change and transformation is a human element. “If we honored everyone’s human rights, then we would not be living in the world we are living in,” she told the crowd.
Today’s world was another recurring topic throughout the evening. The Black Panthers are now long gone — in 1982, the Oakland School closed amid controversy surrounding Party leader Huey Newton — even Huggins acknowledged this, at one point saying the Party existed “only in spirit.” However, she still had a lot to say about America’s current political climate and the state of race relations in the country.
“Think of yourself as a speck of pepper in a sea of rice,” she told the audience, calling for those in attendance to be “awake and aware” of cultural inequities based on race and gender — constructs which, as she was sure to remind the crowd, are “all made up.”
For Huggins, recognizing America’s racial history is also a two-way street. “No man or woman is responsible [for racial injustice] — it was here before we got here,” she said.
When discussing the topic of activism, Huggins dismissed the perception that it was limited to holding a picket sign and protesting. “Activism is what you do to achieve the change you want to see,” she said, bringing to mind her years of service as an educator in the Oakland School.
Over the course of the three hour event, Huggins touched on a broad range of issues, accentuated with her own personal experiences. Through it all, her message was clear: change is good, but real transformation requires diversity in thought.