Hilliard, David 1942–
David Hilliard 1942–
David Hilliard was a member of the upper echelon of the Black Panther Party, the radical civil rights organization of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a Black Panther, Hilliard looked beyond racial divisions and sought solidarity among the poor and economically dispossessed. He and the other Panthers loudly and publicly criticized the excesses of the American capitalist system and the brutal tactics of urban police. At the same time, they set up free breakfast programs and demanded community control of ghetto institutions. In its heyday as a movement—when Hilliard was most intimately involved with the party’s business—the Black Panther Party experienced both national media coverage and attempts to subvert its leadership by the FBI. Eventually, through legitimate and illegitimate means, the U.S. government forced Hilliard and other Panther leaders into jail or exile. By 1972 the Panthers had been destroyed as a national movement, and David Hilliard had been sent to prison.
In the mid-1970s, when Hilliard was released from jail after serving time for his participation in an April 6, 1968, shootout with police, he fell into alcoholism and drug abuse. For almost two decades he drifted from city to city bumming off friends from his Panther days. Finally, in the early 1990s he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit abusing drugs, and wrote about his experiences in an autobiography, This Side of Glory. In a review of the book for Black Enterprise magazine, Herb Boyd noted: “There is more to the Panther legacy than just … one-sided battles. They left a record of service.… That selfless sacrifice of lives and the dedicated aims of the Panthers form the core of David Hilliard’s memoir.… Hilliard’s story is a significant piece of the party’s odyssey.”
David Hilliard was born on May 15, 1942, in Rockville, Alabama. When he was ten, he moved with his family to Oakland, California. There he met the already charismatic young Huey Newton, a natural leader and intellectual who would later become his comrade in the Black Panthers. As a teenager, Hilliard sought a type of manhood he thought he could not find at school. At 17 he dropped out to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Patricia. At 19 he was the father of three children, Patrice, Darryl, and Dorion. By
At a Glance…
Born May 15, 1942, in Rockville, AL; son of Lee and Lela Hilliard; married Palricia Milliard, c. 1959; children: Patrice, Darryl. Dorion; jlso Dassine (by Brenda Presley).
Held a variety of odd jobs, 1960-66; Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, 1967-74. positions included captain of national headquarters and chief of staff. Jailed for his role in 1968 shootout, 1971-74. Employed by public improvement associations and unions, c. 1975—89, including Campaign for Economic Democracy, Los Angeles. United Public Employees Union, Local 790, Oakland, representative, 1991—. Author, with Lewis Cole, of This Side of Glory. Little, Brown, 1993.
Addresses: c/o Little, Brown & Co., 34 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
the age of 20, he had come into contact with the Black Muslims and adopted that sect’s rhetoric, if not its clean-living ways. To make ends meet, he worked a variety of menial jobs.
When riots erupted in the black communities of Los Angeles and Cleveland in 1966, Hilliard became radicalized. In the spring of 1967 he agreed to join his childhood friend Huey Newton, who had just helped to found the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers began to drive around Oakland with loaded guns and law books trying to prevent police harassment of black citizens. These Panther patrols were not illegal—California allowed citizens to carry unconcealed loaded guns—but they did lead to tense confrontations, and they brought a media spotlight to the group.
Hilliard worked for the party at night and on the docks during the day. He attended political education sessions and worked hard to understand revolutionary books like Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. He came into contact with Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and other leading Panthers. But though he worked almost full time for the party and had been named captain of its national headquarters, Hilliard recalled in his autobiography that he did not feel like a true insider until October 28, 1967. That day, Newton was injured and an Oakland policeman was killed in a violent confrontation. When Newton was charged with murder, the remaining Panther leadership assigned Hilliard the work of getting Newton out of jail.
With this assignment, Hilliard finally sensed that his life had a purpose. “The problems of my life—my restlessness, my sense of purposelessness—are resolved,” he wrote in This Side of Glory. “I’m dedicated to a serious, deadly serious goal. I think of my daily responsibilities, and one by one they drift away; they’re unimportant now in the face of this new greater duty.… Even the [material] things that once seemed so crucial to me… become trivial, burdens rather than satisfactions.”
Working under Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale, Hilliard devoted himself to freeing Newton. He helped make “Free Huey” a national slogan, and his campaign for Newton’s release dramatically increased the Panthers’ visibility. In fact, the “Free Huey” campaign became an incredible boon for the party. New recruits and donations poured in, chapters formed in other cities, and Cleaver and Seale forged alliances with Bay Area radicals and with the national Communist Party.
As the Black Panther Party grew, so did Hilliard’s responsibilities. He worked on the party’s newspaper, The Black Panther. He struggled to grasp revolutionary philosophy. He dealt with members who got dangerously out of hand and he spoke to the media and at protests.
The threat of violence had always been inherent in the Panthers’ strategy, but that violence was always planned to be reactive. As Hilliard wrote in This Side of Glory, “The nature of the panther is that he never attacks.” The group felt pressured to attack, however, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Ghettos all over the country went up in flames as their residents vented frustration over the assassination. Hilliard believed that people of color would come out losers in the riots and counseled against violence in Oakland. “I’m not against fighting,” he wrote in This Side of Glory. “That’s not me. I’ve always liked to fight.… And I believe that we do need to defend ourselves against the police.… But I’m also sure [that] … given the state of our training and discipline this is an inappropriate action, and it’s going to get us killed.”
Newton, who was still in jail, agreed with Hilliard, but Cleaver and a cadre of his supporters prevailed, and the party planned organized attacks on the police. On April 6, 1968, the party and the Oakland police engaged in a shootout. A 17-year-old Panther, Bobby Hutton, was killed. Eldridge Cleaver was shot twice, and Hilliard-who had fled the shooting and hid out beneath the bed of a local resident—was arrested and later charged with assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to kill.
The shootout, as well as arrests resulting from riots at that summer’s Democratic presidential convention, decimated the party’s top leadership. Cleaver hid out and later fled the country, Seale was charged with conspiracy following the riots, and Newton remained in jail. As the only one free among the Panthers’ top leaders, Hilliard, who was out on bail, was named chief of staff by Newton. Temporarily, at least, he became the effective head of the party. “I read the weekly reports submitted by the thirty operating chapters,” he wrote in This Side of Glory, “consult[ed] with their leadership—visiting them if necessary— supervise[d] the free breakfast programs and coordinate[d] donations from local merchants, answer[ed] correspondence and maintain[ed] press contacts, advise[d] about personal problems, and overs[aw] newspaper production.”
Hilliard also had to deal with a government that was doing its best to cripple the Panthers. California governor Ronald Reagan, Oakland mayor Joseph Alioto, and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had all denounced the Panthers publicly. The police were harassing them, and the government’s secret domestic intelligence arm, COINTELPRO, was working to promote violent confrontation between Black Panther Party members and members of other groups, according to a mid-1980s report by a U.S. Senate Select Committee. Still, with racial tensions running high, Panther groups blossomed all over the country, especially in Chicago, where they were led by Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton. In Oakland, the Panthers attracted a second level of leadership that put out the paper and, in 1969, launched a program of free breakfasts and free clinics.
Unfortunately, this flowering happened in the midst of increasing isolation. The white “movement” abandoned the Panthers in favor of pacifism, free love, and an end to the Vietnam War. Leading Panthers from around the country continued to be killed or arrested. In 1969 the party purged itself of misfits or “jackanapes” as they were called. Hilliard himself left his wife and took up with a younger party member, Brenda Presley, who bore him a daughter.
On November 15, 1969, at a massive anti-war rally at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Hilliard expressed his anger with the government and with college radicals who, he felt, had abandoned the black cause. “The only way we’re going to get peace in Vietnam,” he exclaimed to the crowd, “is to withdraw the oppressive forces from the black community.” As the emotion of the moment carried him away he told a quarter of a million people “We will kill Richard Nixon.” Two weeks later he was arrested for threatening the life of the president.
Those charges were soon dropped, but by this time the government had effectively put the Panthers on the run. “Wherever we open an office, the police gather right behind us, busting us, making sure the Party expends all its energy, resources and finances on staying out of jail,” Hilliard wrote in This Side of Glory. “The police dominate[d] what we d[id], how we were seen. We wanted to create a party that would let us—and the black community—determine our own destinies. But … because of the Party, the state— FBI, police, Red squads— … decid[ed] our fate.”
The situation did not get any better when Newton was released from jail on August 5, 1970. Newton criticized Hilliard for leading the party down Cleaver’s path and not Newton’s own. Cleaver, speaking from Algiers, claimed that Hilliard was the single man responsible for causing the party to “fall apart at the seams,” according to Michael Newton in Bitter Grain: Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. The destructive conflict was exacerbated by the FBI, which was sending Newton letters suggesting that Hilliard wanted to marginalize him. In this atmosphere, Hilliard felt rejected and offered to quit the party. Had he left, however, Hilliard would have faced impossible court costs and would have been left with no way to support his two families.
Early in 1971 Hilliard was brought to trial for his part in the April 6, 1968, shootout. Although the prosecution could not link him with a weapon, he was still found guilty on the charges brought against him. Hilliard was sentenced to six months to ten years. In prison he struggled to survive. Despite a positive psychological evaluation, officials at California’s Soledad Prison initially grouped him with psychopaths and mass murderers. From Soledad he was transferred to Fulsom Prison and then to the hospital unit at Vacaville Prison, where he was treated for what was becoming an increasingly difficult ulcer.
Prison, despite its hardships, did not break Hilliard’s radical spirit. At Vacaville he forged alliances with prison activists and worked to educate them and move his fellow prisoners away from the disastrous squabbling. Hilliard’s efforts at “delivering warriors,” as he called his work in prison, proved successful, but he was troubled by his need to explain Newton’s increasingly erratic behavior on the outside. Newton, who was abusing cocaine at the time, was purging the Panthers of old members—including Hilliard.
When Hilliard was released from prison in 1974, he found it difficult to readjust to public life. Promised jobs vanished, and the financial pressures of supporting two families mounted. He had always indulged in alcohol, but now, without the support of the Panthers, he began to abuse both alcohol and cocaine.
In an effort to get his life together, he returned to Alabama and moved in with his brother, who was living in Mobile. There he got a good job and reveled in his celebrity status. But Hilliard was too used to the rarefied air of the Panthers to live an average, normal life. He continued to drink and to snort cocaine. Eventually, when he was accused of a petty theft, he quit his job and returned to California.
There, Tom Haydon—a former fellow radical-gave him a job as a liaison for the Campaign for Economic Democracy in Los Angeles. But despite the good will of friends such as Haydon, Hilliard continued to use cocaine and began to indulge in crack. He then moved back to Oakland, where he essentially became an addict. “My desire [for crack] is insatiable,” he wrote in This Side of Glory. “Nothing can compare to this sensation, not any other drug, not sex.”
Through the remaining years of the 1970s and 1980s, Hilliard shuttled between Los Angeles, Oakland, and Connecticut, where his mother was in a nursing home and Hilliard sometimes had a job as a union organizer. He enrolled in treatment programs but would inevitably relapse. Finally, after a violent family argument, he gave himself over to Alcoholics Anonymous and its twelve-step recovery program. He reports in his autobiography that he has not used alcohol or drugs since 1990.
Since joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Hilliard has worked to rebuild his life. He reestablished family contacts, got a job as a representative of United Public Employees Union, Local 790, in Oakland, and in 1993 co-authored his memoir, This Side of Glory.
Heath, G. Louis, editor, Off the Pigs: The History and Literature of the Black Panther Party, Scarecrow Press, 1976.
Hilliard, David, and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party, Little, Brown, 1993, pp. 116, 134, 185, 220, 264-65, 284, 407.
Newton, Michael, Bitter Grain: Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, Holloway House, 1980, p. 206.
Black Enterprise, August 1993, p. 16.
Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1993, section 5, p. 5.
Emerge, February 1993, p. 40.
New York Times, January 31, 1993, section 7, p. 6.
Washington Post Book World, March 28, 1993.
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