Scholar Traci Parker speaks on marriage in the Black Panther Party

Traci Parker standing and Matt Randolph seated near a presentation screen

Traci Parker, an Associate Professor in the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an External Faculty Fellow at Stanford University, recently joined the Center for Human Rights and International Justice and African & African American Studies for a talk entitled “Revolutionary Love, Revolutionary Weddings: Marriage in the Black Panther Party.” Moderated by Stanford PhD student Matthew Randolph, Parker's talk drew on research sourced from memoirs and oral history interviews, conducted for her upcoming book Beyond Loving: Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Black Freedom Movement.

Parker opened her talk with a discussion of Charles Bursey and Shelley Sanders, who were married on May 1, 1969 in the first of its kind Black Panther Revolutionary Wedding. Rather than the traditional wedding attire, they dressed in black leather jackets, black pants, and powder blue shirts – the Panther uniform. They entered a common law marriage, with Panther Chairman Bobby Seale presiding over the ceremony. This type of marriage allowed them to remain free from control of the state and the violent reach of whites, which was often “one and the same” at the time. Seale read excerpts from Mao’s “Little Red Book,” which provided the Panthers with a language and potential course of action to overthrow a system that oppressed marginalized peoples.

The Panthers revered the love between members of the Party. In a society where Black marriage and love was constantly assailed and belittled, they viewed it as a tool of revolution and a way to reclaim the power of the family. These marriages were often structured around the needs of the Party itself, with many couples engaged in long-distance relationships in order to maintain membership in different chapters of the Party. However, Parker also noted that Black Panther romance often reflected the Party’s decidedly masculinist position, and women were often pressed to concentrate on being mothers and caretakers of black male children. Multi-partner and group marriages were common, grounded in the principles of free love and non-possessiveness but “free love was only acceptable when the men were doing the loving.” This often meant that relationships imploded, inevitably weakening Party solidarity and reinforcing Black patriarchy.

As women came to make up a greater percentage of the Party membership, they began to contest the Panther’s sexist practices and advocate for more egalitarian marriages. By the mid-1970s, the Panthers were becoming much more pro-feminist, reshaping how the men in the Party conceptualized revolutionary love. While many Panther relationships did not stand the test of time, they were ultimately a celebration of life “in the face of persistent violence and death.” Members of the Party, particularly the men, were constantly facing the threat of arrest, imprisonment, exile, and assassination. These relationships were aspirational, exceptional, and extraordinary. They were a reclamation of Black love and the realization of Black liberation.