OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA. — Oakland, California -- Last month former members of the Black Panther Party met to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the party's founding. Though posters were placed throughout black neighborhoods in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, only about 50 people attended.
The next day, on the grounds of what used to be the Oakland Community School, built and run by the Black Panthers, 3,000 people turned out for the worship services of Acts Full Gospel Church. Acts was started in 1984 by an Oakland evangelist, Bob Jackson. In seven years, it has grown from 13 members to a little over 3,000.
A large banner in front of the church's sanctuary declares: ''We are taking the city of Oakland for Jesus Christ.'' The congregation at Acts is composed largely of former drug addicts and drug dealers.
Every Sunday, the Rev. Bob Jackson preaches an old-fashioned black gospel: ''Some of your mamas say to you, 'Every time I see you you're going to church.' Well, when she says that you just ask her, 'Where were you, mama, when I was going to the crack house?' '' A blizzard of amens follows, along with claps, stomping feet, tambourines. A few congregants dance in the aisles.
Communities like East Oakland were primary Panther recruiting grounds in the late '60s and early '70s. East Oakland's problems then were primarily economic, not drug-related. The Panthers ran free schools, free breakfast programs, a dispensary for free clothes. It was all part of the party's socialist vision.
Landon Williams, a former Panther Central Committee member who currently works for Berkeley's Office of Economic Development, was the keynote speaker at this year's anniversary. He remembered how he was recruited by the party. ''It was in 1967. I had just gotten out of the Air Force and was a student at San Francisco State. I was looking for something in the community to join. Emory Douglass came to campus to recruit right after Huey Newton was arrested in the shooting of Oakland police officer John Frey.''
Those were the years when political activism was rampant on campuses across the nation. But the Black Panthers were destroyed by the FBI's COINTELPRO sabotage operations, and by fratricide within the organization. Saboteurs introduced key Panther leaders to drugs. Eventually drug abuse spread into ghetto communities at large, culminating in a ravaging crack epidemic.
The next day, standing in the Acts sanctuary, Dingane Newson, a Berkeley student, prayed. When asked by a reporter why he turns to religion instead of political activism, Mr. Newson responded, ''Back in the '60s black people tried the secular world and got disappointed. They were trying to come up with man's solutions to the problems of the world instead of God's. People are going back to the spiritual realm in these last days.''
On the Berkeley campus, he noted, black students are largely divided between those who follow the teachings of the black Muslims, and those who have returned to the traditional black Christian church. Both groups are trying to fill a void in their lives which once might have been filled by activist organizations like the Panthers.
''There has never been anything like the Panther party of old to go in and provide a complete program for the black community, one that could replace the black church,'' points out former Kiilu Nyasha, a Black Panther party member. During the height of Panther activism, Ms. Nyasha was legal secretary to the activist lawyer Charles Garry, who represented both Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in their criminal trials. She was disappointed by the turnout for the anniversary this year, but believes that the registration fees of $20 to $45 kept most people away.
Ms. Nyasha also points out that the black community today is far different than it was in the Sixties. ''There are the poverty pockets . . . and a separate black middle class. Organizing is more difficult, though it might be possible to do so around such issues as drug abuse.''
Yet churches like Acts Full Gospel appear to be accomplishing such organizing. Mildred Hornbeck, a small business owner, is a new Acts member. Her son was addicted to cocaine, but Acts got him off drugs free of charge, placing him in a residential treatment program run by an associate minister and former Oakland drug lord, Roosevelt Taylor. ''They brainwashed him in a sense,'' she says. ''He was drowned in religion and it worked.''
Ms. Hornbeck feels that the religion taught by churches such as Acts holds more promise than anything else for combating drug abuse in areas like East Oakland. ''Acts can do a much better job because of its theatrical atmosphere during services. It plays on the emotions of the addicted in a way the secular world cannot reach.''
For the Panthers, social activism was a path to political power -- the ultimate way out of the ghetto. But drugs in the end held a more potent appeal not just for those communities the Panthers hoped to lead, but for their own top leader, Huey Newton. Today, the very addicts society has given up on are discovering social solidarity through religion -- and attracting a new generation of searchers to them.
Hugh Pearson is a writer for Pacific News Service.