The PCUSA’s Presbyterian Mission Agency has recently chosen to proclaim their pride in one of the most shameful acts of political action conducted by a Presbyterian denomination. I’m here (and in the next post) excerpting the section of my book, A Denomination’s Debacle, that discusses this appalling episode.
Supporting the Black Panthers and Angela Davis (Part 1)
The Presbyterian Church has been a hotbed of radical Progressive political action from well before the PCUSA was created in 1983. Perhaps the most notorious example is the decision by the United Presbyterian Church (UPUSA) to financially and morally support the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. A brief summary of this pre-PCUSA scandal follows (emphasis added).
In 1970 and 1971 the UPUSA gave $25,000 to defend the Black Panthers and $10,000 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund. These and other similar gifts brought a storm of protest from thousands of church members but the 1971 UPUSA General Assembly defended the gifts and refused to criticize the agency which made them.
In 2011 the PCUSA, in a Presbyterian Peacemaking Program liturgy, gave thanks to God for the Black Panthers, mentioning two of their most notorious members by name.
For Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and the youth and young adults of the Black Panther Party, who emphasized the need for self-defense, and instituted community programs to address poverty and to provide health care in communities of need;
The UPUSA support resurfaced in a 2019 PCUSA document (by The Presbyterian Mission Agency) titled Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community Antiracism Study Guides. In this document the PCUSA brags about this event, claiming it as an inspirational example of Christian political activism (emphasis added).
The strength of this commitment to diversity and fairness was soon tested. In 1970 the Council on Church and Race approved a $10,000 grant to the Angela Davis Defense Fund. Angela Davis, Ph.D. was a black faculty member at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She was also a political activist, leader of the Communist Party USA, and affiliated with the Black Panther Party, a highly controversial black activist group in the 1960s and 70s. Dr. Davis was arrested for conspiracy relating to the armed takeover of a California county courtroom by the Black Panther Party that resulted in four deaths. The Angela Davis case was a vortex of social dissent for the denomination. Many saw Angela Davis as the antithesis of traditional American values and they were enraged that the church would be sympathetic to her and supportive of her defense. They petitioned the General Assembly to reverse the Council’s decision.
In its response the Council stated, “The General Assembly, by establishment of a Council on Church and Race, has challenged Presbyterians to a more radical posture in the struggle for social justice and world peace than many American citizens care to assume. The call to Presbyterians to support those who conscientiously practice civil disobedience under extreme injustice, the call to bear witness for peace in international relations, ‘and, in its own life, to practice the forgiveness of enemies,’ (Book of Confessions, 9.45) all break with the conventional righteousness and mark our Church as a voice crying in the wilderness of moral complacency and chauvinism, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’” (Minutes, 24 May 1972, p. 994).
Note that while the Presbyterian Mission Agency highlights their support of Angela Davis, they fail to mention their larger financial support of the Black Panthers. The reason behind this omission will become clear from the following discussion of the Black Panther’s history, particularly as related to the timeframe in which the UPUSA provided their moral and financial support.