Native Affairs Summer Series - Kiwi kids' lesson in US civil rights

By Wepiha Te Kanawa

A South Auckland high school had a history lesson they won't forget and Native Affairs were there to capture it. Melvin Lewis was a member of the historical Black Panthers and talked to Alfriston College students about racism in America.

“A Black Panther is a person who is interested in trying to change the world and make it better,” Lewis told the class.

A chance meeting overseas between the history teacher Royden Agent and Lewis, turned into an invitation to visit Aotearoa and Alfriston College. Lewis has kept the legacy of the Black Panthers civil rights revolution alive for nearly fifty years.

"II's the young people. It's organic. It came out of itself. It came out of people saying that they had had enough.”

The Black Panther Party started in 1966 and ended in 1982. It was initially set up to combat white oppression particularly police brutality in black neighbourhoods.  They were accused of being militants and criminals but were highly influential during the civil rights movement in the late 60's and 70's.

Lewis says the Black Panthers tried to empower black Americans suffering from state-sanctioned racism and segregation.

“All around the United States you'll find people of colour being abused by corrupt people, corrupt police, and the videos are showing that things are being escalated, that police are supposed to serve and protect, not to beat up people, to shoot people.”

He is always encouraging young, influential Black Americans to continue the Panthers legacy to empower their community.

“Beyoncé was at the super bowl, where she represented Malcolm X and the militancy of the Panther movement. We think that Malcolm X is an important historical person in our history, where he talks about the world and all coming together.”

New Zealand's Polynesian Panthers modelled their own movement on the Black Panthers, setting up in 1971 to support Auckland's growing Pacific migrant community against racism.

“They have a movement to revive Maori. In the United States, Indigenous communities and Indian communities are trying to maintain their mother language, and that's a good thing.”