Elbert “Big Man” Howard was an unfamiliar name, at least to me, until I learned of him in his obituary in the New York Times. Howard, who just died at age 80, was a founder of the Black Panther Party, a driving force behind its community programs, like free health clinics and prisoner re-entry efforts.
Illustrating the New York Times obit was an intriguing photo. It captured Howard in 1970, with his perfectly shaped ‘fro, holding a microphone as he speaks to a crowd in some unidentified location. Meanwhile, standing a small distance from Howard, was a young white man wearing, of all things, a necklace featuring a large swastika pendant.
What on Earth was that about? Was this a part of the Panthers' history previously unknown to me; a dalliance with George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazis? Which, of course, would make absolutely no sense, considering the Panthers were death to white supremacy. The photo caption offered no answer. Neither did the obit. But once again Google came to the rescue.
According to a 1967 article from The Atlantic magazine, the stomach-wrenching symbol of Germany’s justly despised Nazi Party of the early 20th Century was apparently adopted by some young Americans in the 1960s counterculture both for its shock value and to signal that generation’s rejection of their parents' values forged in the furnace of World War II.
From the article titled “The Flowering of the Hippies” in the September 1967 issue by a writer named Mark Harris:
“The ennobling idea of the hippies, forgotten or lost in the visual scene, diverted by chemistry, was their plan for community. For community had come. What kind of community, upon what model? Hippies wore brilliant Mexican chalecos, Oriental robes, and red-Indian headdress. They dressed as cowboys. They dressed as frontiersmen. They dressed as Puritans. Doubtful who they were, trying on new clothes, how could they know where they were going until they saw what fit? They wore military insignia. Among bracelets and bells they wore Nazi swastikas and the German Iron Cross, knowing, without knowing much more, that the swastika offended the Establishment, and no enemy of the Establishment could be all bad. They had been born, give or take a year or two, in the year of Hiroshima.”
It certainly makes more sense that hippie culture would find common cause with the Panthers than American Nazis ever would. Or than motorcycle gangs would (they apparently also were known to use the swastika to symbolize their bad-ass, outsider status.)
So Swastika Man was more than likely a friend, not foe, of the black power movement represented by the Panthers and “Big Man” Howard. The fog of cognitive dissonance caused by the photo has lifted.