A History of the Black Panthers

The Black Panthers came to rise in the mid sixties during the civil rights movement. The Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, CA in 1966. Both Newton and Seale grew up with inequality and prejudice. Newton lived in the ghettos of Oakland and saw first hand the police brutality against blacks. Seale quit high school after being cut from both the basketball and football teams due to discrimination. The experiences of their youth left them searching for justice. They found what they were looking for in Malcolm X who called for blacks to defend themselves against their white oppressors. Malcolm X was a role model, showing dignity and self-respect, and having a strong will to better the black community. Newton and Seale were also influenced by the Black Power Movement that stressed dignity and self-reliance. Newton and Seale adopted many of the principles of Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement when forming the Black Panthers.

The Panthers were a self-defense oriented group, they preached that blacks had the right to use violence to defend themselves and proclaimed themselves the protectors of blacks against police brutality. Unlike the rest of the civil rights movement the Panthers were not followers of non-violent protest. The Panthers were a very militant organization whose members frequently carried guns. Panthers would patrol black ghettos with guns and law books to protect the neighborhood from police. Violence erupted between police and the Panthers on several occasions in California, New York, and Chicago. The radical nature of the Panthers made them very attractive to young blacks who were angered by the system and wanted to assert their right to equality more aggressively than the non-violent protests lead by Martin Luther King Jr.

In addition to self-defense the party sought to restructure American society to make it more economically, politically, and socially equal. To spread their ideas a Black Panther newspaper was put out. The Panthers ran food programs for needy people in the black community and promoted black control of local business’s to keep the money in the community. The Ten Point Plan was created to outline their goals, the plan combined socialism and black nationalism to outline a list of changes they wanted to see. First on the list was the desire for black freedom, We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities (blackpanther.org [BP]).

The socialist elements are clear in the Panthers desire to own their communities business’s and their call for full employment. The group even sold Mao’s Red Book to university students and made it required reading for members. If the government could not provide full employment the Panthers argued they should take over the means of production.
The Panthers wanted all of the basic needs of the community meet including, “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace’. The plan stresses black unity regardless of class, and calls for education, decent housing, an end to police brutality, and exemption from military service. The plan also includes some more radical demands. One demand is for monetary restitution to all blacks for “the slave labor and mass murder of Black people” (BP). The plan also calls for the release of all imprisoned blacks because “they have not received a fair and impartial trial”.

One of the points of the plan stands out because of its connections to our current administration. It asks, … to end all wars of aggression. We believe that the various conflicts which exist around the world stem directly from the aggressive desire of the United States ruling circle and government to force its domination upon the oppressed people of the world. We believe that if the United States government or its lackeys do not cease these aggressive wars it is the right of the people to defend themselves by any means necessary against their aggressors (BP).

This is exactly what the current situation in Iraq stemmed from. The Iraqis believe they have the right to defend themselves against their oppressors, just as the Black Panthers believe.

The Panthers first came to national attention in 1967 when they protested a California state gun control bill. The bill outlawed carrying loaded weapons in public which went against the Panthers right to bear arms against their white oppressors. The Panthers protested the bill by marching on the California state capital carrying weapons and dressed in the Panthers typical attire, black leather jackets and black berets. Police soon came in and arrested over 30 people including Bobby Seale. This incident made national news which attracted new recruits and expanded the Black Panthers beyond California.

Another event in 1967 lead to a lot of media coverage for the Black Panthers. Co-founder Huey Newton was arrested in October for killing an Oakland cop in a shoot-out. Newton’s jailing led to the ‘Free Huey’ movement, led by Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Rallies were held to ‘Free Huey’ and national attention was again on the Panthers. This increased attention heightened the groups image and allowed it to spread its roots. Thanks to the ‘Free Huey’ movement Newton escaped the death penalty but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison. One of the additions made because of the ‘Free Huey’ movement was Stokely Carmichael, the former chairman of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), another black power group. Carmichael became the prime minister of the group in 1968. The alliance between the SNCC and the Panthers feel apart because of power struggles and Carmichael’s belief that whites should not be allowed into the black liberation movement. Carmichael felt that whites could not sympathize with the black experience and that they are an intimidating presence to blacks.

Whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing, and say that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism….. If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people….. [otherwise] we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country.

His idea that the black community should separate itself from the white was too radical and did not sit well amongst the Panthers.

The Panthers popularity in the black community and their willingness to use violence attracted FBI attention. J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the number one threat to the internal security of the nation” and ordered, “hard-hitting counterintelligence measures to cripple the Black Panthers” in November 1968. This came in the form of COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) that was designed to disrupt black militant groups such as the Panthers and Carmichael’s former group the SNCC. FBI agents sent anonymous threats to members and conducted police raids on party offices. FBI agents were also sent undercover into the organizations. In 1969 two Chicago leaders were killed in one such police raid. Twenty-eight Panthers in all were killed by police and many more had fleed the country or put in jail.

Huey Newton’s conviction was overturned in 1970 and he took charge of the party again. This time he tried to avoid police confrontations and focus on working in the communities. He built medical clinics, housing for the homeless, and developed programs that provided free breakfasts for children. However, Newton was not succesful in reviving the party and it continued to decline. In 1974 Huey Newton fled to Cuba to avoid being charged for murdering a 17 year old prostitute. Not long after Seale resigned from the Panthers, leaving Elaine Brown as the new head of the party. Brown continued the community service programs, but the Black Panthers had lost a lot of their former members and they were no longer a strong political force.

www.blackpanthers.org [Accessed: April 24, 2004]
“Black Panther Party,” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 2, p. 257. 1997
Lincoln, Eric, “Black Panther,” Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 4, p. 36, 1991

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