WHAT WAS THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY?
The Black Panther Party was a progressive political organization that stood in the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America since the Revolution of 1776 and the Civil War: that dynamic episode generally referred to as The Sixties. It is the sole black organization in the entire history of black struggle against slavery and oppression in the United States that was armed and promoted a revolutionary agenda, and it represents the last great thrust by the mass of black people for equality, justice and freedom.
The Party's ideals and activities were so radical, it was at one time assailed by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." And, despite the demise of the Party, its history and lessons remain so challenging and controversial that established texts and media would erase all reference to the Party from American history.
The Black Panther Party was the manifestation of the vision of Huey P. Newton, the seventh son of a Louisiana family transplanted to Oakland, California. In October of 1966, in the wake of the assassination of black leader Malcolm X and on the heels of the massive black, urban uprising in Watts, California and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Newton gathered a few of his longtime friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and developed a skeletal outline for this organization. It was named, originally, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The black panther was used as the symbol because it was a powerful image, one that had been used effectively by the shortlived voting rights group the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization. The term "self defense" was employed to distinguish the Party's philosophy from the dominant nonviolent theme of the civil rights movement, and in homage to the civil rights group the Louisiana based Deacons for Defense. These two, symbolic references were, however, where all similarity between the Black Panther Party and other black organizations of the time, the civil rights groups and black power groups, ended.
Immediately, the leadership of the embryonic Party outlined a Ten Point Platform and Program (see the end of this article for full text). This Platform & Program articulated the fundamental wants and needs, and called for a redress of the longstanding grievances, of the black masses in America, still alienated from society and oppressed despite the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War. Moreover, this Platform & Program was a manifesto that demanded the express needs be met and oppression of blacks be ended immediately, a demand for the right to self defense, by a revolutionary ideology and by the commitment of the membership of the Black Panther Party to promote its agenda for fundamental change in America.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE FOUNDING OF THE PARTY
There was no question that the end of the several centuries of the institution of slavery of blacks had not resulted in the assimilation of blacks into American society. Indeed, there was a violent, postemancipation white backlash, manifested in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed by the benign neglect of the President and the Congress, codified in the so called Black Codes. The rampant Iynching of blacks became a way of life in America, along with the de facto denial to blacks of every civil right, including the rights to vote, to worship, to use public facilities.
From that time forward, then, blacks were obliged to wage fierce survival struggles in America, creating at once the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to promote integration of blacks into society as full, firstclass citizens and the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) of Marcus Garvey to promote independence of blacks and eventually a return to Africa. At the same time, there were the effective efforts of former slave Booker T. Washington to establish a separate socioeconomic scheme for blacks. America's response to all such efforts was violent and repressive and unyielding. Thus, despite the mass uprisings by blacks in resistance to the unrelenting violence and the law's delay, despite tacit urgings by blacks to be afforded some means to survive, despite the bold endeavors by blacks to live separate lives in America or leave America, for the next half century, blacks, in the main, found themselves denied of every possible avenue to either establish their own socioeconomic independence or participate fully in the larger society.
Not until nearly 60 years after Plessy was there even the most minimal relief, in the Supreme Court's holding in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown, the Supreme Court stated that "separate" was "not equal" for blacks in America (at least with respect to public education). It is noteworthy that Dr. Kenneth Clark (the black psychologist on whose study the Brown court based its findings as to the negative impact on black children of the separate but equal doctrine) noted in 1994 that American schools were more segregated at that time than in 1954, when Brown was decided.
Even after Brown, blacks struggled to integrate and become full partisans in American society, to no avail. From the famous 1955, Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott to the subsequent voter rights efforts to the dangerous sit ins in all white public facilities led by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers, the civil rights movement challenged America. Under the spiritual guidance and the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. millions, blacks and whites, protested and marched for freedom and justice for America's black minority, as so many were murdered or maimed for life along the way. Finally, in 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a civil rights act that outlawed racial segregation in public facilities.
It was too little too late. As the images of nonviolent blacks and other civil rights workers and demonstrators being beaten and water hosed by police, spat on and jailed, merely for protesting social injustices shot across America's television screens (a new and compelling phenomenon in American life and popular culture), young urban blacks rejected nonviolence. The full expression of this was the violent protest to the brutal police beating of a black man in Watts (Los Angeles), California in the 1965 rebellion that shocked America and set off other such responses to oppression. By 1967, there had been more than 100 major black, urban rebellions in cities across the country. In the same time frame of the same year, 1965, the Vietnam war erupted. As television reports revealed the horrible realities of the war, good American soldiers killing Vietnamese children, America's white youth called the question, and rallied against the war. America's youth, black and white, had become openly hostile to the established order.
It was against this backdrop that Huey P. Newton was organizing the Black Panther Party for self-defense, boldly calling for a complete end to all forms of oppression of blacks and offering revolution as an option. At the same time, the Black Panther Party took the position that black people in America and the Vietnamese people were waging a common struggle, as comrades-in-arms, against a common enemy: the U.S. government. What was most "dangerous" about this was that young blacks, the same urban youth throwing molotov cocktails on America, were listening.
This message was amplified when a small group of Black Panther Party members, led by Bobby Seale, designated chairman of the Party, marched into the California legislature, in May 1967, fully armed. Defined as protest against a pending guncontrol bill (which became the Mulford Act) aimed at the Party with the position that blacks had a Constitutional right to bear arms, the Party's message that day became a clarion call to young blacks.
When, therefore, in October of 1967, Huey Newton was shot, arrested and charged with the murder of a white Oakland cop, after a gun battle of sorts on the streets of West Oakland that resulted in the death of police officer John Frey, it was indeed the spark that lit a prairie fire. Young whites, angry and disillusioned with America over the Vietnam war, raised their voices with young, urban blacks, to cry in unison: "Free Huey!"
It became a movement of itself, the very embodiment of all the social contradictions, between the haves and have nots, the included and excluded, the alienated and the privileged. The freeing of the black man charged with killing a white cop, the oppressed who resisted oppression, was tantamount to the freedom of everyone.
One result was not only the flowering of the Party itself but a rapid proliferation of other, like minded organizations. Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in Southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland based organization to a national organization, as black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.
At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs, and were operated by Party members under the slogan "survival pending revolution."
The first such program was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which spread from being operated at one small Catholic church, in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, to every major city in America where there was a Party chapter. Thousands upon thousands of poor and hungry children were fed free breakfasts every day by the Party under this program. The magnitude and powerful impact of this program was such that the federal government was pressed and shamed into adopting a similar program for public schools across the country, while the FBI assailed the free breakfast program as nothing more than a propaganda tool used by the Party to carry out its "communist" agenda. More insidiously, the FBI denounced the Party itself as a group of communist outlaws bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
Armed with that definition and all the machinery of the federal government, J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to wage a campaign to eliminate the Black Panther Party altogether, commanding the assistance of local police departments to do so. Indeed, as Hoover stated in 1968 that the Party represented "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.," he pledged that 1969 would be the last year of the Party's existence. Indeed, in January of 1969, two Party leaders of the Southern California Chapter, John Huggins and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, were murdered at UCLA by FBI paid assassins, with the cooperation of black nationalist Ron Karenga and his US Organization. By the end of that year, nearly every office and other facility of the Black Panther Party had been violently assaulted by police and/or the FBI, culminating, in December, in an FBI orchestrated five hour police assault on the office in Los Angeles and FBI directed Illinois state police assassination of Chicago Party leader Fred Hampton and member Mark Clark.
In the interim, there had been the Oakland police murder of 17 year old Party member Bobby Hutton, in April of 1968; the August 1968 Los Angeles police murder of another 17 year old Panther, Tommy Lewis, along with Robert Lawrence and Steve Bartholomew; numerous arrests, from that of Party chairman Bobby Seale on conspiracy charges in connection with anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago to that of chief of staff David Hilliard on charges of assaulting police officers (in the April 1968 police gun battle in which Bobby Hutton was killed) to a conspiracy to kill the President (Nixon) charge arising from an anti-war speech, to the famous New Haven murder conspiracy case of Bobby Seale and veteran Panther Ericka Huggins. There had been every kind of assault imaginable on the Party's social programs and destruction of Party property. From police raiders who smashed breakfast programs eggs on the floors of churches they invaded to those who crushed Party free clinic supplies underfoot to those who caused the destruction of batches of the Party's newspapers. In addition, intimidation and other such tactics were being employed to undermine the Party's support, to break the spirit and commitment of Party supporters and family members. More sinisterly, perhaps, and subtlety were the activities carried out under the FBI's so called counter-intelligence program known as COINTELPRO, whereby the FBI directed its field offices and local police to destroy the Party through the use of informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder.
Nevertheless, the Party survived and continued to build its Survival Programs, which came to include not only the free breakfast programs and free clinics, but also grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, school and education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs, among others.
THE FREE HUEY MOVEMENT AND THE GROWTH OF THE PARTY
Hundreds of thousands of black as well as white youth had marched throughout the streets of Oakland and all over America in support of the Free Huey Movement as it had come to be called. While Huey was eventually convicted, it was not on the original charge of first degree murder but for simple manslaughter. Soon, however, even that conviction was set aside and a new trial was ordered. In July of 1970, then, Huey was indeed set free from jail. Thousands greeted him.
The celebrations seemed meaningless in light of the July 7, 1970 murder of 17 year old Jonathan Jackson (George Jacksons brother) in the incident that gave rise to the famous arrest and trial of Angela Davis. The question of Huey's freedom was nearly forgotten when well known Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, living in exile in Algeria, challenged the Party's agenda of social programs and proposed a terrorist one. By the end of 1970, Cleaver was expelled from the Party in a nasty riff that culminated in the murder of Party loyalist Sam Napier in New York. Still, the Party continued to build its programs and move its agenda, as it began to consolidate its efforts in its home base of Oakland, California.
Over the next few years, until 1973, the Party maintained and built its agenda, despite the brutal assassination at San Quentin prison in August of 1971 of Party field marshal and author George Jackson. Nevertheless, in 19723, the Party entered into electoral politics in Oakland by running Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for public office, for mayor and city councilwoman respectively. Though that election was lost, per se, it allowed the Black Panther Party to solidify a broad base of support for its future efforts. In 1974, there was great upheaval in the internal affairs of the Party, so much so that by the time Huey Newton went into selfimposed exile, rather than stand trial for the murder of a young prostitute (for which he would be acquitted), most of the original leadership was gone. David Hilliard was expelled while in prison; Bobby Seale was expelled. Elaine Brown took over the chairmanship of the Party during those three years that Newton was in exile, in Cuba.
THE LAST CHAPTER
During that time, Brown ran for Oakland public office again, this time garnering more than 44% of the vote along with the support of every labor union in the area. At the next city election, the Party supported and virtually installed Lionel Wilson as mayor of Oakland, the first black to hold that post in the 100 year history of the city. In the meantime, it further solidified its base by fighting for and obtaining funds to build 300 new, replacement housing units for poor people displaced by a local freeway; by entering into a working partnership with certain developers to build up the dilapidated downtown city center in order to provide 10,000 new jobs for Oakland's poor and unemployed. At the same time, a permanent primary school was instituted, which was highly lauded by the California legislature, among others. On Huey's return from exile, then, in 1977, the Black Panther Party was alive and well in Oakland, California, maintaining a strong constituency base in the black and working communities, and prepared to move forward to carry out its primary goal to make Oakland a base for revolution in America.
Soon after Newton's return to Oakland, in July of 1977, however, a combination of the continued, albeit more subtle and sophisticated, activities of the FBI (despite J. Edgar Hoover's death in 1972) and internal stress and conflict came to erode the Black Panther Party. By the end of the decade, it had come to a slow and unheralded demise.