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Power to the People: The Revolutionary Rise of the Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party members at a rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968

In the late 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, a new organization emerged that electrified supporters and terrified opponents with its uncompromising militancy and demand for the immediate liberation of black Americans by any means necessary. The Black Panther Party, with its striking uniform of black berets and leather jackets, openly armed patrols, fiery rhetoric, and community survival programs, became the vanguard of a revitalized Black Power movement that challenged the very foundations of American society.

Origins in Oakland

The roots of the Black Panther Party (BPP) lay in the simmering discontent among young African Americans in the mid-1960s, especially in the impoverished black neighborhoods of West Oakland, California. Despite the historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling legal segregation, black people still faced widespread discrimination, economic marginalization, and epidemic levels of police violence.

It was against this backdrop that Merritt College students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October 1966. Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, the Black Power philosophy of SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, and international revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, Newton and Seale believed that the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement were no longer sufficient in the face of escalating repression. Instead, they advocated a program of armed self-defense, militant opposition to white supremacy and imperialism, and survival programs to meet the basic needs of the black community.

Police Patrols and the Ten-Point Platform

The BPP burst onto the national scene in May 1967 when an armed contingent led by Seale and Newton marched into the California State Capitol in Sacramento to protest the Mulford Act, a bill aimed at restricting the open carry of firearms. The dramatic image of defiant young black men bearing rifles and quoting laws to the police became the defining media representation of the Panthers.

Seale read the BPP‘s Ten-Point Platform, which laid out the party‘s core beliefs and demands, including an end to police brutality, full employment, decent housing, education, and military exemption for black men:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

This platform became the basis for the Panthers‘ dual strategy of armed patrols to monitor and deter police violence, and community service programs to provide for the survival needs of black people.

Survival Programs

Although the media tended to focus on the Panthers‘ guns and incendiary rhetoric, the majority of their work centered around what they called "survival programs" to serve the basic needs of their communities. The most famous of these was the Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program, which began in January 1969 at a church in Oakland. Party members and volunteers would cook and serve free hot breakfasts to children before school. The program spread rapidly; by the end of 1969 it was feeding 20,000 children daily in 19 cities. [1]

Other survival programs included free clothing and shoe distributions, medical clinics, ambulance services, buses to transport families to visit loved ones in prison, food giveaways, pest control, plumbing and home repair services, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and Liberation Schools offering free courses on black history and politics. All these programs operated on donated food, space, and labor.

Women in the Party

Although the media spotlight shone mostly on male leaders like Newton, Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, women made up a majority of the BPP‘s membership and played vital roles at all levels of the organization. By 1969, approximately 60% of the party‘s members were women.[2]

Ericka Huggins was one of three women on the party‘s Central Committee and directed the Oakland Community School. Kathleen Cleaver, who earned a law degree from Yale, served as the party‘s communications secretary and was the first woman to join the BPP‘s top decision-making body. Elaine Brown chaired the party from 1974-77 while Newton was in exile; she also ran for Oakland City Council as a BPP candidate in 1973 and 1975.

A Rainbow Coalition

The BPP formed alliances with a number of other leftist and anti-racist organizations in what they called a "Rainbow Coalition." These included the mostly white Peace and Freedom Party, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Chinese American Red Guard Party, and the Appalachian Young Patriots. These "Rainbow Coalition" groups supported each other‘s actions, attended each other‘s events, and in some cases shared space and resources.

The BPP also attracted significant support from celebrities and public figures such as Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Jean Genet, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who hosted a benefit concert for the Panther 21 in 1969. Lennon was inspired to write his song "Power to the People" after meeting Cleaver and other Panthers in London. [3]

Government Repression and Decline

The explosive growth and militant stance of the Panthers drew swift and severe repression from local police and the federal government. In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover declared the BPP "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and devoted vast resources to neutralizing the party.[4] Out of 295 actions under the FBI‘s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) against black activist groups, 233 targeted the BPP. Tactics included wiretaps, informants, forged letters to create dissension, and outright violence.

In December 1969, Chicago police, with the cooperation of an FBI informant, killed Illinois BPP leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a pre-dawn raid on their apartment. Authorities also arrested and prosecuted numerous party leaders. In 1967-68, Newton spent time in prison for allegedly killing an Oakland police officer, a charge he denied. In 1969, Seale was tried as part of the Chicago 8 on conspiracy charges related to protests at the Democratic National Convention; the judge ordered him gagged and shackled to his chair. Cleaver fled into exile after a 1968 shootout with Oakland police.

The cumulative toll of arrests, prosecutions, and killings decimated the party‘s leadership. Tensions also flared between rival factions, particularly between the Cleaver and Newton/Seale groups. By the mid 1970s, the BPP was in decline, riven by infighting, legal problems, and a turn toward electoral politics. The Oakland chapter hung on, but the party officially disbanded in 1982.

Legacy and Influence

Despite its relatively brief organizational life, the Black Panther Party occupies an outsized place in the political and cultural imaginary of the 1960s. As historian Clayborne Carson noted, "the Panthers took the abstract concept of Black Power, turned it into a political program, and articulated it with a dramatic flair that captured the imagination of millions of African Americans." [5]

Even as their membership ebbed in the 1970s, the Panthers‘ influence extended through the "Panther aesthetic" – the berets, leather jackets, and militant attitude that infused the blaxploitation movies of that era. The BPP‘s Ten-Point Platform and survival programs were models for later groups like the Black Lives Matter movement. And numerous hip-hop artists from Public Enemy to Tupac Shakur to Beyoncé have paid homage to the Panther legacy.

At its core, the Black Panther Party represented an unyielding affirmation of the humanity and agency of African Americans in the face of entrenched racism and inequality. As party member Assata Shakur put it, "I am a Black revolutionary woman…I believe that in the long run, the only way to win freedom for ourselves as human beings is to fight against all those who deny freedom, and that includes fighting and resisting the American government."[6] That cry for freedom still resonates today.

References

  1. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. (2016). Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 184.
  2. Charles E. Jones and Judson L. Jeffries (1998). "Don‘t Believe the Hype: Debunking the Panther Mythology". In Charles E. Jones (ed.). The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered). Baltimore: Black Classic Press. pp. 32-33.
  3. Jon Wiener (2000). Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Chapter 3.
  4. Hoover, J. Edgar (29 August 1968). Director FBI to SAC Albany. FBI COINTELPRO Papers.
  5. Clayborne Carson interview – PBS.org
  6. Shakur, Assata (1978). "Women in Prison: How It Is With Us". The Black Scholar. 9 (7): 8–15.