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History of the Black Panther Party

Summary

Depending on who you ask, the Black Panther Party was either a positive presence in the Black community or a menace to society. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle of those two perspectives. It’s true that they did a lot of good in the Black community and were targeted by the FBI. It’s also likely that some members committed crimes while being a part of the Black Panther Party. But even on that point, there might be some disagreement as to whether they were acting of their own volition, on the orders of high-ranking leaders, or as plants within the organization.

This profile is not meant to be a detailed study of the organization but rather a balanced overview of its history. I hope that you might learn something new about the Black Panther Party’s ideology, programs, and controversies. The profile is intended to serve as a rabbit hole, piquing your interest in the organization and then motivating you to seek out more information to form your own opinions.

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Show Notes

Origins

The Black Panther Party has its roots in the founding of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Lowndes County, Alabama. The LCFO was initially founded to help Black citizens register to vote but grew to become an independent local political party with its own candidates. State election laws had established guidelines that required all political parties to use a symbol and a black panther was selected to represent the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP). Formed in part with the guidance of Stokely Carmichael, the party adopted “Black Power” as its slogan.

While the LCFP would eventually merge with the Democratic Party, the Black Panther symbol and some aspects of its Black Power ideology would spread to other parts of the country. In 1966, two activists in Oakland, California would adopt the black panther symbol for their new organization.

Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton met in the 1960s in Oakland while studying at Merritt College. Around this time, the Afro-American Association was founded at the nearby University of California, Berkeley and inspired many to explore and adopt the ideology of Black nationalism. Reading the works of a broad spectrum of authors, the pair studied various schools of political thought which included communist and Marxist teachings. These experiences would play a vital role in the way in which they perceived the Black community in America and the development of their overall political and social ideologies.

Formation of what would become the Black Panther Party began after the February 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and the September 1966 police shooting of Matthew Johnson, an unarmed San Francisco teenager who was caught joyriding in a stolen car. On October 15, 1966, Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). In its earliest iteration, the BPP was primarily focused on policing the police but its mission would expand to serving the community in Oakland.

Ideology & Programs

Images of the Black Panthers often show Black men and women wearing Black berets and other articles of clothing while carrying guns. Often maligned as being racist and violent, this is a purposefully inaccurate and simplistic portrayal of the organization. The mission of the Black Panther Party as outlined in its Ten-Point Program called for Black self-determination (Black Power), equal access to resources, an end to police brutality, and justice reform.

The BPP existed at the same point in time that CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and NAACP were operating and helping to lead the charge of the Civil Rights Movement. For most of their existence, those organizations were committed to working across color lines and utilized non-violent protest as the method for bringing about change. As with these other organizations, the Black Panther Party was willing to work with progressive White people it deemed nonracist as well as other “third world groups.”

Taking a more nuanced view of the Black community, the BPP saw a distinct class divide between elite and working-class Black people. They viewed Black capitalists as being just as capable as White capitalists of subjugating the Black working class. Thus they took the position that some White people could be trusted and included in their movement while some Black people were to be regarded as enemies of progress.

The Black Panther Party was heavily influenced by Marxism and the teachings of Malcolm X. They saw the struggle against exploitative capitalism as a worldwide initiative and thus aligned themselves with like-minded organizations around the world consisting of people from different ethnic backgrounds. The disciplined almost militaristic manner in which they carried themselves was modeled after Malcolm X and arguably the Nation of Islam.

The BPP raised funds by selling copies of books such as Mao’s Red Book as well as The Black Panther Newspaper. Combined with donations of time and money, the revenue generated was used to fund the organization’s various programs and to purchase real estate.

Policing the Police

As with the riot that erupted following the murder of Matthew Johnson in nearby San Francisco, there would be other uprisings in urban areas throughout America during the 1960s. These riots were put down by local police forces sometimes with the assistance of the National Guard. In the South, peaceful protestors were attacked by local police and state troopers as they participated in demonstrations aimed at enforcing civil rights for Black people. On a day-to-day basis, Black residents of urban communities in the North and West had to deal with harassment and brutality from the police.

To combat this, the Black Panthers armed themselves and began following police officers as they patrolled local Black communities. Members of the Black Panther Party would follow police cars and officers from a distance, openly carried both weapons and law books, and would advise Black residents of their rights during traffic stops or arrests. They implemented a uniform of sorts consisting of Black berets and leather jackets that served two purposes. These particular items of apparel would be easy for members to find. And the simple uniform would help to identify members as Black Panthers while also symbolizing their discipline as an organization to the community.

Political Action

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) would eventually shorten its name to the Black Panther Party. But it’s important to note that “Party” remained in its name indicating its continued commitment to political activism. A key goal of the BPP was Black self-determination, space for Black people to independently decide on and develop a cultural, political, and economic path forward.

To make this goal a reality, Black people needed to have and be allowed free use of political power. It was deemed important that Black people have equitable representation in political office and be allowed to select their own representatives. Thus a major part of the BPP mission was to get more Black people elected into office.

Armed Self-Defense

From the outset, members of the BPP had armed themselves in their efforts to guard local Black communities against police harassment and brutality. They believed that the Constitution’s Second Amendment granted them like all other Americans the right to bear arms. State open-carry gun laws also provided legal protection for those carrying a loaded shotgun or rifle with the requirement that it be visible and pointed at no one. A series of events in 1967 surrounding the BPP and firearms would bring the organization increased attention.

In February 1967, members of the party served as an armed escort for Betty Shabazz while she was at the San Francisco airport. Two months later, police shot and killed Denzil Dowell, a young unarmed Black man. His family reached out to the BPP which organized demonstrations to protest the murder. The demonstrations increased the community’s awareness of the shooting, the Black Panther Party, and the ideology of armed self-defense. The rallies likely caused some feelings of tension with the police but there were no incidents as participants maintained order and the Panthers were armed.

By May, the State of California was considering passing the Mulford Act, a new gun control bill aimed at repealing an earlier open carry law. The Mulford Act proposed to make it illegal for anyone except for law enforcement officers and others granted explicit permission to openly carry loaded firearms. The law was quickly drafted by a Republican Assemblyman from Oakland as a result of the BPP’s armed escort of Betty Shabazz. Airport security and police officers had been uncomfortable with the Panthers openly carrying firearms and were dismayed to learn that their actions were legal.

In response, Seale and 25 other armed members of the Panthers staged a protest in Sacramento at the California State Assembly. On the day the Mulford Act was to be discussed, the group of Panthers entered the Assembly openly carrying shotguns and rifles. Seale and a few others were arrested on charges of disrupting the assembly but the move sent shockwaves through the Assembly, the state, and the nation. The Mulford Act was regarded by the BPP as being intended to render the organization unable to dissuade police brutality with the visibly legal threat of equal response. Ironically, the law was quickly passed with the backing of California’s then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Community Service

As the organization grew, the Black Panthers expanded its initiatives to include community service programs. The Black Panther Party was firmly rooted in Oakland but branches were established in other locations around the country. At its height, the BPP had a branch in every urban area around the country with a substantial Black population.

Branches followed organization-wide initiatives but also had local leadership that could implement programs to address the specific needs of the local community. Branches advocated for prison reform, organized voter registration campaigns, operated afterschool programs, and offered Freedom Schools to help supplement what was often the unequal education of Black children.

At the time, many children, especially those in poor neighborhoods were starting their days and going to school with an empty stomach. The Free Breakfast for Children Program was launched in 1969 and was eventually implemented by each of the local chapters in major cities. It’s important to note that while an experimental federal breakfast program had been introduced three years earlier, it was not expanded until after the Panthers’ program. An afterschool program was also created.

Likewise, the Black Panther Party established free medical clinics in select communities around the country. But the BPP didn’t just wait for those in need of health services to come to them. Instead, they went out into the community for a door to door sickle cell anemia testing program. Members also promoted blood drives for local hospitals and the organization provided private ambulance transport as city ambulance services were unreliable in Black neighborhoods.

The Role of Women

The Black Panther Party was founded by two men and for the first few months of its existence consisted of them and four of their associates. In the early days when the primary campaign of the organization was policing the police, there was a pronounced masculine undertone. As the BPP campaigns expanded and membership grew, women joined its ranks eventually accounting for an estimated two-thirds of its membership.

In theory, the Black Panther Party was committed to gender equality but this didn’t work out quite as easily in practice. As participants in the breakfast program which prepared and served meals to local children and families, it was reasonable to expect male Black Panthers to participate in these activities. And in providing members of the community with protection against police brutality it was reasonable to expect female Black Panthers to participate in those activities. Yet some male Black Panthers were uncomfortable performing tasks traditionally associated with women.

Some male members regarded their gender as qualifications to be the natural leaders of the organization and balked at female members occupying positions of authority. And as is to be expected, with young men and women with shared interests spending a lot of time together, relationships developed. But some male members of the BPP felt a sense of sexual entitlement to the female members of the BPP and regarded them as sexual perks or playthings rather than colleagues. Sexism was particularly rampant in the Oakland chapter while the Chicago and New York chapters made gender equality a top priority.

From the time women began joining the Black Panthers they were heavily involved with day-to-day operations and community service programs. But they generally received the same defense training as male members and were also a part of armed security details. The organization’s struggle against internal and external forces created leadership opportunities for some women such as Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins. Elaine Brown would be the only woman to lead the Black Panther Party but served as its chairwoman for approximately three years.

Controversy

When discussing the Black Panther Party, a lot of attention tends to be focused on their attire and firearms. Another often discussed topic is their contentious relationship with law enforcement and the FBI in particular. In the climate of the 1960s most organizations that pushed for progressive change, no matter how moderate, were portrayed as dangerous trouble makers. The reality is that the BPP’s calls for Black Power and Black Pride coupled with their commitment to armed self-defense rather than non-violent protest made a lot of people uncomfortable. But that’s not to say that the organization didn’t have flaws or that all of the negative stories about the BPP had no merit.

Incidents with Law Enforcement

Initially, the Black Panther Party just had a local presence in Oakland and nearby San Francisco because that’s where the original branch was established. But their activities in 1967, especially the armed protest at the California State Capitol, brought the organization a lot of attention. A major benefit of more awareness of the organization was that it increased local membership and also drove the establishment of expansion chapters in other cities. A major though likely unforeseen disadvantage was that increased awareness brought attention from high-powered government officials and law enforcement agencies.

As a result of following the police and at times intervening in their interactions with members of the Black community, there was tension between local police and the Black Panthers. Seale and a few other members were arrested and pled guilty to their 1967 disruption of the California State Assembly. In 1968, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for which he received a sentence of two to 15 years in prison for the alleged murder of an Oakland police officer the year before. His arrest and conviction resulted in mass “Free Huey” protests organized by the Black Panther Party.

In April of 1968, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton, and other members of the BPP were riding in a car and came into contact with Oakland police officers. The BPP members then engaged in a shootout with the police that lasted for an estimated 90 minutes. Hutton attempted to voluntarily surrender with his hands raised after stripping down to his underwear. But, while he emerged unarmed, police would shoot him more than 12 times which resulted in his death. Cleaver along with two of the police officers was also wounded by gunfire.

Several of the Black Panthers were arrested and the death of Hutton, who was only 16-years-old at the time, garnered sympathy for the BPP. In the immediate aftermath, members of the BPP portrayed the incident as an ambush by the police. But, later several members, including Cleaver, would recant their earlier version of events and admit that Cleaver instigated the shootout. He had purposefully set out with the other members of the BPP (against the advice of older members) to ambush police officers. This was just a few days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was their form of planned retaliation.

FBI COINTELPRO Program

The FBI launched its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in 1967 to disrupt organizations it deemed a threat to America’s political stability. Within just a few years of its founding, the Black Panther Party had the dubious honor of being added to the FBI’s list of what it deemed subversive organizations. The BPP’s actions had brought it to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover the then director of the FBI who regarded the organization as one of the greatest threats to America. While the BPP’s armed protests likely didn’t endear it to the FBI, it’s community service programs seemed to make the Bureau especially uncomfortable.

Hoover anticipated that the FBI would be able to successfully force the dissolution of the BPP by 1969. With the Black Panthers now a key target of COINTELPRO, they were subjected to a variety of external attacks aimed at undermining and weakening the organization. Relationships with allies were sabotaged by agents sending fake letters to the BPP or their allies pretending to be the other party. Discord was sown within the organization by infiltrators and suspicious raids which often seemed to take advantage of internal information. A campaign of misinformation was launched to turn the public against the Panthers.

While not necessarily a direct participant, the FBI’s influence was later found to have played a role in several key events in Panther history. Acting on information believed to have been provided by the FBI, Chicago and Illinois State Police carried out a late-night raid on a Black Panther apartment. They fired an estimated 100 bullets into the apartment while its occupants slept, killing Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, the leader of the local chapter. A shootout between members of the Los Angeles Black Panthers and US (another social activism organization) on the UCLA campus which left BPP members Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins dead was believed to have been instigated by letters forged by the FBI.

Conflicts Within the Party

The Black Panthers were the focus of a concentrated external effort to collapse the organization. But power and influence have the ability to corrupt even the noblest of causes. The members of the BPP were not immune to this occurrence. Rank and file members of the BPP were often young Black people from disenfranchised neighborhoods who dedicated long hours to the organization while not earning much in exchange. Many held regular jobs outside of the BPP to support themselves. Some still lived with their families while others bunked with Black Panther roommates in shared apartments and houses that were referred to as “Panther Pads”. Despite this sacrifice, some high ranking members lived in relatively nice homes owned by the BPP. As the organization gained influence and donations began to flow in there were allegations of leaders embezzling funds.

With law enforcement cracking down on the Black Panthers and the reality of informants it was hard to know who to trust. Members began to turn on each other due to suspicions of other members working for the government. Also, after Newton was released from prison he became dependent on drugs which fueled his paranoia. Rifts formed within the organization creating factions that now fought against each other. Seeing conspiracies at every turn (both real and imagined) led to violent purges within the BPP. Several members and associates such as Alex Rackley and Betty Van Patter were allegedly murdered by other Black Panthers.

Legacy

Mounting pressure from law enforcement, court cases, leaders in exile, and the deaths of prominent members severely weakened the Black Panther Party. Those external factors combined with severe internal problems would ultimately be the undoing of the Black Panthers. The BPP had a great few years at the start of its existence but was already in decline by the mid-1970s and would cease to exist in 1982. Passionate and intelligent, several surviving members of the Black Panthers would go on to become independent activists, educators, community organizers, and public servants.

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Bibliography

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  3. “The Black Panther Party: Challenging Police and Promoting Social Change.” 2020. National Museum of African American History and Culture. August 23, 2020. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/black-panther-party-challenging-police-and-promoting-social-change.
  4. Collisson, Craig. 2008. “Black Panther Party (U.S.A.).” Welcome to Blackpast •. January 28, 2008. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/black-panther-party/.
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  7. Tillet, Salamishah. 2015. “The Panthers’ Revolutionary Feminism.” The New York Times. The New York Times. October 2, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/movies/the-panthers-revolutionary-feminism.html.
  8. Whitcomb, Isobel. 2020. “What Was the Black Panther Party?” LiveScience. Purch. October 5, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/black-panther-party.html.

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