Sunday, 24 February 2013


Earlier this month, I read an article about how a Minnesota school district came under fire for including the extremely controversial, socialist Black Panthers in its Black History Month curriculum. Angry parents were upset because the violent revolutionaries were seemingly ‘lauded’ by a Social Studies teacher, who read a poem over the school’s PA system.  The poem was originally published in The Black Panther Newsletter, in 1968, and it celebrated being a Black Panther. The parents said that the teacher did not paint a complete picture of The Black Panthers because she did not teach the students about their convictions for violent crimes.

I do not celebrate The Black Panthers; but I feel that I would be remiss in not writing a blog post about them, because this year’s theme is about education and associations, including a controversial one.  
So here goes…

In October 1966, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland, California, by two Oakland City College (now Merritt College) students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.  They were inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, who was assassinated the year before; as well as a desire to reduce or eliminate the police brutality (When the party was founded in 1966, only 16 of Oakland's 661 police officers were African-American) and other persecution that African-Americans were receiving. Because Huey studied Marx and Lenin, and other revolutionary figures, The Black Panthers taught socialist and Marxist ideology to its members.  He gave himself the title of Defense Minister, while Bobby was the Party’s Chairman.

Huey Newton, right; Bobby Seale, left

Original Black Panther members

With the help of Huey's brother, Melvin, they decided on a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, black berets, and openly displayed loaded shotguns. (In his studies, Huey had discovered a California law that allowed carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun in public, as long as it was publicly displayed and pointed at no one).

Their mantra was simply: “Black Power.” Also inspired by Civil Rights Movement activist, Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Toure), The Black Panthers developed a Ten Point Program platform,  “What We Want. What We Believe.” which stated:

  1.  We want freedom (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 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 (we should not have to defend a racist government that does not protect us)
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in Federal, State, County and City prisons and jails (because they have not received a fair and impartial trial)
  9. We want all Black people, when brought to trial, to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

Stokely Carmichael

The Black Panthers also had a list of 26 rules that dictated their daily party work. They regulated their participants' use of drugs, alcohol, and their actions, while they were working. The rules also said that members had to follow the Ten Point Program, and had to memorize it.

The organization's official newspaper, The Black Panther, began circulation in 1967, under the editorial leadership of Eldridge Cleaver, The Party’s Minister of Information; and ultimately grew to a circulation of 250,000.  By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States, including:  Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC; and by 1969, peak membership was close to 10,000.

Eldridge Cleaver

In August 1967, FBI Director, Director, J. Edgar Hoover, supervised the reprising of his COINTELPRO program, which included surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, assassination, and many other tactics to dismantle dangerous groups. He called The Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and was determined to undermine Black Panther leadership, incriminate party members and drain the organization of resources and manpower. Through these tactics, Hoover hoped to diminish the Party's threat to the general power structure of the U.S., or even maintain its influence as a strong undercurrent.

The initial targets for COINTELPRO included: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Nation of Islam. Group leaders, who were targeted, included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Maxwell Stanford and Elijah Muhammad.

In October 1967, Huey Newton was arrested for the murder of Oakland Police Officer, John Frey, following an altercation during a traffic stop.  At first, Huey claimed that he had been falsely accused; and he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which led to a “Free Huey” campaign. After three years in prison, he was released, when his conviction was reversed on appeal. However, he later admitted his guilt; and frighteningly pointed to it with pride, which actually further galvanized The Black Panthers.

The Crime Scene

Huey Newton in jail

While racial tensions continued to rise, throughout the country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had always advocated a more pacifist, yet very effective, approach to Civil Rights injustices, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had taken place a decade earlier, as well as The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in 1963.  Dr. King was very much opposed to the actions of The Black Panthers.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Two days after the assassination of Dr. King, in April 1968, seventeen-year-old Bobby Hutton joined Eldridge Cleaver, in what Eldridge later admitted was "an ambush" of the Oakland police.  Two officers were wounded, and Bobby Hutton was killed, when officers opened fire, wounding Eldridge, as well.

After Bobby’s death, Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver (Eldridge's wife) held a rally in New York City in support of Bobby Hutton and Eldridge.
People were angry; and Black Panther slogans and iconography continued to spread. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American medalists, gave the Black Power Salute during the playing of the American National Anthem, which has been characterized as one of the most iconic moments of any Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee banned the athletes from the Olympic Games, for life.

In Chicago, on 4 Dec 1969, two Black Panthers were killed when the Chicago Police raided the home of Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton.  The raid had been orchestrated by the police, in conjunction with the FBI, as part of COINTELPRO.  Fred was shot and killed, as was Black Panther guard, Mark Clark.

Beyond their many conflicts with law enforcement officials, the Black Panthers’ “survival programs” were legendary. The group provided free food, self-defense training, tutoring, first aid, clothing, drug and alcohol rehab, and many more social programs for those in need – all inspired by Mao Zedong’s advice to revolutionaries in The Little Red Book. The most famous of their programs was the Free Breakfast for Children program, initially run out of an Oakland church.

Free Breakfast Program

Despite these programs, the violence continued. In 1969 alone, 348 Black Panthers were arrested for a variety of crimes. By 1970, 34 Black Panthers had died as a result of police raids, shoot-outs and internal conflict. Various police organizations claim the Black Panthers were responsible for the deaths of at least 15 law enforcement officers and the injuries of dozens more. During those years, juries found several Black Panther members guilty of violent crimes.

Black Panther arrests

Ironically, also during this period, from 1966 to 1972, when the party was most active, several police departments hired significantly more African-American police officers; and many African-American police officers started to form organizations of their own to become more protective of the African-American citizenry and to increase Black representation on police forces.

The Black Panthers also founded the Intercommunal Youth Institute, in January 1971, with the intent of demonstrating how Black youth ought to be educated. 

Intercommunal Youth Institute
Hollywood celebrities, Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, among others, publicly supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers during the early 1970s. She and other Hollywood celebrities became involved in the Black Panthers' leftist agenda.

Jane Fonda's Black Panthers arrest

Marlon Brando at a Black Panthers rally

But soon, thereafter, the Party began to decline. Significant disagreements among the Party's leaders over how to confront ideological differences led to a split within the Party. Certain members felt The Black Panthers should participate in local government and social services, while others encouraged constant conflict with the police. In 1974, when Huey appointed Elaine Brown as the Party’s first chairwoman, the discord deepened, within the Party. Under Elaine’s leadership, the Party became involved in organizing for more radical electoral campaigns, including her 1975 unsuccessful run for Oakland City Council and Lionel Wilson’s successful election as the first, Black mayor of Oakland (note: Mr. Wilson was not a member of The Black Panthers).

Elaine Brown leading The Black Panthers

In addition to changing the Party's direction towards more involvement in the electoral arena, Elaine also increased the influence of female Black Panthers, including political activist, Angela Davis, by placing them in more visible roles within the previously male-dominated organization. 

Black Panther females

In 1977, after Huey Newton returned from a trip to Cuba and ordered the beating of a female Black Panther member, who organized many of the Party's social programs, Elaine left the party. Huey also reportedly ordered the murder of Black Panther bookkeeper, Betty van Patter, although the crime was never solved, and he was never tried.

The Party’s decline continued; and by 1980, Black Panther Party membership had dwindled to 27 people.  The Panther-sponsored school also closed in 1982, after it became known that Huey Newton was embezzling funds from the school, to pay for his drug addiction.  That incident basically marked the end of The Black Panther Party.

Huey was fatally wounded, by gunshot, a few years later, in 1989, at the age of 47, by a rival, Black nationalist group member and drug dealer.

That same year, a group calling itself the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) was formed in Dallas, Texas.  Ten years later, the NBPP became home to many former Nation of Islam members when the chairmanship was taken by Khalid Abdul Muhammad.

The Anti-Defamation League and The Southern Poverty Law Center include the NBPP in lists of hate groups.  The Huey Newton Foundation, former Black Panther Party chairman and co-founder Bobby Seale, and members of the original Black Panther Party have insisted that this New Black Panther Party is illegitimate and have strongly stated that there "is no New Black Panther Party.” In October 2006, The Black Panther Party held a 40-year reunion in Oakland.

2006 Reunion

Some critics have written that The Black Panthers’ "romanced with the gun," and their promotion of “gang mentality” was likely associated with the enormous increase in crime, during later decades, in Oakland and other cities across the nation. Interviewed after he left The Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver lamented that the legacy of The Black Panthers was at least partly one of disrespect for the law and indiscriminate violence. He acknowledged that, had his promotion of violent black militantism prevailed, it would have resulted in "a total bloodbath."

Had I been an adult, during this era, I know that I would have followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than The Black Panther Party because I do not subscribe to their methods of achieving change, and I abhor violence; but there is no denying that The Black Panthers made an indelible mark on Black History and American History.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Blaze, News One, Google Images, Getty Images


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  2. Very good summary done in truth and levelheadedness. Glad to see the note on Cleaver and that Dr. Martin Luther King was very much opposed to the actions of The Black Panthers.