|Black Panther Party|
|Ideology||Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, internationalism, black nationalism|
|Political position||Far left|
|Politics of the United States
The Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) was an African-American revolutionary organization established to promote Black Power, and by extension self-defense for blacks. It was active in the United States from the mid-1960s into the 1970s. The Black Panther Party achieved national and international fame through their deep involvement in the Black Power movement and in US politics of the 1960s and 70s. The Black Power movement is considered to be one of the most significant social, political and cultural movements in US history. "The movement [had] provocative rhetoric, militant posture, and cultural and political flourishes permanently altered the contours of American Identity."
Founded in Oakland, California, by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton on October 15, 1966, the organization initially set forth a doctrine calling for the protection of African American neighborhoods from police brutality, in the interest of African-American justice. Its objectives and philosophy changed radically during the party's existence. While the organization's leaders passionately espoused socialist and communist doctrines, the Party's black nationalist reputation attracted an ideologically diverse membership. Ideological consensus within the party was difficult to achieve. Some members openly disagreed with the views of the leaders.
In 1967 the organization marched on the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest of a selective ban on weapons. The official newspaper The Black Panther was also first circulated that year. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Diego, Denver, Newark, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. That same year, membership reached 5,000 and their newspaper, under the editorial leadership of Eldridge Cleaver had grown to a circulation of 250,000.
The group created a Ten-Point Program, a document that called for "Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace", as well as exemption from conscription for African-American men, among other demands. With the Ten-Point program, “What we Want, What We Believe”, the Black Panther Party captured in uncompromising language the collective economic and political grievances articulated by black radicals and many black liberals since the 1930s.
While grounded in black nationalism, the party changed as it grew to national prominence and became an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s. The Black Panthers ultimately condemned black nationalism as "black racism". They became more focused on socialism without racial exclusivity. They instituted a variety of community social programs designed to alleviate poverty and improve health among communities deemed most needful of aid. It also recognized that different minority communities (those it deemed oppressed by the US government) needed to organize around their own set of issues and encouraged alliances with such organizations
The group's political goals were often overshadowed by their confrontational, militant, and sometimes violent tactics, and by their suspicions of law enforcement agents. “ Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and he supervised an extensive program of counter-organizing that included surveillance, eavesdropping, infiltration, police harassment, perjury, and a laundry list of other tactics designed to incriminate party members and drain the organization of resources and manpower. (pg.45)” Through these tactics, it was thought that their potential for further advancement would diminish and probability of continuing to serve as a threat to the general power structure of the US, or maintain a presence as a strong undercurrent would shrink.” While party membership started to decline during Huey Newton's 1968 manslaughter trial, the Black Panther Party collapsed altogether in the early 1970s. Writers such as former Communist Party USA member Angela Davis and writer and political activist Ward Churchill have alleged that law enforcement officials went to great lengths to discredit and destroy the organization, including assassination.
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In 1966, Huey P. Newton was released from jail. With his friend Bobby Seale from Oakland City College, he joined a black power group called the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). RAM had a chapter in Oakland and followed the writings of Robert F. Williams. Williams had been the president of the Monroe, North Carolina branch of the NAACP and later published a newsletter called The Crusader from China, where he fled to escape kidnapping charges.
The Oakland chapter consisted mainly of students, who were not interested in this extreme form of activism. Newton and Seale's attitudes were more militant. The pair left RAM searching for a group more meaningful to them.
They worked at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, where they also served on the advisory board. To combat police brutality, the advisory board obtained 5,000 signatures in support of the City Council's setting up a police review board to review complaints. Newton was also taking classes at the City College and at San Francisco Law School. Both institutions were active in the North Oakland Center. Thus the pair had numerous connections with whom they talked about a new organization. Inspired by the success of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and Stokely Carmichael's calls for separate black political organizations, they wrote their initial platform statement, the Ten-Point Program. 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, Newton 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).
What became standard Black Panther discourse emerged from a long history of urban activism, social criticism and political struggle by African Americans. “As inheritors of the discipline, pride, and calm self-assurance preached by Malcolm X, the panthers became national heroes in African American communities by infusing abstract nationalism with street toughness-by joining the rhythms of black working-class youth culture to the interracial élan and effervescence of Bay Area New Left politics. There is often debate about the impact that the Black Panther Party had on the greater society, or even their local environment. Some feel as though their only impact was one of contention against law enforcement, as facilitators of violence, and outspoken misguided radicals. “Beyond their immediate and material impact, though, the survival programs aimed at deeper spiritual and ideological transformations among neighborhood men and women whom the Party hoped to mobilize. As models of black self-determination and pride, the programs combined self-help and education in revolutionary diction with the free-spirited, animated public displays of political commitment that had become the sin qua non of Left culture in the Bay Area.” “In 1966, the Panthers defined Oakland’s ghetto as a territory, the police as interlopers, and the Panther mission as the defense of community. The Panthers' famous “policing the police” drew attention to the spatial remove that White Americans enjoyed from the state violence that had come to characterize life in black urban communities.” 
The Ten Point Program was as follows:
"This country is a nation of thieves. It stole everything it has, beginning with black people. The U.S. cannot justify its existence as the policeman of the world any longer. I do not want to be a part of the American pie. The American pie means raping South Africa, beating Vietnam, beating South America, raping the Philippines, raping every country you’ve been in. I don’t want any of your blood money. I don’t want to be part of that system. We must question whether or not we want this country to continue being the wealthiest country in the world at the price of raping everybody else."
Inspired by Mao Zedong's advice to revolutionaries in the The Little Red Book, Newton called on the Panthers to "serve the people" and to make "survival programs" a priority within its branches. The most famous and successful of their programs was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, initially run out of an Oakland church.
Other survival programs were free services such as clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.
The BPP also founded the "Intercommunal Youth Institute" in January 1971, with the intent of demonstrating how black youth ought to be educated. Ericka Huggins was the director of the school and Regina Davis was an administrator. The school was unique in that it didn't have grade levels but instead had different skill levels so an 11 year old could be in second-level English and fifth-level science. Elaine Brown taught reading and writing to a group of 10 to 11 year olds deemed "uneducable" by the system. At the school children were given free busing; breakfast, lunch, and dinner; books and school supplies; children were taken to have medical checkups; and many children were given free clothes.
The Party briefly merged with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, headed by Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture). In 1967, the party organized a march on the California state capitol to protest the state's attempt to outlaw carrying loaded weapons in public after the Panthers had begun exercising that right. Participants in the march carried rifles. In 1968, BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver ran for Presidential office on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. They were a big influence on the White Panther Party, that was tied to the Detroit/Ann Arbor band MC5 and their manager John Sinclair, author of the book Guitar Army that also promulgated a ten-point program.
As the Black Panther Party was beginning to gain a national presence, the government began a crackdown on the party and their activities. Huey P. Newton was arrested for an alleged murder, which sparked a "free Huey" campaign, organized by Eldridge Cleaver to help Newton's legal defense. Newton was convicted, though his conviction was overturned in the 1970s.
In April 1968, the party was involved in a gun battle, in which Bobby Hutton, a Panther, was killed. Cleaver later said that he had led the Panther group on a deliberate ambush of the police officers, thus provoking the shoot-out. In Chicago, two Panthers were killed in a police raid.
One of the central aims of the BPP was to stop abuse by local police departments. When the party was founded in 1966, only 16 of Oakland's 661 police officers were African American. Accordingly, many members questioned the Department's objectivity and impartiality. This situation was not unique to Oakland, California. Most police departments in major cities did not have proportional membership by African Americans. Throughout the 1960s, race riots and civil unrest broke out in impoverished African-American communities subject to policing by disproportionately white police departments. The work and writings of Robert F. Williams, Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter president and author of Negroes with Guns, also influenced the BPP's tactics.
The BPP sought to oppose police brutality through neighborhood patrols (an approach since adopted by groups such as Copwatch). Police officers were often followed by armed Black Panthers who sought at times to aid African-Americans who were victims of police brutality and racial prejudice. Both Panthers and police died as a result of violent confrontations. By 1970, 34 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 BPP members guilty of violent crimes.
From 1966 to 1972, when the party was most active, several departments hired significantly more African-American police officers. During this time period, 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. However, in many police departments, African American officers often received promotions through brutality against other African Americans, causing many of them to play prominent roles in shutting down the Panthers' activities. In Chicago in 1969 for example, Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton were both killed in a police raid (In which five of the officers present were African American) by Sergeant James Davis, an African American officer. In cities such as New York City, black police officers were used to infiltrate Panther meetings. By 1972, when the party disbanded, almost every major police department in the US was integrated.
Prominent member H. Rap Brown is serving life imprisonment for the 2000 murder of Ricky Leon Kinchen, a Fulton County, Georgia sheriff's deputy, and the wounding of another officer in a gunbattle. Both officers were black.
In August 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) instructed its program "COINTELPRO" to "neutralize" what the FBI called "black nationalist hate groups" and other dissident groups. In September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." By 1969, the Black Panthers were the primary target of COINTELPRO. They were the target of 233 of the 295 authorized "Black Nationalist" COINTELPRO actions. The goals of the program were to prevent the unification of militant black nationalist groups and to weaken the power of their leaders, as well as to discredit the groups to reduce their support and growth. The initial targets included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Nation of Islam. Leaders who were targeted included the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Maxwell Stanford and Elijah Muhammad.
Although COINTELPRO was commissioned ostensibly to prevent violence, it used some tactics to foster violence. For instance, the FBI tried to "intensify the degree of animosity" between the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang. They sent an anonymous letter to the Ranger’s gang leader claiming that the Panthers were threatening his life, a letter whose intent was to induce "reprisals" against Panther leadership. In Southern California similar actions were taken to exacerbate a "gang war" between the Black Panther Party and a group called the US Organization. Violent conflict between these two groups, including shootings and beatings, led to the deaths of at least four Black Panther Party members. FBI agents claimed credit for instigating some of the violence between the two groups.
On January 17, 1969, Los Angeles Panther Captain Bunchy Carter and Deputy Minister John Huggins were killed in Campbell Hall on the UCLA campus, in a gun battle with members of US Organization stemming from a dispute over who would control UCLA's black studies program. Another shootout between the two groups on March 17 led to further injuries. It was alleged that the FBI had sent a provocative letter to US Organization in an attempt to create antagonism between US and the Panthers.
One of the most notorious actions was a Chicago Police raid of the home of Panther organizer Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969. The raid had been orchestrated by the police in conjunction with the FBI. The FBI was complicit in many of the actions. The people inside the home had been drugged by an FBI informant, William O'Neal, and were asleep at the time of the raid. Hampton was shot and killed, as was the guard, Mark Clark. The others were dragged into the street, beaten, and subsequently charged with assault. These charges were later dropped. The Chicago Police and FBI were never investigated or charged for their role in the event.
In May 1969, party members tortured and murdered Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party, because they suspected him of being a police informant. Three party officers — Warren Kimbro, George Sams, Jr., and Lonnie McLucas — later admitted taking part. Sams, who gave the order to shoot Rackley at the murder scene, turned state's evidence and testified that he had received orders personally from Bobby Seale to carry out the execution. After this betrayal, party supporters alleged that Sams was himself the informant and an agent provocateur employed by the FBI. The case resulted in the New Haven, Connecticut Black Panther trials of 1970, memorialized in the courtroom sketches of Robert Templeton. The trial ended with a hung jury, and the prosecution chose not to seek another trial.
Awareness of the group continued to grow, especially after the May 2, 1967 protest at the California State Assembly and the arrest of Newton in the fall of 1967. On February 17, 1968, a large rally was held for Huey in the Oakland Auditorium. The speakers included Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and James Forman. After this event, membership grew rapidly. The structure of the group became more defined. New members had to attend a six-week training program and political education classes, largely based on Mao's Little Red Book.
In 1968, the group shortened its name to the Black Panther Party and sought to focus directly on political action. Members were encouraged to carry guns and to defend themselves against violence. An influx of college students joined the group, which had consisted chiefly of "brothers off the block." This created some tension in the group. Some members were more interested in supporting the Panther's social programs, while others wanted to maintain their "street mentality". For many Panthers, the group was little more than a type of gang.
Panther slogans and iconography 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. The International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympic Games for life. Some Hollywood celebrities, such as Jane Fonda, became involved in their leftist program. She publicly supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. The Black Panthers attracted a wide variety of left-wing revolutionaries and political activists, including writer Jean Genet, former Ramparts Magazine editor David Horowitz and left-wing lawyer Charles R. Garry, who often acted as their counsel. Survival Committees and coalitions were organized with several groups across the United States. Chief among these in Chicago was the first Rainbow Coalition formed by Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers which included Young Patriots and a Latino youth gang turned polictical:the Young Lords.
From the beginning the Black Panther Party's focus on militancy came with a reputation for violence. They employed a California law which permitted carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun as long as it was publicly displayed and pointed at no one. Carrying weapons openly and making threats against police officers, for example, chants like "The Revolution has co-ome, it's time to pick up the gu-un. Off the pigs!", helped create the Panthers' reputation as a violent organization. The greater part of the reputation was earned in particular incidents such as the following.
On October 17, 1967, Oakland police officer John Frey was shot to death in an altercation with Newton during a traffic stop. In the stop, Newton and backup officer Herbert Heanes also suffered gunshot wounds. Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter at trial. This incident gained the party even wider recognition by the radical American left, and a "Free Huey" campaign ensued. Newton was released after three years, when his conviction was reversed on appeal.
On May 2, 1967, the California State Assembly Committee on Criminal Procedure was scheduled to convene to discuss what was known as the "Mulford Act", which would ban public displays of loaded firearms. Cleaver and Newton put together a plan to send a group of about 30 Panthers led by Seale from Oakland to Sacramento to protest the bill. The group entered the assembly carrying their weapons, an incident which was widely publicized, and which prompted police to arrest Seale and five others. The group pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of disrupting a legislative session.
On April 7, 1968, Panther Bobby Hutton was killed, and Cleaver was wounded in a shootout with the Oakland police. Each side called the event an ambush by the other. Two policemen were shot in the incident.
From the fall of 1967 through the end of 1970, nine police officers were killed and 56 were wounded, and ten Panther deaths and an unknown number of injuries resulted from confrontations. In 1969 alone, 348 Panthers were arrested for a variety of crimes. On February 18, 1970 Albert Wayne Williams was shot by the Portland Police Bureau outside the Black Panther party headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Though his wounds put him in a critical condition, he made a full recovery.
When Panther bookkeeper Betty van Patter was murdered in 1974, David Horowitz became certain that Black Panther members were responsible and denounced the Panthers. When Huey Newton was shot to death 15 years later, Horowitz characterized Newton as a killer. When a former colleague at Ramparts alleged that Horowitz himself was responsible for the death of van Patter by recommending her for the position of Black Panther accountant, Horowitz counter-alleged that "the Panthers had killed more than a dozen people in the course of conducting extortion, prostitution and drug rackets in the Oakland ghetto." He said further that the organization was committed "to doctrines that are false and to causes that are demonstrably wrongheaded and even evil." Former chairperson Elaine Brown also questioned Horowitz's motives in recommending van Patter to the Panthers; she suspected espionage.
While part of the organization was already participating in local government and social services, another group was in constant conflict with the police. For some of the Party's supporters, the separation between political action, criminal activity, social services, access to power, and grass-roots identity became confusing and contradictory as the Panthers' political momentum was bogged down in the criminal justice system. Disagreements among the Party's leaders over how to confront these challenges led to a significant split in the Party. Some Panther leaders, such as Huey Newton and David Hilliard, favored a focus on community service coupled with self-defense; others, such as Eldridge Cleaver, embraced a more confrontational strategy. Eldridge Cleaver deepened the inevitable schism in the party when he publicly criticized the Party for adopting a "reformist" rather than "revolutionary" agenda and called for Hilliard's removal. Cleaver was expelled from the Central Committee but went on to lead a splinter group, the Black Liberation Army, which had previously existed as an underground paramilitary wing of the Party.
The Party eventually fell apart due to rising legal costs and internal disputes. In 1974, Huey Newton appointed Elaine Brown as the first Chairwoman of the Party. Under Brown's leadership, the Party became involved in organizing for more radical electoral campaigns, including Brown's 1975 unsuccessful run for Oakland City Council and Lionel Wilson's successful election as the first Black mayor of Oakland. Although many scholars and activists date the Party's downfall before Brown became the leader, an increasingly smaller cadre continued to exist well into the late 1970s.
In addition to changing the Party's direction towards more involvement in the electoral arena, Brown also increased the influence of women Panthers by placing them in more visible roles within the male-dominated organization. Brown's attempt to battle this previously pervasive sexism within the Party was very stressful for her and led to her dependence on Thorazine as a way to escape the pressures of leading the Party.
In 1977, after Newton returned from Cuba and ordered the beating of a woman Panther who organized many of the Party's social programs, Brown decided she needed a break and left the Party.
Since the party's decline in the late 1970's, the group has been both praised and detested by scholars. Historians oftentimes use the Black Panther Party as the paragon example of the effectiveness of counterculture grassroots movements in the 1970's. However, due to the media's portrayal of the violent acts committed by the Black Panther Party's leaders, modern America overwhelmingly perceives the group's actions as a negative movement. In a study conducted by Stanford Professor Gregory Parry and Associate Professor Ian Farmer, 86% of Americans believe the group had negative effects on America. Of the 14% of the people that thought it was a positive movement, 75% were black. 
In January 2007, a joint California state and Federal task force charged eight men with the 1971 murder of a California police officer. The defendants have been identified as former members of the Black Liberation Army. Two have been linked to the Black Panthers. In 1975 a similar case was dismissed when a judge ruled that police gathered evidence through the use of torture. On June 29, 2009 Herman Bell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Sgt. Young. In July 2009, charges were dropped against four of the accused: Ray Boudreaux, Henry W. Jones, Richard Brown and Harold Taylor. Also that month Jalil Muntaquim pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter becoming the second person to be convicted in this case.
In 1989, a group calling itself the "New Black Panther Party" 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 consider the New Black Panthers as a hate group. Members of the original Black Panther Party have insisted that this New Black Panther Party is illegitimate and have strongly objected that there "is no new Black Panther Party".
The National Alliance of Black Panthers was formed on July 31, 2004. It was inspired by the grassroots activism of the original organization but not otherwise related. Its chairwoman is Shazza Nzingha.
Redirecting to Black Panther Party