Racial Tension in Oakland, California
At a time when blacks in the south had been working for years to end segregation, blacks in Oakland, California were engaged in a struggle of their own. For years, tension between the City of Oakland police and the black community was volatile. Adding to the friction, in Oakland in 1966, there were only 16 black police officers out of 661.
The relationship between the black community and the Oakland police was also strained by several incidents. In Harlem in 1964, a fifteen year old boy was shot by an off duty police officer and one year later in San Francisco another fifteen year old was shot in the back by a police officer. After years of feeling threatened by the police, the tension between the black community and the police was at its peak in the late 1960s.
Newton & Seale Form the Black Panther Party
It was under these circumstances that twenty-four year old Huey P. Newton and twenty-nine year old Bobby Seale began to take leadership roles in their community. Both worked together at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center and they also served on the advisory board. In an effort to deal with police brutality, the advisory board obtained five thousand signatures in support of the city council setting up a police review board to evaluate complaints of police brutality. The council ignored their request.
With little hope of solving police brutality with the cooperation of the City of Oakland, Newton and Seale decided to start a new organization. The group’s formation was influenced by several theories of thought. Both men had studied black history that included research on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They also read the periodicals, The Liberator and Freedomways, and Frantz Fanon’s book Wretched of the Earth.
In October 1966, Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (Self-Defense was later dropped to prevent the classification of a paramilitary organization), which was partly inspired by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It was also strongly influenced by Malcolm X, and was structured after the Black Muslim program, but without the religious aspect.
Newton served as the party’s minister of defense and Seale was the chairman. After canvassing Oakland neighborhoods to determine what the black community wanted, Seale and Newton devised a Ten-Point Program. The 1966 platform set forth the following demands:
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. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.
The Black Panther Party Patrols the Streets
In order to help end police brutality, the party advocated carrying guns for self-defense. At the time, under California law it was legal to carry guns if not concealed. The Panthers also took on various responsibilities in the community. Wearing black leather jackets, blue shirts, black pants, and black berets, they patrolled the neighborhoods carrying weapons, recorders, law books, and taught black history, counseled welfare recipients, and protested rent evictions.
In 1967, ex-convict Eldridge Cleaver joined the party. At the time, Cleaver was on parole, was working as a writer at Ramparts magazine, and was the founder of the political organization in San Francisco called Black House. Cleaver served as the Panthers’ minister of information. In this position he was in charge of the publication of the Black Panther newspaper. On April 25, 1967, the first issue of the paper was published. The paper quickly gained readership. As many as a fifty thousand papers were sold within the first three issues.
The party began to grow. Other chapter locations were opened throughout the United States. With their growth came media attention. One noteworthy incident occurred when 30 Panther members armed with guns, went to the state legislature in Sacramento to protest a bill that would outlaw carrying weapons in public. According to Seale, the group intended to watch the proceedings from the spectator section, but they instead mistakenly ended up on the floor of the legislature. The scene caused quite a stir on the floor. After leaving the capitol without incident, two blocks away, the Panther members were arrested for disturbing the peace.
A Violent Standoff with the Police
Police contact and violent incidents with the Panthers began to increase. One such incident occurred on October 28, 1967 when a shootout between the police and Newton ensued. Newton was shot four times in the stomach, one police officer was killed, and another was seriously injured. Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. After protest from Panther members that encompassed the highly publicized “Free Nuey” campaign, his conviction was overturned by the California State Court of Appeals in 1970.
After Newton was released from prison, he reunited with Seale. They decided to focus the party’s direction on developing community outreach, such as medical programs and providing free food and clothing. Cleaver did not agree with the shift in focus, and left the party. Newton and Seale’s involvement lasted a few more years until Newton fled to Cuba to avoid being charged for the murder of a young prostitute. Seale resigned shortly thereafter.
The Disbandment of the Black Panther Party
Elaine Brown became the Panther’s new leader. She continued to focus on community services. By the mid-1970s, the majority of party members were women. In the early 1980s the party disbanded.