Legacy and Lessons for the Future andout 1: History of the Black Panther Party—Part One
What Was the Black Panther Party?
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was a progressive political organization that stood in the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America since the Revolution of 1776 and the Civil War: that dynamic episode generally referred to as The Sixties. It is the sole Black organization in the entire history of Black struggle against slavery and oppression in the United States that was armed and promoted a revolutionary agenda, and it represents the last great thrust by the masses of Black people for equality, justice, and freedom. The Party’s ideals and activities were so radical that it was at one time labeled by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” And despite the demise of the Party, its history and lessons remain so challenging and controversial that established texts and media erase all reference to the Party from their portrayals of American history.
The Black Panther Party was the manifestation of the vision of Huey P. Newton, the seventh son of a Louisiana family transplanted to Oakland, California. In the wake of the assassination of Black leader Malcolm X, on the heels of the massive Black, urban uprising in Watts, California, and at the height of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in October of 1966, Newton gathered a few of his longtime friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and developed a skeletal outline for this organization. It was named, originally, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The black panther was used as the symbol because it was a powerful image, one that had been used effectively by the short-lived voting rights group the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization. The term “self-defense” was employed to distinguish the Party’s philosophy from the dominant nonviolent theme of the Civil Rights Movement, and in homage to the civil rights group the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense. These two symbolic references were, however, where all similarity between the Black Panther Party and other Black organizations of the time, the civil rights groups and Black power groups, ended.
Immediately, the leadership of the embryonic Party outlined a Ten-Point Platform and Program [see “What We Want, What We Believe” by Wayne Au for full text]. This platform and program articulated the fundamental wants and needs of the organization, and called for rectification of the long-standing grievances of the Black masses in America, who were still alienated from and oppressed by society despite the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War. Moreover, this platform and program was a manifesto that demanded the express needs be met and oppression of Blacks be ended immediately; they issued a demand for the right to self defense by revolutionary ideology and by the commitment of the membership of the Black Panther Party to promote its agenda for fundamental change in America.
Historical Context of the Founding of the Party
There was no question that the end of several centuries of the institution of slavery of Blacks had not resulted in the assimilation of Blacks into American society. Indeed, there was a violent, post-emancipation white backlash manifested in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which was endorsed by the benign neglect of the president and Congress and was codified in the so-called Black Codes. The rampant lynching of Blacks became a way of life in America, along with the de facto denial to Blacks of every civil right, including the rights to vote, to worship, and to use public facilities.
From that time forward, then, Blacks were obliged to wage fierce survival struggles in America. At once they created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to promote integration of Blacks into society as full, first-class citizens and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), initiated by Marcus Garvey, to promote the independence of Blacks and their eventual return to Africa. Occurring at the same time were the effective efforts of former slave Booker T. Washington to establish a separate socioeconomic scheme for Blacks. America’s response to all such efforts was violent and repressive and unyielding. Thus, despite the mass uprisings by Blacks in resistance to unrelenting violence and the law’s delay to provide a remedy for this violence, despite tacit urgings by Blacks to be afforded some means to survive, despite the bold endeavors by Blacks to live separate lives in America or leave America, for the next half century Blacks in the main found themselves denied of every possible avenue to either establish their own socioeconomic independence or participate fully in the larger society.
Not until nearly 60 years after Plessy was there even the most minimal relief in the Supreme Court’s holding in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown the Supreme Court stated that “separate” was “not equal” for Blacks in America (at least with respect to public education). It is noteworthy that Dr. Kenneth Clark (the Black psychologist on whose study the Brown court based its findings as to the negative impact on Black children of the separate but equal doctrine) noted in 1994 that American schools were more segregated at that time than in 1954, when Brown was decided.
Even after Brown Blacks struggled to integrate and become full participants in American society to no avail. From the famous 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the subsequent voter rights efforts to the dangerous sit-ins in all white public facilities led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers, the Civil Rights Movement challenged America. Under the spiritual guidance and the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. millions of both Blacks and whites protested and marched for freedom and justice for America’s Black minority, though so many were murdered or maimed for life along the way. Finally in 1964 the U.S. Congress passed a civil rights act that outlawed racial segregation in public facilities.
It was too little too late. As the images of nonviolent Blacks and other civil rights workers and demonstrators being beaten and water-hosed by police, spat on, and jailed, merely for protesting social injustices shot across America’s television screens, which was a new and compelling phenomenon in American life and popular culture, young urban Blacks rejected nonviolence. The full expression of this was the violent protest to the brutal police beating of a Black man in Watts, Los Angeles, of the 1965 rebellion that shocked America and set off other such responses to oppression. By 1967 there had been more than 100 major Black, urban rebellions in cities across the country. At the same time in 1965 the Vietnam War erupted. As television reports revealed the horrible realities of the war, good American soldiers killing Vietnamese children, America’s white youth called into question and rallied against the war. America’s youth, Black and white, had become openly hostile to the established order.
Rise of the Black Panther Party
It was against this backdrop that Huey P. Newton was organizing the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, boldly calling for a complete end to all forms of oppression of Blacks and offering revolution as an option. At the same time, the Black Panther Party took the position that Black people in America and the Vietnamese people in Vietnam were waging a common struggle as comrades-in-arms against a common enemy: the U.S. government. What was most “dangerous” about this was that young Blacks, the same urban youth throwing molotov cocktails on America, were listening.
This message was amplified when a small group of Black Panther Party members, led by Bobby Seale, designated chairman of the Party, marched into the California legislature in May 1967 fully armed. Defined as a protest against a pending gun-control bill, which became the Mulford Act, supporting the position that Blacks had a Constitutional right to bear arms, the Party’s message that day became a clarion call to young Blacks.
Therefore, in October of 1967 the incident in which Huey Newton was shot, arrested, and charged with the murder of a white Oakland, California, cop, after a gun battle of sorts on the streets of West Oakland that resulted in the death of police officer John Frey, provided the spark that lit a prairie fire. Young whites, angry and disillusioned with America over the Vietnam War, raised their voices with young, urban Blacks to cry in unison: “Free Huey!”
It became a movement in and of itself, the very embodiment of all the social contradictions, between the haves and have nots, the included and excluded, the alienated and the privileged. The freeing of the Black man charged with killing a white cop, the oppressed who resisted oppression, was tantamount to the freedom of everyone.
One result was not only the flowering of the Party itself, but also a rapid proliferation of other, like-minded organizations. Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and its environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so-called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland-based organization to a national organization, as Black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.
At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to Black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs and were operated by Party members under the slogan “survival pending revolution.”
In each box, write one word that you associate with the reading you have done on the Black Panther Party.
Black Panther Party— Historical Context and Rise of the Party
Handout 3: Serve the People Comrade Mao Tse-tung delivered this speech at a memorial meeting for Comrade Chang Szu-teh held by departments directly under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on September 8, 1944.
Our culture is a people’s culture; our cultural workers must serve the people with great enthusiasm and devotion, and they must link themselves with the masses, not divorce themselves from the masses. In order to do so, they must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail. The saying “Haste does not bring success” does not mean that we should not make haste, but that we should not be impetuous; impetuosity leads only to failure. This is true in any kind of work, and particularly in the cultural and educational work the aim of which is to transform the thinking of the masses. There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.