THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY: MILITANT OR MISREPRESENTED?
By: Jessica Whitcomb
Social & Political History of California
Professor Rebecca Bales
May 14, 2015
SBS 386, Bales
May 14, 2015
Final Research Paper
The two men who formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were responsible for a revolutionary movement in the black community of California and beyond. The reasons behind and the ideas upon which the group was formed are much more intellectually sophisticated than history has indicated. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, later changed simply to The Black Panther Party, was controversial in its time and grossly misrepresented by the mass media. The Black Panther Party is a significant component of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, despite the fact that many civil rights advocates disagreed with the party’s militant methods. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X, and created a program more revolutionary than ever before.
For Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, it all started with the Afro-American Association. They both had their first serious political experiences there. The Afro-American Association was an all-black study group founded by Donald Warden at the University of California, Berkeley. They discussed books by black authors like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington, and James Baldwin. Like the founders of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and his teachings on racial pride inspired the group. Huey Newton soon became impatient with the teachings of Warden, however, because he felt that he was a man of words, but not of action. Newton doubted the ability of Warden’s teachings to incur any real change. 1 It was also at the University of California, Berkeley where Bobby Seale first heard Huey Newton speak at a rally. 2
Huey Newton was told by a friend that he should meet a man named Donald Warden because what he was ranting about sounded like something Warden would say. Newton went to Berkeley in search of Warden and learned some lessons he would later implement in his work with the Black Panther Party. “I dissuade Party members from putting down people who do not understand. Even people who are unenlightened and seemingly bourgeois should be answered in a polite way”. 3 Newton goes on to say that he later nearly fell into this error because he was already at a more mature place in his learning, but he could not see why people were ignorant to what he saw to be true. Newton’s passion for including the uneducated and poor people of his neighborhood came early on during his involvement with the Afro-American Association. “…but my people were off the block; some of them could not even read, but they were angry and looking for a way to channel their feelings”. 4 This method of including the average person into the political activities and discussions would become the Black Panther Party’s trademark. It was during this time with the Afro-American Association that Newton found his love for the “brothers on the block”.
Huey Newton enjoyed the discussions and lectures of his peers in the association, but he did not identify with them. He knew that something significant was missing. Newton sympathized and felt deeply for the people he knew in his neighborhood. “The Soul Students Advisory Council, RAM, the Muslims, and the Afro-American Association were not offering these brothers and sisters anything concrete, much less a program to help them move against the system. It was agonizing to watch the brother move down the dead-end streets”. 5 RAM claimed to be talking for the black underclass, but it was not reaching them or moving them to action. This is what Newton wanted to see. Newton’s passion for such programs would later be the legacy of the Black Panther Party. 6 Huey and Bobby found their inspiration in the works of Mark Comfort and Curtis Lee Baker.
Huey and Bobby’s biggest concern was challenging police brutality. Comfort and Baker were talented young organizers who had come from traditional civil rights organizations in Oakland. They were the first ones to adopt black outfits and berets in early 1966 before the Black Panther Party adopted this. 7 Comfort organized citizen patrols to monitor the actions of the police and document incidents of brutality. The Black Panther Party would later do the same thing. 8 In the spring of 1966, Newton and Seale saw a policeman roughing up a black man for no apparent reason. The man was arrested and taken to prison. Newton and Seale promptly bailed the man out of jail, and when they did this, the man wept. This incident touched Bobby Seale emotionally and further impassioned him to stand up against the police. 9
Newton and Seale were frustrated with the nonviolent philosophy of the traditional civil rights organizations. By the mid-1960s Newton had become disillusioned with the Civil Rights movement and its inability to protect African Americans from heinous crimes inflicted upon them by white racists. 10 Their reactions to police brutality against African Americans was not unfounded in any way. The period of the 1960s saw a significant number of incidents. Between 1960 and 1968, fifty-one percent of people killed by police were black, even though blacks made up less than ten percent of the total population. 11 Police brutality was the primary concern of black residents.
Newton and Seale felt that they finally had no choice but to start an organization that would counteract police brutality, implement social programs, and involve the lower-class people in the political process. Newton describes their beginnings as casual and just involving talking over wine and beer in Bobby’s living room. 12 The idea of using the panther as a symbol of the organization came suddenly to Newton one day. A political group in Mississippi called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization had a black panther for its symbol. A few days later, while Seale and Newton were rapping, Newton suggested that they use the Black Panther as their symbol and call themselves the Black Panther Party. Seale agreed immediately that the animal was appropriate and at this moment they knew it was time to begin organizing. 13
At the core of the Black Panther Party’s values was the involvement of the common people. Huey Newton believed in going into the community and asking residents what they needed. 14 “We went to pool halls and bars, all the places where brothers congregate and talk”. 15 Newton and Seale’s group was so revolutionary because the majority of its members were poor and uneducated people. Newton believed this is where the traditional civil rights organizations had failed. The major success of the Black Panther Party’s programs to help the African American community can be contributed to the community being their main focus from the beginning. The programs the party implemented were contingent on local conditions and were designed to satisfy the immediate needs and concerns of the community residents. 16 Newton believed that these programs were essential for survival, and saw them as eventually leading to revolution. They were only the beginning of Newton and Seale’s plans for the party. Unfortunately, their vision for the Black Panther Party was clouded by the mass media’s portrayal of the group as aggressive, immoral, and anti-white.
The Black Panther Party’s infamy is most often portrayed as negative due to the media’s portrayal of the group at the time of their operation. The propaganda of the mass media coincided with the stories spun by prominent government figures. Due to the Panthers being more militant than the traditional civil rights organizations, the mass media targeted them as being aggressive and hateful. Newton believed that blacks were being duped by the government and misinformed by the mass media. 17 Edward Morgan argues that the national media attention and the state’s repression of the party went hand in hand. 18 Judson Jeffries, however, points out that the Panthers utilized the media to spread their message. “They were seen as movie stars in an era of the celebrity radical”. 19 The national media attention simultaneously caused the spread of the Black Panther Party’s ideals, and misrepresented them to the public as an enemy to the nation.
The government was also involved in the misrepresentation of the party and its members. ‘“On July 7, 1968, station WCK-TV in Miami actually went so far as to air its own “special report” on the Panthers a program, Black Nationalists and the New Left, which had in large part been prepared for it by FBI personnel”’. 20 During the sixties and seventies the FBI was focused on bringing down the Black Panther Party and were willing to distort their values and ideals in order to do so. At the local level, the mass media were fed misinformation from the police. ‘“When Black Panther leaders suggested that black police should patrol communities in West Oakland, Police Chief Gain reported to the press that they had “no practical program to offer the police”’. 21 The Black Panthers were willing to work with the police, but the police were not willing to work with them.
According to Judson Jeffries in his book The Radical Theorist, there are three misperceptions of the Black Panther Party that the mass media perpetuated throughout its involvement in the community. The first misperception is that the party was racist and anti-white. This could most likely be linked to the fact that the Black Panther Party did not allow whites to be members. In The Radical Theorist, Jeffries points out that one of the founders, Huey Newton, did not make a blanket condemnation of whites. In addition to this, the party did form alliances with other groups of activists who were white. 22 The second misperception the media encouraged is that the Panthers perpetuated violence. As for Huey Newton, he repeatedly said outright that he did not advocate violence. 23 The third misperception is that the party was reformist rather than revolutionary, thereby claiming to be something they weren’t. The fact is, Newton was well grounded in theories of revolution and believed that the party’s ten-point program was a vehicle for moving forward toward a revolution. 24 All three of these misperceptions were generated and circulated by the white-controlled and government-influenced media.
Despite the myths circulated by the media and government, the Black Panther Party managed to leave a significant impact on the civil rights movement during its time. Although they are most known for their berets and brandishing of guns in public, they were intimately involved in the African-American communities and were cognoscente to the people’s needs. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale started an organization that would eventually be dismantled after a short life, but their strong convictions and passion for the poor African-Americans of the Bay Area in California and the United States has left a great legacy. Their so-called “militancy” made them famous, but their love for the African-American people made them civil rights activists.
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