The Black Panther Party (BPP) was conceived as the next stage in the evolution of the African American struggle, building off of a trajectory that is mistakenly divided into two discrete movements: civil rights and Black Power (Hill 2004; Tyson 1999). Fusing the political thought of Robert F. Williams on armed self-defense with the philosophy of Malcolm X on black self-determination, Max Stanford developed a unique approach to activism that would become the Black Panther Party (BPP) (Marable 2007). The basic goal was to advance Black Power and national liberation throughout the United States in general but especially in the North by improving the political, economic, social, and psychological well-being of African Americans (Hilliard and Cole 1993; Holder 1990; Jones 1998). This was to be achieved through a diverse repertoire of activities, but it was the ideas of armed self-defense and guerrilla warfare (if deemed necessary) that garnered the most attention.
From the beginning the organization was divided by a fundamental split based on important tactical differences. On the East Coast the first BPP chapter was created in New York City by Stanford in 1965 (see Marable 2007). This organization advocated a clandestine approach and opted to remain underground until it could more effectively pursue its claims openly. On the West Coast the second BPP chapter was created by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966 (see Seale 1970). This chapter advocated a more public presence and attempted to garner as much attention as possible. Both wings of the party developed chapters throughout the United States (especially during a period of particularly rapid growth between 1967 and 1968). In late 1969 and 1970, in an effort to avoid negative publicity and the attention of authorities, the Panther name was changed to the National Committee to Combat Fascism in many locales.
Because it drew the primary focus of the media as well as of political leaders, activists, and academics, the West Coast faction has largely shaped our understanding of the BPP. This bias is perhaps inevitable, because the West Coast faction was involved in many of the most dramatic incidents and activities associated with the Panthers. These include the storming of the California State Assembly in Sacramento in 1967, numerous shoot-outs with the police throughout Oakland (especially those involving Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and “Li’l” Bobby Hutton), the Free Huey movement, the Chicago 8 trial, the shooting of George Jackson in San Quentin Prison, and the failed kidnapping of a judge in a Marin County courtroom by Jackson’s brother Jonathan (see Holder 1990; Seale 1970; United States Congress 1971). In addition the West Coast Panthers developed numerous high-profile programs that were later imitated, such as the free breakfast program, the liberation school, sickle cell anemia tests, and the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service (see Abron 1993; Cleaver and Katsiaficas 2001). Also highly influential was the imagery associated with West Coast Panthers: Their military berets, leather gloves and hats, bright powder-blue shirts, and Afro hairstyles were as symbolically important to the Black Power movement as the phrase “Power to the People.” The impact of this imagery was immediate and resonated across the United States as well as throughout the world.
Although in some respects the BPP was part of a continuum of black struggle, in other respects it represented a major divergence from the traditional black nationalist program. For example, the BPP was hesitant about calling for a black “nation”—a major goal for black nationalists. Newton, the main theoretician for the Panthers, suggested that until “the oppressive state of America” was wiped out, there would be no freedom for blacks even with a separate state. The disagreement, then, was over timing, not over nationhood per se. The BPP members were also somewhat disdainful of those who believed that the path to African American salvation was the adoption of African culture or a return to the African continent—both major planks of the black nationalist program. Indeed the Panthers were quite American and Western in their objectives and in many of the means used to attain them. Finally, the BPP decided relatively early on that coalitions should be formed with white liberals, radicals, and any other groups that wished to bring about political-economic change—a stance that further distanced them from other black nationalists.
Divided tactically and organizationally from the rest of the Black Power movement, the BPP soon became the target of a highly repressive campaign. This effort extended from J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, which in 1968 identified the party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States” (Cunningham 2004), to “red squad” and antisubversive units in local police departments throughout the country (Donner 1990). These organizations engaged in a wide variety of actions: setting up physical and electronic surveillance; sending false letters; planting informants and agents provocateur; conducting raids; making arrests for a multitude of offenses, from murder to running an intercom without a license; and even carrying out targeted assassination. The actions of both the state and the Panthers escalated to such a level of violence over several years that diverse citizens’ alliances began to form calling for an end to the conflict.
By 1973, due to the efforts of the U.S. government to eliminate it and the difficulties of managing a high-profile and contentious organization, the original BPP was effectively dismantled (Calloway 1977; Goldstein 1978; Hopkins 1978; Johnson 1998; Jones 1998). In its place there developed an organization with new leadership (most of the original governing committee was no longer involved), new tactics (confrontation was replaced by electoral and civil service efforts), and new members (largely female).
The Panthers were by no means finished at this time, however. Several of their earlier programs persisted up until 1980 (Abron 1993). Ideologically and tactically, to both good and bad effect, the Panthers influenced the white Left (who considered them to be the “vanguard” of the revolution), other African American organizations (the New Black Panther Party), Latinos (the Young Lords), Native Americans (especially the American Indian Movement), diverse activists around the world (e.g., the Black Panther Parties in Australia and Israel as well as the Dalit Panthers in India), and even the social service programs of diverse state and local governments. Additionally, through popularization in film, television, music, poetry, and fiction, the BPP and its legacy continue to exert an influence on America and the rest of the world (Cleaver and Katsiaficas 2001; Kelley 2002). Indeed as one of the most visible and aggressive responses to the diverse problems confronting blacks in the United States, the Black Panthers are likely to remain inspirational to those resisting racism, the U.S. government, or capitalism for some time to come.
SEE ALSO African Americans; Black Power; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Human Rights; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Malcolm X; Marxism, Black; Militants; Repression; Resistance
Abron, Jonina. 1993. Raising the Consciousness of the People: The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, 1967–1980. In Insider Histories of the Vietnam-Era Underground Press, vol. 1 of Voices from the Underground, ed. Ken Wachsberger, Sanford Berman, William Moses Kunstler, and Abe Peck, 356–357. Tempe, AZ: Mica.
Calloway, Carolyn R. 1977. Group Cohesiveness in the Black Panther Party. Journal of Black Studies 8 (1): 55–74.
Cleaver, Kathleen, and George N. Katsiaficas, eds. 2001. Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy. New York: Routledge.
Cunningham, David. 2004. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Donner, Frank J. 1990. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Goldstein, Robert Justin. 1978. Political Repression in Modern America: From 1870 to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.
Hill, Lance E. 2004. The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Hilliard, David, and Lewis Cole. 1993. This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party. Boston: Little, Brown.
Holder, Kit Kim. 1990. The History of the Black Panther Party, 1966–1972. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Hopkins, Charles William. 1978. The Deradicalization of the Black Panther Party, 1967–1973. PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Johnson, Ollie. 1998. Explaining the Demise of the Black Panther Party: The Role of Internal Factors. In The Black Panthers (Reconsidered ), ed. Charles E. Jones, 391–409. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic.
Jones, Charles E., ed. 1998. The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered ). Baltimore, MD: Black Classic.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon.
Marable, Manning. 2007. The Malcolm X. Project at Columbia University.
Seale, Bobby. 1970. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House.
Tyson, Timothy B. 1999. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
United States Congress, House Committee on Internal Security. 1971. Gun Barrel Politics: The Black Panther Party, 1966–1971. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) came to represent the West Coast manifestation of Black Power as well as the angry mood within urban African American communities in the 1960s. The groups main influences were Malcolm X, especially after his 1964 break from the Nation of Islam, and Robert F. Williams, the then Cuban-based civil rights leader and advocate of armed self-defense. Philosophically, the organization was rooted in an eclectic blend of Marxist-Leninism, black nationalism, and in the revolutionary movements of Africa and Asia.
The BPP was founded in October 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two young black college students in Oakland, California. The name of the organization was taken from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which had used the symbol and name for organizing in the rural black belt of Alabama in 1965. The BPP was initially created to expand Newton and Seale's political activity, particularly "patrolling the pigs"—that is, monitoring police activities in black communities to ensure that civil rights were respected.
Tactically, the BPP advocated "picking up the gun" as a means to achieve liberation for African Americans. Early on, Newton and Seale earned money to purchase guns by selling copies of Mao Tsetung's "Little Red Book" to white radicals on the University of California-Berkeley campus. The group's "Ten Point Program" demanded self-determination for black communities, full employment, decent housing, better education, and an end to police brutality. In addition, the program included more radical goals: exemption from military service for black men, all-black juries for African Americans on trial and "an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black Community." Newton, the intellectual leader of the group, was appointed its first Minister of Defense and Eldridge Cleaver, a prison activist and writer for the New Left journal Ramparts, became Minister of Information. Sporting paramilitary uniforms of black leather jackets, black berets, dark sunglasses, and conspicuously displayed firearms, the Panthers quickly won local celebrity.
A series of dramatic events earned the Black Panthers national notoriety in 1967. That spring, as a result of the Panthers' initial police surveillance efforts, members of the California state legislature introduced a bill banning the carrying of loaded guns in public. In response, a group of Black Panthers marched into the capitol building in Sacramento toting loaded weapons. Then, on October 28 of the same year, Newton was arrested on murder charges following an altercation with Oakland police which left one officer dead and Newton and another patrolman wounded. The arrest prompted the BPP to start a "Free Huey!" campaign which attracted national attention through the support of Hollywood celebrities and noted writers and spurred the formation of Black Panther chapters in major cities across the nation. In addition, Newton's arrest forced Seale and Cleaver into greater leadership roles in the organization. Cleaver, in particular, with his inflammatory rhetoric and powerful speaking skills, increasingly shaped public perceptions of the Panthers with incendiary calls for black retribution and scathing verbal attacks against African American "counter-revolutionaries." He claimed the choice before the United States was "total liberty for black people or total destruction for America."
In February 1968, former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, Stokely Carmichael, who had been invited by Cleaver and Seale to speak at "Free Huey!" rallies, challenged Cleaver as the primary spokesman for the party. Carmichael's Pan-Africanism, emphasizing racial unity, contrasted sharply with other Panther leaders' emphasis on class struggle and their desire to attract white leftist support in the campaign to free Newton. The ideological tension underlying this conflict resulted in Carmichael's resignation as Prime Minister of the BPP in the summer of 1969 and signaled the beginning of a period of vicious infighting within the black militant community. In one incident, after the Panthers branded head of the Los Angeles-based black nationalist group US, Ron Karenga, a "pork chop nationalist," an escalating series of disputes between the groups culminated in the death of two Panthers during a shoot-out on the UCLA campus in January 1969.
At the same time, the federal government stepped up its efforts to infiltrate and undermine the BPP. In August 1967, the FBI targeted the Panthers and other radical groups in a covert counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, designed to prevent "a coalition of militant black nationalist groups" and the emergence of a "black messiah" who might "unify and electrify these violence-prone elements." FBI misinformation, infiltration by informers, wiretapping, harassment, and numerous police assaults contributed to the growing tendency among BPP leaders to suspect the motives of black militants who disagreed with the party's program. On April 6, 1968, police descended on a house containing several Panthers, killing the party's 17-year-old treasurer, Bobby Hutton, and wounding Cleaver, who was then returned to prison for a parole violation. In September, authorities convicted Newton of voluntary manslaughter. In December, two Chicago party leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were killed in a police raid. By the end of the decade, 27 members of the BPP had been killed, Newton was in jail (although he was released after a successful appeal in 1970), Cleaver had fled to Algeria to avoid prison, and many other Panthers faced lengthy prison terms or continued repression. In 1970, the state of Connecticut unsuccessfully tried to convict Seale of murder in the death of another Panther in that state.
By the early 1970s, the BPP was severely weakened by external attack, internal division, and legal problems and declined rapidly. After his release from prison in 1970, Newton attempted to wrest control of the party away from Cleaver and to revive the organization's popular base. In place of Cleaver's fiery rhetoric and support for immediate armed struggle, Newton stressed community organizing, set up free-breakfast programs for children and, ultimately, supported participation in electoral politics. These efforts, though, were undermined by widely published reports that the Panthers engaged in extortion and assault against other African Americans. By the mid-1970s, most veteran leaders, including Seale and Cleaver, had deserted the party and Newton, faced with a variety of criminal charges, fled to Cuba. After his return from exile, Newton earned a doctorate, but was also involved with the drug trade. In 1989, he was shot to death in a drug-related incident in Oakland. Eldridge Cleaver drifted rightward in the 1980s, supporting conservative political candidates in several races. He died on May 1, 1998, as a result of injuries he received in a mysterious mugging. Bobby Seale continued to do local organizing in California. In 1995, Mario Van Pebbles directed the feature film, Panther, which attempted to bring the story of the BPP to another generation. The Panthers are remembered today as much for their cultural style and racial posturing as for their political program or ideology.
—Patrick D Jones
Brown, Elaine. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story. New York, Pantheon, 1992.
Chruchill, Ward. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston, South End, 1988.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul On Ice. New York, Laurel/Dell, 1992.
Hilliard, David. This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party. Boston, Little Brown, 1993.
Keating, Edward. Free Huey! Berkeley, California, Ramparts, 1970.
Moore, Gilbert. Rage. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1971.
Newton, Huey. To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton. New York, Random House, 1972.
Pearson, Hugh. The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power In America. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York, Random House, 1970.
BLACK PANTHERS. Organized in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense incorporated Marxist ideology into its platform to include demands for health care, housing, employment, and education reforms. A militant stance against police brutality, however, drew most of its media attention, particularly after the group staged an armed protest at the California General Assembly on 2 May 1967 against a proposed ban on concealed weapons. In contrast to separatist groups, the Black Panthers advocated a cross-racial coalition that emphasized both class and racial inequities. Although it failed to become a true mass movement—never growing beyond an estimated five thousand members in thirty-five cities—the Black Panther Party was the target of numerous federal and local police investigations designed to discredit its leadership and weaken its influence.
A short-lived alliance in 1968 with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was one of many internal tensions that marked the Black Panthers. In February 1971, the Panthers' minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, already in exile to avoid a prison term, was expelled over ideological differences within the group. Seale faced charges of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968
Democratic National Convention; after his acquittal as part of the Chicago Seven, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland in 1973 and left the Black Panthers in 1974. Newton, facing criticism for corruption and an indictment for murder, left in November 1974.
Under the leadership of Elaine Brown, the Black Panthers revived many of their community programs. The group also turned to electoral politics; Brown vied unsuccessfully for a seat on the Oakland City Council in 1973 and 1975 and served as a delegate for candidate Jerry Brown at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. The Black Panthers dissolved in 1982.
Brown, Elaine. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970.
Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House, 1970.
Van Deburg, William L. Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960–1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
See alsoChicago Seven ; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee .
an israeli protest movement of second-generation middle eastern immigrants, mostly moroccan.
The Black Panthers aimed at improving material conditions in Israel in Middle Eastern Jewish communities (adot ha-mizrah). Erupting briefly as street demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in 1971, the movement attracted publicity. The name, taken from the U.S. black-pride movement, was chosen to shock Israelis out of complacency. The movement led to improved community services and some activists began their political careers.
see also israel; mizrahi movement.
Israeli political and protest movement created in the 1970s by the leaders of the Sephardi community in their struggle for equal rights. Working against the Laborites, in power since 1948, their activity enabled the advent to power of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party in 1977.
SEE ALSO Begin, Menachem;Sephardim.
Name of an armed branch of al-Fatah.
SEE ALSO Fatah, al-.