The Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who were then students at Merritt Junior College. Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the BPP initially formed in response to accusations of police brutality by Bay Area residents. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miranda v. Arizona that the police had to inform persons of their rights before placing them under arrest, the BPP formed patrols to ensure that the police were following the court's directive. Armed Panthers patrolled neighborhoods and, upon seeing a pedestrian or motorist stopped by the police, the Panthers would pull within 15 feet of the cruiser and observe the interaction to deter the police from employing extralegal force. As the organization grew in scope, it dropped
the words Self-Defense from its title. For the BPP, the name changed also coincided with the group's evolution into a full-fledged revolutionary organization.
The BPP outlined its goals and objectives in a 10-point manifesto. It called for a redistribution of wealth and resources in the United States and for blacks to build and control their own communities and institutions. The group emphasized redress for past and present injustices in the form of employment, decent housing, and an education that reflected the cultural, political, and geographical heritage of people of African descent. They also promoted self-determination. The Panthers’ slogan, “All Power to the People,” became the battle cry for those who wanted to empower the dispossessed of all races: “Black Power to Black People, Red Power to Red People, and Brown Power to Brown People.”
The typical Panther recruit ranged in age from 17 to 22 years. The Panthers attracted people with jail or prison records. They were also noted for their recruitment of gang members. The Southern California Chapter was especially receptive to former gang members, recruiting a fair number of them from the Slausons, one of the city's largest and most feared gangs. In addition to former gang members, there were also a number of ex-servicemen within the party's ranks. While membership was not open to whites, it was open to other activists of color.
The Panthers’ uniform, which included a black leather jacket, a powder-blue shirt, and black pants, with impeccably shined black shoes and a black beret, suggested that they were image conscious. Party members also had a flair for the dramatic. In 1967 California state legislator Don Mulford proposed a bill that would make it illegal to carry guns openly in residential and incorporated areas. Panther leaders believed this was a deliberate attempt to disarm the party; hence Newton sent a delegation of 30 Panthers to the Sacramento state house to protest passage of the bill. Newspaper headlines across the state read “Black Militants Invade State Capitol.” This stunt garnered national press, which ultimately proved both helpful and harmful to the Panthers’ goals.
The Panthers experienced a turning point in the early 1970s. From late 1970 to 1971, discord between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver forced some party members to take sides. Cleaver believed it was time for the Panthers to wage war against the “pigs.” Newton believed that doing so would be counterrevolutionary. He maintained that the Panthers needed to focus on meeting the needs of the community. Toward that end, the Panthers created new initiatives and expanded many of their existing programs. From exile in Algeria (where Cleaver had fled to escape charges that were certain to land him in prison for his role in the botched ambush of Bay Area police officers in April 1968), Cleaver mustered support among the large New York State Chapter of the BPP. When New York Panthers commended the bomb-happy Weathermen for their embrace of armed struggle in an open letter published in February 1971, they also criticized Newton and others for their seemingly reformist approach to alleviating black oppression. Newton responded by expelling the entire New York State Chapter. Weeks later Cleaver aired their differences on a locally televised show. The spat took a turn for the worse as loyal factions for both men implicitly declared war on the opposing camp, culminating in the deaths of at least two Panthers.
Given the organization's efforts at political mobilization, it is not surprising that the Panthers faced heavy institutional repression. One of the government's most commonly used methods was red-baiting. With the Panthers’ founding coming on the heels of Senator Joe McCarthy's Red Scare, this tactic was highly effective. It is also important to recognize that the BPP was founded during the height of the Cold War and the United States’ escalation in the Vietnam War. Consequently, the U.S. government targeted anyone who expressed sympathy or demonstrated support for communist regimes.
It is also possible that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover did not harbor the same level of antipathy toward white activists or even other activists of color. Hoover believed that blacks were inferior, intellectually and otherwise. Blacks were also the largest minority group in the country at that time, and some public opinion polls revealed that a sector of the black population admired the Panthers. Hence, Hoover believed that the Panthers had the potential to win over recruits. Furthermore, Hoover believed that the breakfast program was a subterfuge for indoctrinating children with antiestablishment teachings, thus creating a generation of nonconformist blacks.
At its apex the Party claimed to have nearly 40 chapters and branches in cities across the United States. The Panthers also boasted an international chapter in Algiers, Algeria. Moreover, the Panthers were the only group that carried guns in plain sight and thus monitored police behavior with the threat of armed resistance. Law enforcement officials found the Panthers’ militant posture and inflammatory rhetoric particularly insubordinate, especially for blacks. Consequently, local police departments in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Army Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and state police worked to neutralize the Panthers by jailing and murdering some of their most important leaders.
The Panthers enjoyed enormous success, considering the barriers against which they fought. Their impact was far-reaching. Students of 1960s social movements understand that some of the radical groups founded after 1966 inside and outside of the United States were modeled after the BPP, such as the Young Lords, the American Indian movement in the United States, and the Black Beret Cadre in the Bahamas, as well as the Untouchables in India. But the BPP was not without its problems.
From 1967 to 1968, the BPP grew from a regional outfit that was once limited to the West Coast to an international organization with outposts in Africa. Unfortunately, the Panthers did not have the people power or resources to accommodate such rapid expansion. The proliferation of Panther branches across the country, in particular, presented a number of challenges with which the Panthers were not equipped to deal.
By the late 1970s, the Panthers were decimated by a host of factors that were not limited to governmental repression, but the BPP left behind a rich legacy of bold activism that transformed American history and culture and that resonates worldwide in social movements today.
Judson L Jeffries
See also: African Americans and Populism ; McCarthy, Joseph (1908–1957) ; Weather Underground
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