Founded in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale on October 15, 1966, the organization initially set forth a doctrine calling for the protection of African American neighborhoods from police brutality, in the interest of African-American justice. Its objectives and philosophy changed radically during the party's existence. While the organization's leaders passionately espoused socialist doctrine, the Party's black nationalist reputation attracted an ideologically diverse membership. Ideological consensus within the party was difficult to achieve. Some members openly disagreed with the views of the leaders.
In 1967 the organization marched on the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest of a ban on weapons. The official newspaper the Black Panther was also first circulated that year. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Newark, New York City, and Baltimore. That same year, membership reached 5,000, and their newspaper had grown to a circulation of 250,000.
The group created a Ten-Point Program, a document that called for "Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace", as well as exemption from military service for African-American men, among other demands. While firmly grounded in black nationalism and begun as an organization that accepted only African Americans as members, the party changed as it grew to national prominence and became an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s. The Black Panthers ultimately condemned black nationalism as "black racism". They became more focused on socialism without racial exclusivity. They instituted a variety of community programs to alleviate poverty and improve health among communities deemed most needful of aid. While the party retained its all-black membership, it recognized that different minority communities (those it deemed oppressed by the American government) needed to organize around their own set of issues and encouraged alliances with such organizations. The group's political goals were often overshadowed by their confrontational and militant tactics, and by their suspicions of law enforcement agents. The Black Panthers considered them as oppressors to be overcome by a willingness to take up armed self-defense. After party membership started to decline during Huey Newton's 1968 manslaughter trial, the Black Panther Party collapsed in the early 1970s. Writers such as Black Panther and Socialist Angela Davis and American writer and political activist Ward Churchill have alleged that law enforcement officials went to great lengths to discredit and destroy the organization, including assassination.
The Oakland chapter consisted mainly of students, who were not interested in this extreme form of activism. Newton and Seale's attitudes were more militant. The pair left RAM searching for a group more meaningful to them.
They worked at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, where they also served on the advisory board. To combat police brutality, the advisory board obtained 5,000 signatures in support of the City Council's setting up a police review board to review complaints. Newton was also taking classes at the City College and at San Francisco Law School. Both institutions were active in the North Oakland Center. Thus the pair had numerous connections with whom they talked about a new organization. Inspired by the success of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and Stokely Carmichael's calls for separate black political organizations, they wrote their initial platform statement, the Ten-Point Program. With the help of Huey's brother Melvin, they decided on a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, black berets, and openly displayed loaded shotguns.
The organization focused on self-defense, with influences from the Afro-American Association, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Soul Students Advisory Council. The speeches of Malcolm X were a main topic of discussion, as well as a major influence when Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were making plans for the party.
The party philosophy was one that espoused the political views of Malcolm X and principles of Marxism-Leninism that called for an end to the exploitation of black masses by capitalists, and a redistribution of wealth. The party leaders relied on the works of Karl Marx, Lenin, and Mao to inform how they organized as a revolutionary cadre. In consciously working toward a revolution, they considered themselves the vanguard party, “committed to organizing support for a socialist revolution.”
The party did not fully agree with Karl Marx's analysis of the so-called lumpenproletariat. Marx thought that this class lacked the political consciousness required to lead a revolution. Newton, on the other hand, was inspired by his reading of post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon and his belief that the lumpen was of utmost importance. Newton said about these "brothers off the block" that, "If you didn't relate to these cats, the power structure would organize these cats against you."
Marx’s conception of the lumpenproletariat was a group that stands on the very margins of the class system because they are not wholly integrated into the division of labor. They do not accept the idea of making their living by regular work. Thus, their position within society is not marked by the fact that they are unemployed, but by the fact that they do not seek employment:
Though they may be swept up by a proletarian revolution and are entirely capable of “the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices”, they are equally capable of “the barest banditry and the foulest corruption”, and are much more likely to play the part of “a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” Essentially, they are a malleable populace that is generally tempted into service of sight, as opportunistic and exploitative as the finance aristocracy. “The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society”, Just like the aristocracy, the lumpen live off society, rather than producing for it, existing as an entirely parasitic force.
The Black Panthers' basic interpretation of the lumpenproletariat generally conforms to that of Marx. For Eldridge Cleaver, the lumpenproletariat were those who had "no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of a capitalist society. His wife Kathleen Cleaver echoed a similar sentiment, stating that the black lumpenproletariat had absolutely no stake in industrial America: “They existed at the bottom level of society…Outside the capitalist system that was the basis for the oppression of black people.”
The Panthers did not propose that the entire black American population constituted a post-modern, race-based lumpenproletariat. Instead, the Party's analysis suggested that there existed a significant "underclass"—both urban and rural in locus—within the masses of the oppressed whose removal from the primary means of production left that class particularly apt to engage subversive activities, both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary in potential impact.
The Panthers included two distinct groups within the lumpen. First, the "industrial reserve army", who could not find employment, as they were unskilled and unfit, displaced by mechanization and never invested with new skills, forced to rely on Welfare or receiving State Aid. They consisted of ‘the millions of black domestics and porters, nurses’ aides and maintenance men, laundresses and cooks, sharecroppers, unpropertied ghetto dwellers, welfare mothers’.
The second group were the so-called "criminal element", who had similarly been locked out of the economy, and consisted of the "gang members and the gangsters, the pimps and the prostitutes, the drug users and dealers, the common thieves and murderers". The "criminal element" displayed the key characteristics of the Lumpen, the parasite, "existing off that which they rip off".
The "Industrial Reserve Army" posed a problem, since a large proportion of this group consisted of the working poor (although their jobs are “irregular and usually low paid', they are the working poor all the same). But Marx explicitly stated that the lumpenproletariat formed "a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat."
The Panthers viewed the line that separated the proletariat and the lumpen as tenuous and fragile, which resulted in a blending of the two classes. Some historians have argued that the Panthers "envisioned a lumpen more akin to a subproletariat class" that lacked the parasitical aspects of the traditional lumpen sector.
Newton, Seale, and their supporters within the party eventually came to reject cultural nationalists as "black racists", and dubbed those nationalists' brand of cultural nationalism as narrow and bourgeois "pork-chop nationalism". Alluding to the black nationalist US Organization Maulana Karenga, Black Panther Fred Hampton said, "[P]olitical power does not flow from the sleeve of a dashiki; political power flows from the barrel of a gun." ("Political power flows from the barrel of a gun" is an early quote by Mao Zedong.)
Newton and Seale attempted to work in coalition with organizations representing oppressed communities in the United States (many of which took inspiration from the Black Panthers), as well as with other radical groups with whom they felt they had common interests. These included the Puerto Rican Young Lords, a street gang turned political organization under the leadership of Jose "Cha-Cha" Jimenez, and the Young Patriots Organization formed by Jack "Junebug" Boykin to support the white youth of the Appalachian region. Together they formed the first Rainbow Coalition in 1969.
Other groups with whom the Panthers worked included the predominantly white youth movements of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Youth International Party (Yippies); the Chicano Brown Berets; the California Peace and Freedom Party; and the post-Stonewall riot Gay Liberation Front.
In 1970, Huey P. Newton's spoke at Boston College, declaring that the Black Panther Party would "disclaim internationalism and become intercommunalists". What Newton envisioned was the end of all "states" and all nations. There would be instead a worldwide social framework of "interdependent socialist communities", communalism rather than nationalism. The Party recognized that all over the world there were "oppressed communities". These communities should be united across national boundaries where they found themselves to have a common oppressor.
Newton's approach toward combating all forms of oppression, rather than only oppression of black people, caused him friction with Panthers such as Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver. Carmichael embraced the slogan "Black Power", while Newton and Seale embraced the slogan "Power to the People". They believed the latter was more internationalist and Marxist.
Cleaver's early book Soul on Ice promoted a sexist and homophobic perspective that people associated with the Panthers when he became active in the party. In his book, Cleaver indicated that, at one point in his life, he viewed the rape of white women as "an insurrectionary act." He also attacked black author James Baldwin for his homosexuality and relationships with white men.
But as a member of the Panthers, Cleaver explicitly attacked sexism, declaring that women "have a duty and the right to do whatever they want to do in order to see to it that they are not relegated to an inferior position." Insisting that liberation must be broad, he explained that, "the women are our half. They're not our weaker half; they're not our stronger half. They are our other half." While in exile in Algeria, Cleaver demanded less emphasis on Panther community programs and more emphasis on guerrilla activity.
These differences of opinion weakened Newton's control of the party, especially while he served a sentence in prison. The differences grew into a full-blown split between a main, Western U.S.-based faction supporting Newton, and a breakaway Eastern U.S.-based faction that supported Cleaver. (See Decay and disintegration below)
Inspired by Mao Zedong's advice to revolutionaries in the The Little Red Book, Newton called on the Panthers to "serve the people" and to make "survival programs" a priority within its branches. The most famous and successful of their programs was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, initially run out of a Oakland church.
Other survival programs were free services such as clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.
As the Black Panther Party was beginning to gain a national presence, police began a crackdown on the party and their activities. Huey P. Newton was arrested for an alleged murder, which sparked a "free Huey" campaign, organized by Eldridge Cleaver to help Newton's legal defense. Newton was convicted, though his conviction was overturned in the 1970s.
In April 1968, the party was involved in a gun battle, where Bobby Hutton, a Panther, was killed. Cleaver later said that he had led the Panther group on a deliberate ambush of the police officers, thus provoking the shoot-out. In Chicago, two Panthers were killed in a police raid.
One of the central aims of the BPP was to stop abuse by local police departments. When the party was founded in 1966, only 16 of Oakland's 661 police officers were African American. Accordingly, many members questioned the Department's objectivity and impartiality. This situation was not unique to Oakland, California. Most police departments in major cities did not have proportional membership by African Americans. Throughout the 1960s, race riots and civil unrest broke out in impoverished African-American communities subject to policing by disproportionately white police departments. The work and writings of Robert F. Williams, Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter president and author of Negroes with Guns, also influenced the BPP's tactics.
The BPP sought to oppose police brutality through neighborhood patrols (an approach since adopted by groups such as Copwatch). Police officers were often followed by armed Black Panthers who sought at times to aid African-Americans who were alleged victims of police brutality and perceived racial prejudice. Both Panthers and police died as a result of violent confrontations. By 1970, 34 Panthers had died as a result of police raids, shoot-outs and internal conflict. Various police organizations claim the Black Panthers were responsible for the deaths of at least 15 law enforcement officers and the injuries of dozens more. During those years, juries found several BPP members guilty of violent crimes.
From 1966 to 1972, when the party was most active, several departments hired significantly more African-American police officers. Some of these black officers played prominent roles in shutting down the Panthers' activities. In Chicago in 1969 for example, Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton were both killed in a police raid (In which five of the officers present were African American) by Sergeant James Davis, an African American officer. In cities such as New York City, black police officers were used to infiltrate Panther meetings. By 1972, almost every major police department was fully integrated. Prominent member H. Rap Brown is serving life imprisonment for the 2000 murder of Ricky Leon Kinchen, a Fulton County, Georgia sheriff's deputy, and the wounding of another officer in a gunbattle. Both officers were black.
Although COINTELPRO was commissioned ostensibly to prevent violence, it used some tactics to foster violence. For instance, the FBI tried to "intensify the degree of animosity" between the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang. They sent an anonymous letter to the Ranger’s gang leader claiming that the Panthers were threatening his life, a letter whose intent was to induce "reprisals" against Panther leadership. In Southern California similar actions were taken to exacerbate a "gang war" between the Black Panther Party and a group called the US Organization. Violent conflict between these two groups, including shootings and beatings, led to the deaths of at least four Black Panther Party members. FBI agents claimed credit for instigating some of the violence between the two groups.
On January 17 1969, Los Angeles Panther Captain Bunchy Carter and Deputy Minister John Huggins were killed in Campbell Hall on the UCLA campus, in a gun battle with members of US Organization stemming from a dispute over who would control UCLA's black studies program. Another shootout between the two groups on March 17 led to further injuries. It was alleged that the FBI had sent a provocative letter to US Organization in an attempt to create antagonism between US and the Panthers.
One of the most notorious actions was a Chicago Police raid of the home of Panther organizer Fred Hampton on December 4 1969. The raid had been orchestrated by the police in conjunction with the FBI. The FBI was complicit in many of the actions. The people inside the home had been drugged by an FBI informant, William O'Neal, and were asleep at the time of the raid. Hampton was shot and killed, as was the guard, Mark Clark. The others were dragged into the street, beaten, and subsequently charged with assault. These charges were later dropped. The Chicago Police and FBI were never investigated or charged for their role in the event.
In May 1969, party members tortured and murdered Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party, because they suspected him of being a police informant. Three party officers — Warren Kimbro, George Sams, Jr., and Lonnie McLucas — later admitted taking part. Sams, who gave the order to shoot Rackley at the murder scene, turned state's evidence and testified that he had received orders personally from Bobby Seale to carry out the execution. After this betrayal, party supporters alleged that Sams was himself the informant and an agent provocateur employed by the FBI. The case resulted in the New Haven, Connecticut Black Panther trials of 1970. The trial ended with a hung jury, and the prosecution chose not to seek another trial.
In 1968, the group shortened its name to the Black Panther Party and sought to focus directly on political action. Members were told not to carry guns. An influx of college students joined the group, which had consisted chiefly of "brothers off the block." This created some tension in the group. Some members were more interested in supporting the Panther's social programs, while others wanted to maintain their "street mentality". For many Panthers, the group was little more than a type of gang.
Panther slogans and iconography spread. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American medalists, gave the black power salute during the playing of the American national anthem. The International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympic Games for life. Some Hollywood celebrities, such as Jane Fonda, became involved in their leftist program. She publicly supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. The Black Panthers attracted a wide variety of left-wing revolutionaries and political activists, including former Ramparts Magazine editor David Horowitz and left-wing lawyer Charles R. Garry, who often acted as their counsel. Survival Committees and coalitions were organized with several groups across the United States. Chief among these in Chicago was the first Rainbow Coalition formed by Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers which included Young Patriots and Young Lords.
In October 1967, Oakland police officer John Frey was shot to death in an altercation with Newton during a traffic stop. In the stop, Newton and backup officer Herbert Heanes also suffered gunshot wounds. Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter at trial. This incident gained the party even wider recognition by the radical American left, and a "Free Huey" campaign ensued. Newton was released after three years, when his conviction was reversed on appeal.
On May 2 1967, the California State Assembly Committee on Criminal Procedure was scheduled to convene to discuss what was known as the "Mulford Act", which would ban public displays of loaded firearms. Cleaver and Newton put together a plan to send a group of about 30 Panthers led by Seale from Oakland to Sacramento to protest the bill. The group entered the assembly carrying their weapons, an incident which was widely publicized, and which prompted police to arrest Seale and five others. The group pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of disrupting a legislative session.
On April 7 1968, Panther Bobby Hutton, who held the title Minister of Defense, was killed, and Cleaver was wounded in a shootout with the Oakland police. Each side called the event an ambush by the other. Two policemen were shot in the incident.
Among radical leftist organizations, the Panthers' reputation for violence was likely rivaled only by the Weathermen. Hugh Pearson stated, "the Left appeared to view the Panthers as gladiators, cheering them on as they got themselves killed.
From the fall of 1967 through the end of 1969, nine police officers were killed and 56 were wounded in confrontations with the Panthers. The confrontations were believed to have resulted in ten Panther deaths and an unknown number of injuries. In 1969 alone, 348 Panthers were arrested for a variety of crimes .
The Party eventually fell apart due to rising legal costs and internal disputes. Its final leader was Elaine Brown, a longtime Panther and the first and last woman to lead it where she addressed issues of sexism within the party and attempted to stave off its disintegration.
The National Alliance of Black Panthers was formed on July 31 2004. It was inspired by the grassroots activism of the original organization but not otherwise related. Its chairwoman is Shazza Nzingha.
In October 2006, the Black Panther Party held a 40-year reunion in Oakland, California.
In January 2007, a joint California state and Federal task force charged eight men with the 1971 murder of a California police officer. The defendants have been identified as former members of the Black Liberation Army. Two have been linked to the Black Panthers. In 1975 a similar case was dismissed when a judge ruled that police gathered evidence through the use of torture.
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