By Aly Tamboura and Kevin D. Sawyer
Once a year, America turns its eyes toward Black history to honor heroes of the nation’s evolution from slavery to Jim Crow and the struggle for equal rights.
In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal planted the seeds of a Black nationalist movement in Oakland, CA, that spread rapidly to the rest of America. And now, after 50 years, the Black Panthers theme of armed militancy, which began in Black communities, has been expropriated by the radical right. The Panthers’ calling card of carrying weapons openly in public has become a disturbing part of daily American life in communities from Florida to Oregon, even on some college campuses.
Black history narratives honor the likes of Harriet Tubman, who formed the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, who fought to abolish slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr., icon of the civil rights movement. They are recognized for what they did in the name of freedom, equality and progress. But not much is said about how the Panthers managed to set the tone for the politicization of weaponry by militant right-wing groups, paving the way for the “Stand Your Ground” laws and the “open carry” frenzy.
The Panthers party spread its roots into the fabric of every African-American community, expanding into a national organization with over 40 chapters throughout the United States, and abroad, including Britain and even Israel. Armed resistance was an attractive summons to people of color everywhere. The Brown Berets movement in East Los Angeles was a Chicano/Latino version of the Panthers.
Originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the organization opened its first Oakland office in January, 1967 responding to a need for what its founders described as a mechanism “to combat police violence in Negro neighborhoods.” The party had a simple but important platform for winning the minds and the hearts of the people: bringing services, including food, to underserved neighborhoods.
In response to the Panthers, communities around the nation rallied to create programs such as the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which opened up from coast to coast in cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, Atlantic City, NJ, Boston, MA, New Haven, CT, Winston-Salem, NC, and elsewhere. Free medical clinics, free clothing programs, food giveaways and educational opportunities called Liberation Schools were also established. “Each one, teach one” was the model. In addition, some cities formed Legal Defense Programs for Black tenants and those facing criminal charges.
While some pragmatists in the party toiled in the community to make improvements, some charismatic leaders, such as former San Quentin prisoner and author of Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver, set out on a course of militancy. They were involved in several armed and violent confrontations with police. In its first few years of existence some Panthers as well as law enforcement officers were killed or injured in clashes.
Cleaver was appointed to a controversial lectureship at U.C. Berkeley. His official title with the party was Minister of Information. Cleaver continued with his in-your-face rhetoric, at one point calling then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan a “punk, a sissy, and a coward,” according to the Los Angeles Times. It was not long before Cleaver was back behind prison walls, his parole revoked for an April 1968 shootout with Oakland police in which Bobby Hutton was killed.
With Cleaver back in prison, a talented speaker, Fred Hampton, who rocketed into the leadership of the Illinois chapter, gave moderates hope. Hampton referred to himself as a “revolutionary.” Those Panther supporters looking for a leader to embody the values of the Black community and transform its ideology into the national movement they desired, while avoiding prison and armed conflict, saw Hampton as their savior.
However, “one of the many obsessions of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover…” according to author James Lardner, was “a premonition about the rise of a charismatic Black messiah, something he was determined to prevent.”
In response to what the Bureau described as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was created to “disrupt, discredit or otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other groups looked upon as threats.
Indeed, much of the Panthers’ downfall that they did not bring upon themselves came from FBI actions that later in Senate hearings were described as illegal and unconstitutional. But before the program ended, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, John Huggins and many others were killed, and Panther supporters say COINTELPRO was involved.
The increasing loss of leadership around the country was devastating for the Panthers:
Co-founder Huey P. Newton was shot and arrested for murder after a traffic stop in Oakland, October 1967, and sentenced to prison.
Panther offices across the nation were raided by police who arrested numerous members.
The costs of bail and legal fees took a toll on the organization.
Besides fundraising and donations, the main enterprise the Panthers utilized to fund its operations was the publishing and sale of the Black Panther Party newspaper, which began in April 1967. Though the newspaper had an impressive distribution, it did not produce the revenue necessary for prolonged legal battles with the government.
Despite dwindling financial resources and the pressure of government surveillance programs such as COINTELPRO, the depleted organization soldiered on.
In the years that followed, Cleaver fled the U.S. to Cuba in 1974, finally settling in Algeria to escape an attempted murder charge.
Bobby Seale resigned from the party in 1974. That same year Elaine Brown was appointed to lead the Panthers. Under her leadership the Panthers “focused on electoral politics and community service.” Brown, still involved in Oakland politics today, helped Lionel Wilson become Oakland’s first Black mayor.
Huey P. Newton, who served time in the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, for his 1968 manslaughter conviction in the death of a police officer, went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In August 1989 he was killed in West Oakland in what police say was a drug-related murder. Tyrone Robinson, then 25, was tried and convicted of Newton’s murder.
Fifty years after its beginning, the Black Panther Party’s efforts to address many of the very issues facing African-American communities today have been absorbed by the larger and more amorphous and interracial Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile the Panthers’ most lasting legacy may be one they never bargained for: They inspired Whites on the right to adopt militancy backed up by firearms as a tool of intimidation.