Black Panther Party’s legacy of Black Power endures
A crowd of 4,000 to 5,000 persons, some carrying Black Panther flags, staged a protest march and rally against the Detroit Police Stress unit, on Sept. 24, 1971, in Detroit. (Photo: Richard Sheinwald, AP)
By Elizabth Weise, USA Today Network
OAKLAND, CA – For many Americans, the name “Black Panthers” brings to mind young, stone-faced Black men in berets and Black leather coats and carrying rifles. Those images were either exhilarating, terrifying or world-changing, depending on who was looking.
Fifty years after the group was founded, the Panthers remain a flashpoint in the struggle for Black equality in the USA. While it’s true that the party failed to live up to its ideals during its more than 10 years of activism, it’s equally true that its efforts led to greater equity and strength in the Black community.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966. It was founded to monitor police violence in Black communities, a seemingly intractable issue that Black Lives Matter and other groups continue to organize a-round today.
“We took no crap, so to speak, from what we used to say is the racist pig power structure,” Seale said in a recent interview.
What the Panthers actually stood for, as well as the group’s many projects and its eventual slide into violence and disarray, are the subject of a new documentary airing on PBS starting Feb. 16.
Sometimes controversial but always stunning in its use of archival footage, modern inter-views and the music of the time, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, was written, directed and produced by Stan-ley Nelson, who has made films about such touchstones as the Freedom Riders and the murder of Emmett Till.
The documentary has been criticized by former Panthers as either too soft or too hard on the movement that at one point had thousands of members in more than 21 communities.
Roots on campus
The Panthers grew out of the generally pacifist civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was part of an African-American culture of self-discovery and self-determination that was flowering in many parts of the country at the time.
“It’s hard to think back to 1966, when you never saw a Black man confront a white per-son, anywhere — not on the street, not on TV, not in the North or the South. You never saw the aggressive attitude that the Panthers had. For better or worse, it’s so much a part of our culture today,” Nelson says.
“It was very much the hip-hop attitude, but the Panthers personified it 50 years ago,” he says.
It’s not widely known that the Panthers trace their origins to a fight to make education at a small Oakland junior college more relevant to a student body that was more than 45 percent Black.
At the time, in the early 1960s, Seale was working in anti-poverty programs and studying part time at Merritt College in Oakland. Every year, the college celebrated “Pioneer Day,” honoring the history of settlers who came West in the 1800s. But Seale and others noticed a glaring omission in the story of the settlement in the American West.
“One day, we said, ‘Ain’t no Black folks involved in this.’ I guess we didn’t cross!” Seale says.
The students created the Negro History Fact Group, which called for the school to offer classes covering African history and, as it was called then, Negro history in America. Out of that came the Soul Students Advisory Council.
Seale and Newton went on to found the Black Panthers. They chose the name, Newton said at the time, because the Black panther doesn’t strike first, “but if the aggressor strikes first, then he’ll attack.”
That organizing work led them to conclude that only by claiming power could the Black community live and flourish.
Newton, who had studied law, knew that it was perfectly legal to carry loaded weapons in California as long as they were not concealed. With that knowledge, the Panthers began walking the streets of Oakland armed, converging on police who pulled over Black residents to observe and, it must be said, intimidate.
Later, in 1967, the Panthers went to the California Legislature in Sacramento, also while armed. The episode led then-governor Ronald Reagan, a Republican, to call for gun-control legislation. “Anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their mind,” Reagan said.
But the Party wasn’t about guns, Seale says; it was about empowering the Black community in the face of a racist system.
“It was all about them trying to make a law to stop us from observing police (while carrying) law books, tape recorders and guns. People forget the law books and the tape recorders,” he says.
A 10-point plan
“They’re always seen as more armed and confrontational, but that’s the sensational part of their history,” says Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “What’s really forgotten is that they were a continuation of the civil rights struggle. They’re part of the forgotten Black freedom struggle in Northern cities,” she says.
Newton and Seale crafted a very political 10-point plan to empower Black communities economically. Whereas the more mainstream civil rights movement focused on the largely rural South, the Black Panthers were perhaps better known for their actions in the North, in inner cities and on the West Coast.
The plan contained basic demands such as self-determination, decent housing, full employment, education that included African-American history, and an end to police brutality.
It also included more radical demands that were very much in tune with the times. They included freedom for all incarcerated Black men, their exemption from military service and a national vote in which only Black people would be allowed to participate in order to determine their will “as to their national destiny,” according to the document.
The Party gained followers and momentum in the late 1960s, launching multiple “survival until revolution” efforts such as a free breakfast program for children, food banks, health clinics and education outreach. These community-based programs garnered goodwill and support in Black and other communities nationwide.
By the 1970s, historians note, women made up more than 50% of the membership of the Panthers. But there was also a macho, violent streak to the Panthers, with an emphasis on armed revolution.
That came to the fore early on in a 1967 gun battle between Newton and Oakland police, which left Officer John Frey dead and Newton wounded. He was arrested, and a massive “Free Huey” movement sprang up, sparking interest far outside the Black community. After an overturned manslaughter conviction, two retrials and hung juries, the case against Newton was dismissed.
Both the goodwill and the violence, along with the revolutionary ideals, worried J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. In response, he launched an investigation of the Black Panther Party, and an eventual covert attack. Hoover came to see the group as one of the most potentially destabilizing groups in the country and actively set out to discredit, disrupt, subvert and destroy it.
“The term at the time was ‘community control,’” says Amilcar Shabazz, vice president of the National Council for Black Studies, who lectures on African-American history at Massachusetts-Amherst.
Hoover targeted Panthers for surveillance by COINTELPRO, a covert program he created to track individuals and groups he deemed subversive. Other targets including Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam War protesters, feminists and Puerto Rican activists.
Internal divisions, personality cults, and the efforts of the FBI created bitter divisions within the party. Members began to turn on each other. Violence flared.
In a shootout with Oakland police in 1968, Panthers national treasurer Bobby Hutton, just 17, was killed. Police raids and other conflicts with Panthers in Los Angeles and Chicago ended with shootouts and deaths.
Internally, there were violent disputes between factions and a series of purges. Members of the New Haven chapter tortured and killed Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old Panther whom they believed was an FBI informant, in 1969.
Three Panthers were convicted of murder in the case. Seale was accused of having ordered the killing because he had visited the building where Rackley was being held. The jury deadlocked on the charges, and the prosecution declined to retry the case.
It was the beginning of the end.
Still, the Panthers struggled on for several more years. In 1973, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, and fellow Panther Elaine Brown — who would lead the group from 1974 to 1977 — ran for the Oakland City Council.
“That was part of the agenda, to run for political office. We were a political party, we were not a gang. We were concerned with issues and programs,” Seale says.
Neither was elected, and by the late 1970s the Party was effectively defunct.
Nelson spent seven years working on the documentary.
“I hope that it will be an inspiration to people to see that they can make change,” the New York-based documentarian says. The Panthers’ story, he says, is extraordinary and important, despite the group’s eventual demise.
“The Panthers were not as successful as they wanted to be,” he says. “They were very young. They said, ‘It’s up to us to make the changes, not anybody else – and we can do it.’”
With criticism coming from both directions — those who say it overstates the good as well as those who say it dwells too much on the bad — Nelson says it would be impossible to make a single film that everybody would like because the party went through so many permutations.
“You have to understand that the Panthers were different things to different people in different cities at different times. The Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1967 was different from the party in New York in 1969 or the one in Chicago in 1968,” he says.
The legacy today
The legacy of the Panthers very much lives on in Black empowerment groups today, the most visible of which is Black Lives Matter.
“(The Panthers) made ‘Black’ a word to be proud of,” says Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “Their legacy is about challenging a narrative that our Black lives don’t matter, that actually what is true and honest is that we know best what we need to live our lives.”
Today’s groups spring from the concerns of a younger generation of activists who focus on social justice, economic equality and back self-determination. They also see an object lesson in the Panthers, learning from their successes and their failures.
“The Panther Party in a lot of ways was dealing with a significant amount of patriarchy and violence that our movement is trying to ensure doesn’t repeat itself,” Cullors says.
Shabazz says he sees the Panthers’ legacy every day in his students: “They’re holding our feel to the fire, they’re demanding greater accountability from us.”
He notes proudly that students begin or end their gatherings in a circle, reciting lines written by Assata Shakur, a Black Panther in exile in Cuba.
Shabazz quotes them from memory:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”