Remembering the Black Panther Party

More than five decades after its founding, the Black Panther Party's antiracist, anticapitalist vision remains just as relevant today.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child as part of the Black Panther Party's free breakfast program. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of both Stokely Carmichael’s coining of the phrase “Black Power” and the formation of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

The creation of local Oakland activists and radicals Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers soon developed into the largest, most prominent manifestation of “Black Power” ideology following their formation in October 1966. Yet much about the Panthers remains either forgotten or distorted, gun-toting iconography standing in for a deeper understanding of their aims.

In the interest of setting the record straight, what follows is a primer on the Black Panther Party — a group that a half century after its founding still has much to teach us about organizing, ideology, and the dangers of promoting revolutionary socialism in the United States.

Origins and Aims

The Black Panther Party followed in the footsteps of earlier black leftist groups such as the African Blood Brotherhood and the National Negro Congress. Like its antecedents, the Black Panthers embraced both black nationalism and socialism. Seale and Newton sought to build an organization that could defend the black community against police brutality, while also offering a sharp anticapitalist vision.

Unlike the major organizations of the Civil Rights Movement, the BPP saw its prospective base as the “Black Urban Lumpenproletariat,” as Eldridge Cleaver, one of the group’s early leaders, laid out in his pamphlet On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party.

For Cleaver and other BPP leaders, the black lumpenproletariat was comprised of those “perpetually in reserve” — Africans Americans in Oakland and elsewhere unable to find work or gain the skills needed to compete in a modernizing workforce. They looked to this segment of the population — rather than the traditional agent of revolution, the organized working class — to power their fight against white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism.

Born in Oakland, a city with a long history of radicalism and civil rights struggle, the BPP eventually formed chapters across the nation — from New York City to Chicago to the South, in places as disparate as Winston-Salem, North Carolina and New Haven, Connecticut. At its height, the BPP boasted more than 5,000 members nationwide. They reached many more through their newspaper, the Black Panther, which had a circulation of 250,000.

What cohered the various chapters wasn’t necessarily a top-down leadership, but an ethos of Black Power, community organizing, and socialism that channeled the energy of young African Americans angered by the hypocrisy of Great Society liberalism and the callousness of New Right conservatism. Young, talented leaders flourished at the local level, most notably Chicago’s Fred Hampton.

In resisting police brutality in Oakland, the Panthers embraced armed self-defense, a tactic employed by many African Americans across the American South. The geographic connection wasn’t necessarily a coincidence. Founded by two Southerners (Seale was born in Texas, Newton in Louisiana), the BPP shared its iconic symbol with Alabama’s Lowndes County Freedom Organization (organized by Carmichael). Both groups directly challenged white supremacy at the grassroots.

But for the BPP, the struggle against racism was incomplete without a struggle against capitalism. Their 1966 ten-point platform, the clearest programmatic expression of the group’s politics, featured a critical analysis of both white supremacy and capitalism in America. Among their demands were “full employment,” “decent housing,” and a “United Nations–supervised plebiscite” to determine whether African Americans wished to separate from the US and form their own self-governing community.

Each of these goals, along with the rest outlined in the ten-point program, pointed to an organization that was already tying together several strands of left thought prevalent by the late 1960s.

The BPP’s Activities

Among the most important of the Panthers’ activities were its social services, or “survival programs.” The most famous was the free breakfast program, which provided meals to many impoverished African-American youths in Oakland. Another was the local health education program, which aided African Americans who lacked access to quality health care.

Together, the more than sixty survival programs allowed the Black Panthers to win the support of many struggling working-class African Americans, immediately improving the living standards of residents even as they gestured toward a socialist future.

The BPP was also known for patrolling Oakland police officers on the beat. Armed with shotguns and California law books, they would travel around the city and monitor police stops, seeking to curb police brutality. Their brandishing of weapons pushed the California General Assembly to pass, and then-Governor Ronald Reagan to sign, the Mulford Act of 1967, which disallowed the public carrying of loaded guns.

Police didn’t take too kindly to the Panthers’ armed oversight either. The same year the Mulford Act passed, a traffic stop devolved into a gun battle between Newton and Oakland police officer John Frey, who died at the scene. Newton’s subsequent trials became causes du jour for the American left, with “Free Huey” taken up as a rallying cry against oppression, police brutality, and white supremacy in American society.

Anxiety built up in the government’s ranks about the threat the Panthers posed to the nation’s national security. In addition to periodic raids and ambushes by police, the FBI, under the auspices of its now-infamous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), went to war on the Panthers. The FBI took a special interest in the Oakland and Chicago chapters, sowing distrust among BPP members and often leaving party members unsure of whom, exactly, they could trust.

The assassination of Hampton and fellow Illinois Black Panther Party leader Mark Clark during a Chicago Police Department raid on Hampton’s apartment on December 4, 1969 showed the lengths local and national authorities would go to suppress the Black Panther Party. Even the group’s free breakfast programs — recognized as potentially radicalizing a new generation of African Americans — were targeted by the FBI and local law enforcement.

Under the weight of severe state repression, arguments ultimately broke out over the group’s disparate activities. By the early 1970s the Black Panthers had split along both ideological and tactical lines.

Huey Newton wanted to focus the BPP’s attention on local activism, education, and community service programs. Eldridge Cleaver — at one point the BPP’s minister of information but who had since fled to Cuba and then Algeria after an ambush of Oakland police officers — pressed for the party to ready itself for an armed insurrection in the United States. The schism was thrust into public view in 1971, when Newton openly criticized Cleaver in the pages of the Black Panther.

When Elaine Brown became the party’s chairwoman in 1973 — replacing Newton, who was exiled in Cuba — she took the party back decisively to its grassroots orientation. Brown emphasized community service, running the Oakland Community School through the 1970s and in the process educating hundreds of African-American children in Oakland.

During her tenure, the BPP even became power players in Oakland and California politics. Bobby Seale ran a strong campaign for Oakland mayor in 1973 (finishing second in a nine-person race before losing in a run-off), and Brown threw her hat in the ring for city council in 1973 and 1975 (she came up short both times). Brown also backed Democrat Jerry Brown’s successful run for governor in 1974 (though what that support yielded for the BPP’s constituency is less apparent).

In the end, Newton’s vision for the BPP largely won out. But his return from exile in 1976 set off another power struggle that ultimately destroyed the BPP.

Relationship With the Left

The Black Panther Party didn’t silo itself off from the rest of the Left. Its Chicago chapter, for example, had a working relationship with the Young Patriots, an organization primarily comprised of the sons and daughters of white Appalachian migrants. In 1969, the BPP invited the Young Patriots and other left organizations to come to Oakland to participate in the United Front Against Fascism Conference.

Hampton’s leadership was crucial to establishing this linkage. The dynamic head of the BPP’s Chicago chapter, Hampton appealed to poor whites as part of his effort to forge an antiracist, anticapitalist alliance of the dispossessed. As Hampton explained, “We’re not going to fight racism with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” His assassination in 1969 devastated the Black Panther Party and robbed the movement of one of its youngest, most promising leaders.

The Panthers also involved themselves in the antiwar movement, seeing their struggle for black freedom and self-determination as tied to the resistance movements in Vietnam, Algeria, and elsewhere. In fact, they opened a chapter in Algeria in 1969. When they engaged with the anti-draft movement (“one of the first working coalitions we had,” Seale noted), the Panthers made it clear to protesters that the abuse African Americans faced in the US at the hands of the police mirrored the repression the Vietnamese and other groups experienced from the American military.

Newton’s writings on Black Panther Party ideology in the late 1960s reflected a broader trend among radical African Americans — from Martin Luther King, Jr to Stokely Carmichael — that linked racism at home to imperialism abroad. Newton, for instance, expressed support for Palestine several times in his widely read essays.

In the 1970s, as members of a larger Black Power left, the Panthers engaged in debates about the best course of action for African Americans following the decline of the Civil Rights Movement. Stalwarts of the Black Power movement like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones before his turn towards black nationalism in the late 60s) had become avowed Marxists and shunned nationalist rhetoric.

The Panthers, while less black nationalist than the popular imagination would have it, never jettisoned their brand of Black Power. But they spent considerable time thinking through the proper mix between black nationalism and socialism — and informed the practice of other left groups in the process.

The Legacy of the Panthers

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

This isn’t to say the BPP was a paragon of women’s rights. When Seale and Newton formed the group, they directed their appeals at the “brothers on the block.” (At other times, their rhetoric was quite progressive: in August 1970, Newton became one of the first African-American leaders of any ideological stripe to express solidarity with gay and lesbian Americans.) Even during Brown’s tenure as BPP chairwoman, the group’s leadership remained overwhelmingly male, and Panther women were subjected to physical and verbal abuse.

Still, Brown and other women Black Panthers carved out space and contributed mightily to the organization.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, more than fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.