Black Panther Logo5
Founded in October of 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was one of the first African American organizations within the Civil Rights Movement to militarily combat racial oppression and injustice. Later shortened simply to the Black Panther Party, the organization was based upon a ten point program that served as the foundation for the struggle against white oppression. Through social change, community programs, and widespread newsletter publication, the party gained national recognition as awareness and memberships in the party grew extensively after 1966. No longer able to be grouped with the non-violent struggle of Martin Luther King and other black leaders, the Panthers reached national headlines for their controversial militaristic tactics and use of direct force and guns. Sporting black leather jackets, black berets and guns, the Black Panthers captured and enlivened thousands across the country with their revolutionary rhetoric and ideals. However, following Newton’s arrest and trial in 1967 for voluntary manslaughter of a police officer in Oakland, California, and subsequent FBI attempts to break the party and disrupt leadership, The Black Panther Party’s strength and presence wound down in the 1970’s.
Origins of the Party:
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, met during their time at Merritt Junior College in Oakland, California. Both were extremely involved around campus in various activist groups concerned with black equality and social change1. Upon arriving at Merritt, Seale joined the Afro-American Association (AAA) where he met fellow member Huey Newton. However, both left the organization feeling that it had little to offer in terms social change, further fueling their desire to start a group themselves. Newton had a particular reputation around campus for his charismatic and insightful character, speaking and encouraging others to become active both in their education and in the struggle against racial inequality2. Influenced by Malcolm X’s teachings of black pride and black self-defense against oppression and brutality, both Newton and Seale were inspired by the leader's beliefs. They adopted his “freedom by any means necessary” ideal following Malcolm X’s assassination in 19653. Additionally, both men were influenced by Maoist thought and the notion of military action being tied to movements for social change and equality.
It was with this flair of activism and influence from other leaders and movements throughout the world that the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in October of 1966. Drawing heavily from the theories of Malcolm X and Maoism, Newton and Seale drafted the Ten Point Program and set a foundation for the party based upon a program of unity and equality of blacks, “a program for the people, a program that relates to the people” 4. Additionally, during this time, Huey Newton was declared Minister of Defense of the party and Bobby Seale was declared Chairman. While the membership base later widened to include a diverse group of member ideologies that were at times controversial, the party’s general aim was to end all forms of racial inequality. The party "possessed a more inclusive vision that dictated they ally with anyone they saw as the enemy of their enemy," realizing "their struggles were linked with the struggles of poor and working class whites as well as those who had been dispossessed by the vicissitude of colonialism, racism and capitialism so avaricious it sometimes devoured human bodies for profit"6. However, the party leaders were harsh against any members thought to be spies or informants for the FBI or local police.
The Ten Point Program:
1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power to Determine the Destiny of our Black Community. We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.
2. We Want Full Employment of our People. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every person employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the American businessmen will not give full employment, then the technology and means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
3. We Want an End to the Robbery by the Capitalist of our Black Community. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of our fifty million Black people. Therefore, we feel this is a modest demand that we make.
4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For Shelter of Human Beings. We believe that if the landlords will not give decent housing to our Black and oppressed communities, then housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that the people in our communities, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for the people.
5. We Want Education for ou People That Exposes the True Nature of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education that Teachers us Our True History and Our Role in the Present-Day Society. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.
6. We Want Completely Free Healthcare for all Black and Oppressed People. We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide our selves with proper medical attention and care.
7. We Want an Immediate End to Police Brutality and Murder of Black People, Other People of Color, all Oppressed People Inside the United States. We believe that the racist and fascist government of the United States uses its domestic enforcement agencies to carry out its program of oppression against black people, other people of color and poor people inside the united States. We believe it is our right, therefore, to defend ourselves against such armed forces and that all Black and oppressed people should be armed for self defense of our homes and communities against these fascist police forces.
8. We want an Immediate End to all Wars of Aggression. We believe that the various conflicts which exist around the world stem directly from the aggressive desire of the United States ruling circle and government to force its domination upon the oppressed people of the world. We believe that if the United States government or its lackeys do not cease these aggressive wars it is the right of the people to defend themselves by any means necessary against their aggressors.
9. We Want Freedom for all Black and Oppressed People Now Held in U.S. Federal, State, County, City and Military Prisons and Jails. We Want Trails by a Jury of Peers for all Persons Charged With So-Called Crimes Under the Laws of This Country. We believe that the many Black and poor oppressed people now held in United States prisons and jails have not received fair and impartial trials under a racist and fascist judicial system and should be free from incarceration. We believe in the ultimate elimination of all wretched, inhuman penal institutions, because the masses of men and women imprisoned inside the United States or by the United States military are the victims of oppressive conditions which are the real cause of their imprisonment. We believe that when persons are brought to trial they must be guaranteed, by the United States, juries of their peers, attorneys of their choice and freedom from imprisonment while awaiting trial.
10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, Peace and People’s Community Control of Modern Technology. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are most disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security7.
Newton and Seal: Co-Founders of the Black Panthers8
While the party rejected all forms of oppression, both Newton and Seale brought specific attention to police brutality, stemming specifically from the cruelty they experienced and saw in the Oakland area. The leaders called for armed resistance to police brutality against blacks and saw the issue, step seven in the ten point program, as the cornerstone to the movement at large9. Capitilizing on California state law that allowed for the carrying of unconcealed, loaded weapons in public, the Panthers took to the streets. Confronting policemen, the panthers performed their own “investigations” into the murders of certain black men that they thought were being handled incorrectly by the authorities. Specifically in the case of Denzil Dowell in Richmond, California, the Panthers increased their presence in neighborhoods surrounding Oakland and attracted more and more members to their cause10. This demand for equal rights and the unprecidented militancy displayed by the Panthers grabbed the attention of the nation, enlivening thousands of oppressed peoples who saw promise in the Panthers message and giving a new tone to the civil rights movement of the 60's. The violence of the party and the media portrayal of that violence "served as a magnet for disaffected youth in American ghettos...white radicals and student activist"11. In April of 1967, the first official Panther newsletter, entitled “The Black Panther”, was published and distributed. Copies of the newsletter articles are still available today. However, real publicity was yet to come.
The following month, May of 1967, Bobby Seale and a small group of armed Panthers marched into the California state legislature to oppose a gun control bill. Bobby Seale read a statement of protest and was soon arrested along with his fellow members. However, this incident catalyzed a massive increase in resistance movements and the foundation of additional Black Panther chapters in states outside California12. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior in April of 1968, member and secretary of communication of the party, Kathleen Cleaver, noted the importance of the event in changing the perception of the Black Pantheres within the black community when she stated that "nonviolent change was violently rejected...so it was like the Panthers were all of a sudden thrust into the forefront of being the alternative" 13. The leaders of the Party saw this event as a turning point for the movement in general, tangible proof that the time for a non-violent struggle had passed and militaristic self-defense tactics were now needed to achieve the goals of equality14.
Newton on Trial
Support for Huey Newton During his Trial'15
In October of 1967, Huey P. Newton was shot and arrested for the murder of a white police officer, John Frey, in Oakland, California. While Newton awaited trial, the Panthers began a movement called “Free Huey,” and garnered an immense support base for the imprisoned leader. Headed by newly appointed Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, the free Huey campaign drew thousands to protest as the politically and socially charged trail of their former leader took place in Oakland, California. In fact, it was not only blacks who joined the movement and protested the indictment, but young whites as well who were “angry and disillusioned with America over the Vietnam war"^16^'. Holding signs reading "Free Huey or the sky's the limit," protestors from a variety of backgrounds all united around the "Free Huey" cause. Additionally, the “Free Huey” campaign allowed the party to spread and make ties to other politically active groups fighting against forms of oppression and with similar goals as the Panthers, such as the Brown Berets in southern California and the Red Guard in the San Francisco area17. During this time, membership in the Black Panther Party swelled significantly across the United States as new chapters were established. While there were less than thirty panther members before Newton's arrest, the attention his trial received and the following call for demonstrations and support greatly increased the party's recognition and member base18. Many social and community based programs were also introduced by the Panthers. Named “survival programs,” these initiatives were aimed at the community level, helping feed young children and the homeless. However, violence between party members and the police continued, resulting in the death of one famed Chicago based Panther Leader, Fred Hampton, as well as other deaths and countless arrests19.
In September of 1969, Newton was convicted of murder and sentenced to 2-15 years in prison. Around the same time, Seale was also imprisoned and sentenced to 4 years in prison for 16 counts of contempt in court. It was during this time that Seale wrote his famous book “Seize the Time,” recounting his relationship with Newton and the formation of the Black Panther Party. However, in 1970, Newton’s verdict was overturned and he was released back to Oakland, California where he continued to develop social and community programs.
Decline of the Party
As early as 1969, J. Edgar Hoover stated publicly that the Black Panthers were the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country”20. Following Newton’s release in 1970, tension remained high between the FBI and the Panthers. Under a counter intelligence program, COINTELPRO, the FBI targeted affiliated group SNCC (Student Nonviolence Coordination Commitee) as well as the Black Panther party itself. Performing raids, arresting members on false or inadequate charges, and infiltrating and disrupting meetings were all tactics employed by law enforcement groups to combat the growth of the party21. The "architects" of the program stated their goals were to:
1. Prevent the coalition of miltant black nationalist groups...
2. Prevent the rise of a messaiah who could unify and electrify a militant nationalist movement...
3. Prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups...
4. Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them....
5. Prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth22.
While membership was still going strong throughout the 70’s, it is during this time that the party began disintegrating both in presence and in leadership23. A major rift occurred between Newton and high-powered member Eldridge Cleaver over the direction and ideology of the party24. While Newton founded the party but wanted to remain within the law, Cleaver was a more unrestrained man who did not have such a desire to obey the law as much as a desire to further the Black Panther Party's goals by any means possible25. Fleeing the country, Newton went into self-imposed exile in 1974 in light of an impending trial for murder, continually adding to the lapses in leadership for the party itself. Additionally, while the portrayal of the Panthers' militancy helped garner support throughout the country, it was this violence and the media portrayal of this violence that was detrimental to the group as well. As Curtise J. Austin notes, the media attention "concentrated on the exaggerated paramilitary image that portrayed the group's members as gun-toting thugs out to kill white people,"' further propogating stereotypes of the group and making it easier to justify the authorities actions against them"^26^. By the end of the 70’s, much of the party was in decline with countless leaders abroad in exile and other members succumbing to the internal stress and decline of the organization27.
1. Marine, Gene. The Black Panthers. New York: The New American Library, 1969. 23.
2. Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House, 1970. 27.
3. "Robert George Seale." Thomson Gale. 23 Apr. 2007 <http://www.gale.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/seale_r.htm>.
4. Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House, 1970. 47.
5. "The Black Panther Party." The Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. 18 Mar. 2007 <www.blackpanther.org>.
6. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 9.
7. "The Black Panther Party." The Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. 18 Mar. 2007 <www.blackpanther.org>.
8. "Huey P. Newton: Philosophy: Armed Self Defense." Social Justice Movements. Columbia University. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/Huey_P._Newton_::_Philosophy_::_Armed_Self-Defense
9. Marine, Gene. The Black Panthers. New York: The New American Library, 1969. 25.
10. Marine, Gene. The Black Panthers. New York: The New American Library, 1969. 76.
11. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 89.
12. "The Black Panther Party." MIA: History: USA: the Black Panther Party. Marxist History Internet Archieve. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/>.
13. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 164.
14. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 164.
15. "The News Real." Roz Payne's Archives. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.newsreel.us/index.html>
16. "The Black Panther Party." The Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. 18 Mar. 2007 <www.blackpanther.org>.
17. "The Black Panther Party." The Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. 18 Mar. 2007 <www.blackpanther.org>.
18. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 114.
19. "The Black Panther Party." MIA: History: USA: the Black Panther Party. Marxist History Internet Archieve. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/>.
20. "The Black Panther Party." MIA: History: USA: the Black Panther Party. Marxist History Internet Archieve. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/>.
21. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 193.
22. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 193.
23. "The Black Panther Party." MIA: History: USA: the Black Panther Party. Marxist History Internet Archieve. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/>.
24. "The Black Panther Party." MIA: History: USA: the Black Panther Party. Marxist History Internet Archieve. 18 Mar. 2007 <http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/>.
25. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 116.
26. Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2006. 89.
27. "The Black Panther Party." The Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. 18 Mar. 2007 <www.blackpanther.org>.