Black Panther Party
No group better dramatized the anger that fueled the 1960s BLACK POWER MOVEMENT than the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). For five tumultuous years, the Panthers brought a fierce cry for justice and equality to the streets of the largest U.S. cities. Its members flashed across TV screens in black berets and leather coats, shotguns and law books in hand, confronting the police or storming the California Legislature. Political demands issued from the party’s newspaper; loudspeakers boomed at rallies for jailed Panther leaders. Behind the scenes, the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) spent millions of dollars in a secret counterintelligence program aimed at destroying the group. By the time a 1976 congressional report revealed the extent of the FBI’s efforts, it was too late. Shoot-outs with police officers, conflicts with other groups, MURDER , prison sentences, and internal dissent had destroyed the Black Panthers. The details surrounding the 1969 shooting deaths of two party leaders by Chicago police remain unclear. The other party leaders split in 1972 and one of them, Bobby Seale, ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, losing in a runoff. By 1975, the last of the group, a splinter faction under ELDRIDGE CLEAVER , had disappeared.
Before the advent of the Panthers, the mid-1960s saw gradual progress in the struggle for CIVIL RIGHTS . This progress was too slow for many African Americans. Traditional civil rights groups such as MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.’S SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE (SCLC) were focusing their efforts on ending segregation in the South, but conditions in urban areas were reaching a boiling point. Younger activists increasingly turned away from these older groups and toward leaders such as STOKELY CARMICHAEL , whose STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC) demanded not merely integration but economic and social liberation for African Americans. Black power was Carmichael’s message, and in Mississippi he had organized an all-black political party that took as its symbol a snarling black panther. The ethos of black power spread quickly to urban areas in the North, East, and West, where integration alone had not soothed the problems of racism, poverty, and violence.
Police violence against African Americans was a common complaint in impoverished Oakland, California. By 1966 two young men had had enough. One was HUEY P. NEWTON , age 23, a first-year law student. With his friend Bobby Seale, age 30, Newton founded the BPP, with the intent of monitoring police officers when they made arrests. This bold tactic—already being employed in Minneapolis by the nascent AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT (AIM)—was entirely legal. Also legal under California state law was the practice of carrying a loaded weapon, as long as it was visible. But legal or not, the sight of Newton and Seale bearing shotguns as they rushed to the scene of an arrest had enormous shock value. To police officers and citizens alike, this represented a huge change from the previously nonviolent demonstrations of civil rights activists. Although they did not use the guns and maintained the legally required eight to ten feet from officers, the
Panthers inspired fear. They also quickly won respect from neighbors who saw them as standing up to the predominantly white police force. The law books they carried—and from which they read criminal suspects their rights—appeared to many in the community to give the Panthers a kind of legitimacy.
Attracting new members through their high visibility, the Panthers sprang to national attention in 1967. Antagonism toward the party by law enforcement officials had prompted California lawmakers to consider GUN CONTROL . In May 1967 legislators met in Sacramento, the state capital, to discuss a bill that would criminalize the carrying of loaded weapons within city limits. To Seale and Newton, chairman and minister of defense of the BPP, respectively, the proposed law was unjust. Governor RONALD REAGAN was on the lawn of the state legislature as 30 armed Black Panthers arrived and entered the building. TV cameras followed the group’s progress to the legislative chambers, where they were stopped by police officers, Seale shouting, “Is this the way the racist government works—[you] won’t let a man exercise his constitutional rights?” He then read a prepared statement:
The Black Panther Party calls upon American people in general and black people in particular to take full note of the racist California legislature which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless, at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people.
The Panthers kept their guns, left the building, and were subsequently disarmed by the police.
No sooner had the demonstration ended than the national media denounced the Panthers as antiwhite radicals. For many white U.S. citizens, the Panthers symbolized terror. The party denied being antiwhite, but a new political focus now superseded its original goal of SELF-DEFENSE . In a ten-point program, the Panthers called for full employment, better
housing and education, and juries composed of African Americans. It denounced the war in Vietnam and the military draft. Some of its demands went further. Point 3 said the group wanted an end to the robbing of the black community by the whites. Another point called for the release of all African American men from prison. The group’s major political objective was self-determination. It demanded United Nations–supervised elections in the black community, which it dubbed the black colony, for blacks only, so that “black colonials” could determine their own national destiny.
To advance its cause, the party published the Black Panther newspaper. Its articles, cartoons, and imagery reflected a hardening stance. The police were caricatured as pigs—introducing a term of condemnation that would enter the national vernacular—and a recurring image was that of a Black Panther holding a gun to the head of a pig in apolice uniform. However extreme such rhetoric may sound in the early 2000s, it galvanized young African Americans coming of age in the Vietnam era. BPP chapters sprang up nationwide, and by 1968 as many as 5,000 members worked from BPP offices in 25 major U.S. cities. Prominent activists, including Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver, joined the party. Cleaver had achieved national prominence for his 1967 essay collection Soul on Ice. As the BPP’s minister of information, he had a voice that struck exactly the tone the Panthers wanted, a blend of determination, outrage, and threat. “These racist Gestapo pigs,” Cleaver told reporters, “have to stop brutalizing our community or we are going to take up arms and we are going to drive them out.”
On another front, the Panthers proceeded with charitable services to African American communities, called Serve the People programs. They organized health clinics and schools. Holding food drives, they rounded up groceries and distributed them for free. Morning breakfast programs for African American children served food and spirituals, as kids sang “Black Is Beautiful.” White liberals supported the Panthers, writing supportive articles in intellectual journals such as the New York Review of Books; writing books that showed admiration for their style, like Norman Mailer’s The White Negro; and inviting them to fashionable Page 52 | Top of Articlefund-raising parties, as did composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. But this support was far from unanimous; the author Thomas C. Wolfe coined the phrase radical chic to satirize it.
The successes achieved by the Panthers in Oakland and beyond were soon overshadowed by violence as tense confrontations between the police and Panther members erupted in gunfire. In October 1967, after a gun battle left one officer wounded and another dead, Newton was arrested. “Free Huey!” became a cry at protests across the United States while Newton remained in jail. From his cell, he told national TV audiences that the plight of African Americans was similar to that of the Vietnamese. “The police occupy our community,” he said, “as a foreign troop occupies territory.” Convicted of murder, he remained in prison until August 1970. An appeals court later threw out the conviction.
The violence continued, as the police began raiding BPP offices. In 1968 a confrontation in West Oakland left three officers and two Panther members wounded. A 17-year-old Panther was killed. Seale announced on television that black people should organize so that they could retaliate against racist police brutality and attacks.
In 1969 Seale too was in court. The police had arrested him at an antiwar demonstration outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was charged with rioting. During the trial of Seale and other demonstrators—dubbed the Chicago Eight—federal district court judge Julius J. Hoffman ordered the vociferous Seale handcuffed to a chair and gagged, a move that inspired such public revulsion that a mistrial was declared.
However, in 1970 Seale and several other Panthers were back in court, in New Haven, Connecticut. The charge was the 1969 alleged murder of suspected Panther police informant Alex Rackley. Seale and fellow Panther Erica Huggins were ultimately acquitted, but two other Panthers, including Warren Kimbro (who plea-bargained), were sentenced to prison. Seale’s controversial trial inspired a “May Day” riot at Yale University in New Haven, prompting the federal government to send in 2,500 NATIONAL GUARD members after a substantial amount of mercury (a bomb-making ingredient) was taken from a Yale chemistry lab and several rifles were discovered missing.
The Panthers affected the highest circles of federal law enforcement. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, considered them a black nationalist hate group. In November 1968 he ordered FBI field agents to begin destabilizing the group by exploiting dissension within its ranks. This end was to be achieved through the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a surveillance and misinformation program widely used in the late 1960s against civil rights, black power, and various leftist groups. The FBI infiltrated the Panther membership with informants, wiretapped telephones, mailed fake letters to leaders, and spread innuendo both inside and outside the party. Documentation of the counterintelligence campaign would emerge in a report issued in 1976 by the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations, titled The FBI’s Covert Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party. The report revealed that the FBI had gone to great lengths, some of them illegal, to pit the Panthers against themselves and other groups.
The destabilization worked. The FBI managed to exacerbate a bloody feud between the Panthers and another California-based group, United Slaves (US). It poured resources into making leaders suspicious of each other, notably aggravating a rift between Newton and Cleaver. Perhaps its most egregious involvement came during a 1969 operation against Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based chairman of the Illinois BPP. In late 1967 the FBI launched a disinformation campaign against the 19-year-old, and his file in the FBI’s Racial Matters Squad soon swelled to more than 4,000 pages. When Hampton fell under suspicion in the murder of two Chicago police officers, an FBI informant provided authorities with a detailed floor plan of his apartment. On December 4, 1969, police officers raided the apartment. Hampton and another Panther member were killed; four others were wounded. The Panthers alleged that the incident was an ASSASSINATION .
Several official and private inquiries were conducted, including one led by ROY WILKINS , executive director of the NAACP , and Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general. Lawsuits brought against the FBI by the victims’ survivors dragged through the courts until 1983, when the federal government agreed to pay them a $1.85 million settlement. U.S. district court judge John F. Grady imposed sanctions on the FBI for having covered up facts Page 53 | Top of Articlein the case. For the Illinois Panther chapter, however, the raid in 1969 had signaled the beginning of the end.
In disarray in 1972, the Panthers soon collapsed. Its leadership feuded, police and FBI harassment took a heavy toll, and the black power movement had nearly expired. Charged with murder, Cleaver had fled to Cuba and Algeria, where he continued to urge African Americans on to revolution. Cleaver maintained his Black Panther faction in exile until 1975.
Seale and Newton preferred nonviolent solutions. After the Panthers disbanded, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, winning a third of the vote. He later became a public speaker and a community liaison on behalf of Temple University’s African American studies program. Newton earned a doctor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, but his legal problems continued. In March 1987 he was convicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm—despite the overturning of his original murder conviction—and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. In 1989 he was again in prison, serving time for a parole violation for possessing cocaine. He died in August 1989, after being shot during a drug deal in the neighborhood where he began the Panthers.
Conversely, fellow Panther Kimbro was accepted into a graduate program at Harvard while still in prison, and was released after serving little more than four years of his sentence. He became an assistant dean at a local university and later served as director of Project More, a halfway house and prison-alternative program in New Haven. He was quoted in a 2000 issue of the Christian Science Monitor as wanting to be known as “a guy who made some mistakes, turned his life around, and learned to help other people.”
The legacy of Newton and Seale’s party is debatable. Its alliance with international revolutionary leaders—Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh, to name a few—cost it credibility in the eyes of mainstream U.S. citizens. An organization devoted originally to the aim of self-defense for beleaguered urban African Americans, it nose-dived into violence and terror. For this reason, the BPP is customarily dismissed as an extremist, self-destructive exponent of the black power movement. But this transformation owed something to the harassment of the Panthers by law enforcement agencies. In turn, the calculated federal and local campaigns against the Panthers initiated the group’s most tangible effect on U.S. law: highlighting FBI counterintelligence against U.S. citizens was a noteworthy gain. In the years following the death of FBI director Hoover, pressure for reforms dismantled the apparatus he single-handedly used against his political enemies.
Drawing attention to the issue of urban police brutality was another major Panther contribution, one that grew as a concern in subsequent years. In addition, the group’s focus on the questionable number of African American men fighting the U.S. war in Vietnam inspired black intellectuals to criticize the role of race in the U.S. military. Moreover, in the party’s passionate ten-point program were the seeds of ideas that eventually took root in the U.S. legal system: By the 1990s, juries increasingly reflected the racial composition of the communities in which defendants lived. As the history of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT demonstrates, such change came slowly, begrudgingly, and often at great personal cost to the men and women who fought for it.
The original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is not to be confused with an entity that emerged in the late 1990s, calling itself the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and adopting the original STALKING panther logo. The newer group allegedly violated a 1997 Texas state court order prohibiting them from “referring to themselves … by any name containing the words Panther, Black Panthers, or Black Panther Party.” In 2003, lawyers representing some of the original Panthers, e.g., The Black Panther Party, Inc. (which brought the Texas action) and the Huey P. Newton Foundation, contemplated filing a federal trademark infringement suit after an August 2002 cease and desist letter apparently went unheeded.
Alexandri, Maya. 2003. “Stalking the New Panthers.” IP Law & Business (January). Available online at http://www.law.com/jsp/law/LawArticleFriendly.jsp?id=1045793329369 ; website home page: http://www.law.com (accessed July 7, 2009).
Baker, Naima. 2000. “May Day, May Day.” 211 Park St. Newsletter. Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale (October).
Colhoun, Alexander. “Ex-Black Panther Warren Kimbro.” Christian Science Monitor (September 7, 2000).
“A Panther Generation Gap.” Editorial. Chicago Tribune (October 30, 2002).
Yale Univ. Library Manuscripts and Archives, Record Unit 16, 1996. Guide to the Inventory of May Day Records, 1970–1972, 1976. New Haven: Yale Univ. Library.