Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party was the largest and best-known black nationalist organization. Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in October 1966, the group displayed a confrontational, macho demeanor that overshadowed many of its peaceful activities. The Black Panthers promoted African American self-defense and sought to restructure American society to make it more politically, economically, and socially equal.
The Black Panthers were part of the militant wing of the civil rights movement and one of the groups that struggled for civil rights primarily in the North and West. Originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the group was heavily influenced by the black power movement, Marxism, and the militant group Deacons for Defense. The Panthers stressed racial dignity and self-reliance but did so in a confrontational manner that scared many whites, especially those in positions of authority. The Black Panther platform included such uncontroversial planks as full employment for African Americans, decent housing, and an end to police brutality. However, the Panther platform also referenced robbery by capitalists in black communities, demanded an exemption from military service for all black men, and called for a UN-supervised plebiscite in which only black colonial subjects would be allowed to participate to determine the national destiny of African Americans. The Panthers expressed many ideas that were widely held by black liberals and leftists and, with the reference to the United Nations, clearly indicated a willingness to work with mainstream political institutions despite their revolutionary rhetoric.
The Panthers, however, were not willing to cooperate with police. They saw the police as agents of racial oppression and demanded the release of black men in prison. In practice, they chose to focus on police brutality more than any other issue. The group set up patrols in black neighborhoods to monitor police activities and protect the residents from police brutality. In May 1967, the Panthers attracted quite a bit of media attention when members wearing the group's distinctive black berets and black leather jackets marched with guns to the state capitol in California to
protest a bill that would outlaw the carrying of loaded weapons in public. They also received quite a bit of attention with their oft-repeated slogan “Off the pigs,” a reference to killing police.
As racial tensions increased in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a program called COINTELPRO to disrupt black militant organizations such as the Panthers. Leader Fred Hampton died suspiciously in a police raid in Chicago in 1970. Other Panthers, including Eldridge Cleaver, Newton, and Assata Shakur, fled to Cuba to escape prosecution. Seale left the Panthers in 1974. The organization essentially collapsed by 1975, though remnants still remain today.
Cleaver, Kathleen, and George Katsiaficas. Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Foner, Philip S. The Black Panthers Speak. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970.
Jeffries, Judson L., ed. Black Power in the Belly of the Beast. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2006.
CARYN E. NEUMANN