The Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded in the fall of 1966 in Oakland, California, as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It changed its name to Black Panther Party in 1968 and remained vibrant until the early 1970s. The Panthers arose toward the end of the Black Freedom Movement, as the energy of the broader movement for civil rights waned, and its significant accomplishments were increasingly recognized as not nearly enough. The Panthers represented something new within this larger movement, a group openly promoting the idea of Black Power and advocating armed self-defense both for practical defense and for symbolic inspiration. The Party grew rapidly with an intensity and imagery that still today makes it an inspirational symbol for many young militants. Then, torn apart by repression by the FBI and other police forces, it declined rapidly. This February 2023, we reflect upon the history of this well known yet not well understood organization, along with the legacy the Black Panther Party offers us today.
The Party’s founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were two Black Oaklanders with Southern roots who had seen enough of Black communities being exploited and oppressed, and they were sick of the police harassment and murders that killed so many Black people in U.S. cities. Both had been influenced by popular Black leaders like Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, militant leaders who advocated armed self-defense. They were also directly influenced by their experiences at Merritt College, an Oakland community college, where they learned about the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a small group with members around the United States which considered itself socialist and anti-imperialist and which introduced them to the ideas of international revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara. With these influences, they adopted the analysis that Blacks in the U.S. were a nation unto themselves who had been colonized at home by the U.S. government – an internal colony. Therefore, like other Third World liberation movements, they would need to liberate themselves by revolutionary means. They were also drawn to a Maoist slogan popular among young leftists of the era, “Serve the people,” an idea that would permeate later Panther activities nationwide.
The Black Panthers’ ideas were part of a general radicalization of the Black struggle and other movements of the time. The Civil Rights Movement had challenged racism and Jim Crow segregation in the South, but conditions for Black people across the U.S. remained horrible, and police repression was rampant. Young Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called for Black Power and supported armed self-defense in the face of attacks by the Klan.
The Panthers became active in the context of intense struggle in the North and on the West Coast. In 1965, Los Angeles was the scene of a rebellion in which 34 mostly Black people were killed and over 1,000 mostly Black people wounded. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Panthers soon after, in fall 1966, only one month after a sixteen-year-old young Black man in San Francisco was murdered by police. For the two radical young men, this killing was the last straw. Their first activity was to police the police. They began to follow and observe the police during stops and arrests in the Black community. The sight of Black men armed with both law books and shotguns gave the police second thoughts about carrying out the otherwise routine harassment of Black people.
The open carrying of weapons by the Panthers and their willingness to directly stand up to the police inspired confidence in sections of the Black community, particularly young people, and also was of great concern to the authorities. Although the Panthers were careful to carry their weapons strictly within the letter of the law, in early 1967 Seale and Newton were confronted by Oakland police while carrying loaded weapons in their car. After a public and tense confrontation, they successfully argued their right to carry loaded weapons openly, as allowed by law in California at the time.
In April 1967, another young Black man in North Richmond, a small, working-class town about 12 miles north of Oakland, was killed by police.The Panthers carried out an investigation of their own, concluding that the young man was murdered by the police. They organized rallies around the city. These incidents of open opposition to the white power structure drew Black community members to support the tiny but growing Black Panther Party.
In May 1967, California legislators proposed a law to ban carrying loaded weapons in public. This was clearly aimed at the Panthers. A contingent of 24 armed Panthers traveled to the California state capitol in Sacramento to protest, where their presence drew the immediate attention of state officials. Although they were not nearly the first Black militants to practice armed self-defense, this event and the publicity it received thrust this small group from Oakland into the national spotlight, and the Panthers began to appear as a new presence in the developing Black Power movement.
As the organization grew in the summer of 1967, Huey Newton in particular helped shape the orientation of the party through his writings. He followed the idea that Blacks in the U.S. were a colonized people under the thumb of U.S. and European imperialism, in the same basic situation as Algerian or Vietnamese people. Although he recognized the importance of maintaining the broad support of the Black population, he also emphasized that the Civil Rights Movement had largely become focused on legalistic solutions championed by sections of the Democratic Party leadership, which put unnecessary limits on the movement. Therefore, real revolutionaries needed to organize for revolution, not reform. Influenced by the writings and actions of Mao and the Chinese, Cuban and African revolutions for independence, he called for an armed movement against the American state and capitalism. Although the focus of the organization was first and foremost the needs of the Black community, in following these international political movements, they declared themselves to be both socialist and revolutionary.
In May 1967, they issued their What We Want Now! What We Believe, a statement of general beliefs and demands for reforms that would be a declaration of principles for their rapidly growing organization. Their demands focused on radical changes and self-determination for the Black community, full employment, education about the true racist history of this society, decent housing, exemption of Black men from military service, an end to police violence against Black people, freedom for all Black people held in jails and prisons, juries of their peers for Black people, and more. Obviously, these changes could not come about within the framework of the existing system. The document closes by quoting from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, including:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable 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 people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.
This was a logical step from movements for reform that had preceded the Panthers’ formation and that had shown their limits. The Black struggle had a deep resonance throughout the population. The Civil Rights Movement showed millions of people that a large movement could challenge and change some aspects of the racist structures of U.S. society. Simultaneously, the war in Vietnam had opened many people’s eyes to the horrors inflicted by U.S. imperialism. Thousands of young Black people joined the Black Panthers, and thousands of radicals saw the Panthers as leaders of the struggle. In Chicago the Panthers, under the leadership of Fred Hampton, inspired the formation of the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican group) and the Young Patriots, young white working-class activists with roots largely in Appalachia. Together with these groups, Students for a Democratic Society, and other radical groups, the Panthers in Chicago formed the “Rainbow Coalition” in 1968 to coordinate a common struggle.
In late October 1967, Huey Newton was stopped by an Oakland police patrol, and gunshots were fired. A police officer was dead, Newton was shot, and he was imprisoned as the prime suspect in the killing. His captivity, another example of police oppression of Black activists, became a rallying cry. Tens of thousands – white, Black, Latino and others – rallied to support the Panther campaign to free Huey Newton. In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the best-known leader of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated. Rebellions occurred in at least 120 towns and cities. Days after King’s death, following an armed confrontation between Panthers and police at a house in Oakland, police murdered Lil’ Bobby Hutton, the seventeen-year-old first recruit and treasurer of the Oakland Panthers, after he and others had surrendered. An estimated 1,500 people attended his funeral and more than 2,000 were at the rally that followed, where Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver and actor Marlon Brando addressed the crowd. Hutton’s murder at the hands of the police was symbolic of the police violence that the Panthers were confronting.
New Panther chapters sprang up first in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Chapters then quickly formed in every major city, and many smaller cities as well, for 68 chapters in total. Omaha, Nebraska, New Haven, Connecticut, Albany, New York, Bakersfield, California, Des Moines, Iowa, and Lima, Ohio, are just some of the smaller cities where Panther chapters were formed.
The Black Panthers in Action
At the height of Party activity, from the summer of 1968 until the end of 1970, Black Panther members organized a wide variety of activities and demonstrations. Black Panther Party headquarters were, without exception, located in Black, working-class neighborhoods, where they were in touch with the communities they served. Women made up a large percentage of overall membership and were key leaders in the movement, although they often were not acknowledged as such.
Local chapters helped renters fight evictions, supported people in struggles against local police, helped people pay bills, bused poor people to prisons to visit loved ones, provided childcare, and opened health care clinics. They opened at least nine Liberation Schools, where emphasis was placed on Black history, and where pride in community and health and well-being were taught. In Los Angeles and Chicago, Panther chapters either won over gang members or made temporary alliances with Black gangs in hopes of winning them to the Party. On university campuses – Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, San Francisco State and others – Panthers participated directly in movements for minority studies programs, free-speech and free-tuition, and participated in at least two major student strikes.
The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program was by far the most widely-known and successful initiative of the Party, and an example of their embrace of the Maoist “Serve the people” slogan. It was also influenced by previous initiatives by SNCC, which had organized combined food and educational programs with their other activities. For the Panthers, it was also a way to engage with community members who might not be drawn to their more militant actions. The program, distributing food to poor children in Black communities,started in Oakland in the Fall of 1968. It served a little more than 100 children to start, but the initiative spread nationwide. The nine facilities in the Bay Area alone fed 1,200 children per day on average, and at its height the Free Breakfast Program had at least thirty-six separate local breakfast programs nationwide. Often, the Black Panther Party had to pick up children and bring them to the sites, offering day care along with breakfast. Their supplies came from local restaurants, grocery stores and individuals who donated, and were also partially paid for from Party members’ dues. Under David Hilliard, who often managed the day-to-day business of the Party, it became the public face of the organization.
These many initiatives and activities strengthened the bond between the Panthers and the community they served. When the Panther office in North Philadelphia was ransacked and gutted by the notoriously racist Philadelphia police, dozens of community members joined Party members to rebuild and repair the offices to a usable state. One member, remembering the event, said, “It was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my whole life … We did not think our office would open again. The people in the community put everything back in the office. They put furniture back … they fed us for about a week … they kept our kids … they told the cops that these are our Panthers, so leave them alone.” This growing bond explained why even at the height of the repression that was soon to follow, by 1969 the Party had chapters nationwide and a dues-paying membership of about 5,000. Hundreds of thousands more openly supported the Party and participated in many of its actions and events. The Panther newspaper had a weekly circulation of 250,000 to 300,000.
There was no way this organizing and rapid growth was going to escape the attention of the government that had long considered any organizing by Black people a threat. As the Black Panther Party grew and gained members and supporters, the government saw it as a threat. COINTELPRO (the FBI Counter Intelligence Program) had already targeted numerous Black radicals and other activists nationwide, and by 1968 it was carrying out a systematic plan to disrupt the Panthers through infiltration with undercover agents and a media campaign to discredit their activities.
President Richard Nixon took a personal interest in destroying the Panthers and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” was the driving force behind the attacks on the Panthers. COINTELPRO operatives stoked tensions between activists within the organization itself, and between the Panthers and other groups. COINTELPRO propaganda was used to turn other activists against the Panthers. These efforts influenced different elements within the Black community as well as some who viewed themselves as revolutionaries. One of the most prominent cases of COINTELPRO manipulation took place in 1968. FBI instigation, aided by the Los Angeles Police Department, led to the killing of two Black Panther members on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, and later led to another killing in San Diego. In both cases, the killers were members of the US Organization (pronounced “us,” as in “not them”), a Black activist organization led by Ron Karenga, and in both cases FBI operatives were directly involved in at least escalating the conflicts, if not directly supporting or paying US members. A significant number of Panther chapters were brought down by paid informants or provocateurs undermining them from within.
In cities throughout the nation, state and local police forces followed the lead of COINTELPRO and Nixon’s law and order rhetoric. Police forces vandalized, shot up and firebombed Party offices, and murdered activists. In a few cases, they assaulted Party headquarters in militarized fashion.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) created the first ever Special Weapons Assault Team (SWAT), specifically to contain and destroy the Panthers. In December 1969, Los Angeles police raided the homes of Panther leaders and arrested them all. Early in the morning on December 8, the LAPD and its newly formed SWAT, as part of an estimated 200 police, backed up by a helicopter and a tank, assaulted the Panther headquarters, which had been fortified in anticipation of a raid. The 13 people in the headquarters withstood the attack for nearly five hours, while the police poured five thousand rounds of ammunition into the structure, before the Panthers surrendered. Six Panthers were wounded as were four of the SWAT. The Panthers were put on trial but acquitted as they were acting in self-defense.
Chicago police raided the Chicago Panthers offices twice. They shot and killed a few Panther leaders in the city. Then, they targeted Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old who many think was the Party’s most promising young leader. With a paid FBI informant inside Hampton’s inner circle, the police knew Hampton’s routines, his associates, his plans, and the layout of his apartment. On December 4, 1969, after the informant had drugged Hampton, Chicago police assassinated him in his bed, then dragged his body to the entrance way in an attempt to make it look like a struggle. Mark Clark was killed and four other Panthers wounded in the fusillade of nearly 100 rounds fired by the cops, with only one shot fired from a shotgun by Clark as he fell to the ground after he was shot. In the days following, the Panthers opened up the apartment for community members and the media to witness the scene, before the police could present their cover-up.
In New Haven, Connecticut, the murder of a Black Panther member by other members was likely instigated by another paid informant. The same agent had caused dissension in other Party chapters. In New York, 21 Panthers were put on trial, charged with a wide-ranging conspiracy to bomb all sorts of sites in New York City, from police stations and department stores to the Statue of Liberty. They were acquitted two years later when the role of police agents in instigating and attempting to organize this was revealed. Similar attacks and trends played out nationwide, creating a sense of uncertainty and distrust among members of the organization, and making them even greater targets for criminal investigations.
The repression took a terrible toll, and was a significant factor in destroying the Party. As 1969 wore on into 1970, it forced most important members of the Party to go underground or flee the U.S, including Huey Newton after he was freed from prison in 1970.
Another challenge the group faced was that Newton, Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and other recognized leaders and spokespeople for the Party began to disagree about strategies and tactics. First privately and then publicly, these divergences became clearer. Some called for more reforms of the existing system, while others advocated a strategy of urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Despite efforts by some leaders, the Party’s internal differences became increasingly unmanageable. Given the intensity of the repression by local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as negative publicity in the mass media, neither the leaders nor the broader membership had the time and space to debate and more thoroughly develop their political philosophy and strategies.
Something similar happened to other leftist organizations at the time. The heroic and successful struggle of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism’s military onslaught raised questions about the U.S. government’s policies in many sections of the population here. Mass mobilizations against racism and colonialism in the U.S. and around the world seemed pregnant with possibilities of change. Movements of indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ+ people, and other oppressed groups shook the U.S. The movement to protect the natural environment was beginning. There were victories like the Supreme Court decision on abortion in Roe v Wade. There were heroic pitched battles like the Attica prison uprising. In the midst of all this, there were calls for revolution, intense debates on goals and strategies. Some people looked for leadership to the Panthers and other groups, like the American Indian Movement (AIM), which had shown a willingness to stand up and risk their lives for radical change.
Impatience with the slow rate of change in the face of this radicalization was mounting. It became increasingly clear to many that the system would not change, so the system had to be changed. Taking inspiration from the heroic fight of the Vietnamese and other national liberation movements, some turned to tactics aimed at exposing the “weaknesses of the empire.” This led to underground organizations carrying out bombings of selected targets of the state – ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) buildings on college campuses that were training students to be officers in the war on Vietnam; the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, the California Attorney General’s office and others.
The ruling capitalist class could not tolerate this. Although the Panthers were not involved in most of those activities, they stood as a symbol of resistance and the possibility of unleashing the power of Black people in the U.S. The violent repression of the Party by the state apparatus, from the federal to the local levels, was too much. The state viewed the Black Panther Party as one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, threat to racist, capitalist business as usual. The Panthers were unable to survive as an organization under the onslaught of the biggest state apparatus in world history. Though it officially continued to exist as an organization until 1982, the Party never regained the momentum, notoriety, and impact that it had from 1966 through the early 1970s.
The politics of the Black Panther Party were inspired by the struggles of nationalist revolutionaries in other parts of the world, some of which had been successful in breaking free from the direct control of the colonial powers. But these revolutions, although ending colonial oppression, did not overturn capitalist exploitation, even in their own countries. At best they could maneuver between the openings created by the rivalry for power among the imperialist powers, headed by the U.S. They did not have a perspective of overturning capitalism and replacing the rule of a small owning class with the democratic rule of the majority of the population. The revolutionary party was seen as the liberator and future ruling body, which, over time, ended up maintaining the rule of a small class over the majority.
This nationalist perspective overlooked the potential of the working class, which is situated in every society to take the lead in revolutionary struggle, due to its central role in the economy and position to reorganize production and distribution to meet the needs of the whole population, which the Panthers were addressing on a smaller scale. While most members of the Black communities the Panthers served, and most members of the Party itself, were working-class, the Panthers didn’t embrace a political perspective aimed at building workers’ organization and power in the factories, refineries, docks, transportation systems, and other large workplaces, where the working-class has the power to bring capitalist society to a halt, and the power to then change society at its roots. The focus was largely on building the Party as the liberating force rather than the self-activation of workers in their workplaces and in their communities.
The 1960s and 1970s were full of potential for deep systemic change – on the scale of the world. The dedicated efforts of people in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, which provided inspiration throughout the country and the world, were embodied in the militants of the Black Panther Party. Their willingness to challenge white racist institutions directly and even call for revolution had an electric effect on many young people in the Black community and beyond.
We can learn much from the Panthers. A small group of dedicated individuals can play an important role in giving voice to large numbers of people and encouraging them to take action. The Panthers’ determination, in the face of the most powerful state in the world, served to expose the true nature of this society and the forces that a small ruling class has at its disposal. The attempt to meet those forces head on led to the demise of the Panthers at the hands of the repressive forces of capitalist society.
The challenges we face today are even more urgent in the face of the massive disruption of our Earth’s climate by the destructive forces of capitalism. We cannot afford to go down the same road that the Panthers followed. We can learn from their mistakes as well as the dedicated example they set. That said, nothing can take away from the inspiring standard of commitment and militance that the Panthers represent. They seized their moment in history and had the audacity to stand for the idea of revolution against the U.S. state and capitalism. They did this primarily in the name of the oppressed Black population of the United States, but linked to a general struggle against poverty, exploitation, imperialism and all of the other horrors that capitalism generates.
Throughout this February, Black History Month 2023, we remember the Black Panther Party and its place in the struggle to transform society.
For those who want to learn more about the Panthers, there are numerous books, films and documentaries that capture elements of the movement. For a single source that provides both a broad scope for understanding the entire movement, and plenty of details that could not be included in this short history, we recommend the comprehensive history Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, first published in 2013.