People Taking Charge: The Black Panther Party for Self Defense

“There’s no reason for the establishment to fear me. But it has every right to fear the people collectively — I am one with the people.” — Comrade Dr. Huey Percy Newton

The Black Panther Party, originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization, which was active in the United States from 1966 until 1982. The practices of the late Malcolm X were deeply rooted in the theoretical foundations of the Black Panther Party. Malcolm had represented both a militant revolutionary, with the dignity and self-respect to stand up and fight to win equality for all oppressed minorities; while also being an outstanding role model, someone who sought to bring about positive social services. This is something that the Black Panthers would strive to take to new heights. The Panthers followed Malcolm’s belief of international working class unity across the spectrum of color and gender, and thus united with various minority and white revolutionary groups. From the tenets of Maoism they set the role of their Party as the vanguard of the revolution and worked to establish a united front, while from Marxism they addressed the capitalist economic system, embraced the theory of dialectical materialism, and represented the need for all workers to forcefully take over the means of production.

At its inception on October 15, 1966, the Black Panther Party’s core practice was its armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behavior of police officers and challenge police brutality in Oakland, California. In 1969, community social programs became another core activity of party members. The Black Panther Party instituted a variety of community social programs, most extensively the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics. On April 25th, 1967, the first issue of The Black Panther, the party’s official news organ, went into distribution. The following month, the party marched on the California state capital, fully armed, in protest of the state’s attempt to outlaw carrying loaded weapons in public. Bobby Seale read a statement of protest; after which, the police responded by immediately arresting him and all 30 armed Panthers. This early act of political repression kindled the fires of the burning resistance movement in the United States. This motivated the formation of new chapters of the Black Panther Party around the country and motivated more people to confront racism with direct challenges.

In October of 1967, the police arrested Huey P. Newton, the Defense Minister of the Panthers, for killing an Oakland cop. Panther Eldridge Cleaver then began the movement to “Free Huey,” a struggle the Panthers devoted a great deal of their attention to in the coming years. Meanwhile, the party spread its roots further into the political spectrum by forming coalitions with various revolutionary parties. Stokely Carmichael, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and a nationally known proponent of Black Power, was recruited into the party through this struggle, and by February of 1968, he had become the Panther’s Prime Minister. Carmichael was adamantly against allowing whites into the black liberation movement, explaining that whites could not possibly relate to the black experience, and that they would likely have an intimidating effect on blacks. This position stirred a great deal of opposition within the Panther organization. Carmichael explained, thusly, “Whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing and say that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism. If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people; otherwise, we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country.”

J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI at the time, called the party the greatest threat to the internal security of the country, and he supervised an extensive program, COINTELPRO, of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain the organization of resources and manpower. The program was also accused of using assassinations against Black Panther members. On April 6, 1968, in West Oakland, Bobby Hutton, who was only 17 years old at the time, was shot dead by Oakland police after his house was set ablaze, and he was forced to run outside directly into a barrage of gunfire. Just two days earlier, Martin Luther King had been assassinated after he had began rethinking his own doctrine of non-violence and had started to build ties with radical unions and other radical leaders like, Malcolm X. Two months later, to the day, after Bobby Hutton was killed, Robert Kennedy, widely recognized in the minority community as one of the only politicians in the US that was sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, was also assassinated.

In Chicago, Fred Hampton was the standout leader of the local Black Panther Party branch. He personally led five different breakfast programs on the West Side, helped to create a free medical center, and initiated a door to door health service program, which tested for sickle cell anemia, and recruited people for blood drives at the Cook County Hospital. The Chicago branch of the party also reached out to local gangs to discourage street violence and get the gangs involved in the struggle for racial equality. The Party’s efforts met wide success, and Hampton’s audiences and organized contingent grew rapidly. His work was cut short, however. On December 4th, 1969, at four in the morning, as a result of false information provided by an FBI informant, Chicago police raided the Party’s apartment and shot Fred Hampton while he slept in his bed. He was shot twice in the head and one time each in in the arm and shoulder. Three other people sleeping in the same bed escaped unharmed. Mark Clark, sleeping in the living room chair, was also murdered while he slept. Hampton’s wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was also shot, but she survived. Four other Panthers sleeping in the apartment were wounded, while another other escaped injury. Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was executed, Mark Clark was another 17 year old that never got to adulthood. According to the findings of the federal grand jury, ninety bullets were fired inside the apartment. Only one came from a Panther, Mark, who traditionally slept with a shotgun in his hands. All surviving Panther members were arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer and aggravated assault. Not a single cop spent a moment in jail for the executions.

Government oppression initially contributed to the growth of the Party as killings and arrests of Panthers increased support for the party within the black community and on the broad political left, both of whom valued the Panthers as a powerful force opposed to de facto segregation and the military draft. Black Panther Party membership reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members; but afterwards, it suffered a series of contractions. After being vilified by the mainstream press, public support for the party waned, and the group became more isolated. In-fighting among Party leadership, caused largely by the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, led to expulsions and defections that decimated the membership. Popular support for the Party declined further after reports appeared, most of which were artificially manufactured, detailing the group’s involvement in illegal activities such as drug dealing and extortion schemes directed against Oakland area merchants. By 1972, most Panther activity centered on the national headquarters and a school in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics. Party contractions continued throughout the 1970s. By the beginning of the 1980s, attacks on the party, accompanied by internal degradation and divisions, caused the party to fall apart. The leadership of the party had been absolutely smashed, while its rank and file, constantly terrorized by the police, had fallen away. Many remaining Panthers were hunted down and killed in the following years, imprisoned on trumped up charges, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, and many others, or forced to flee the United States, like Assata Shakur and other comrades.

The history of the Black Panther Party is controversial. Scholars have characterized the Black Panther Party as the most influential black movement organization of the late 1960s and the strongest link between the domestic Black Liberation Struggle and global opponents of American imperialism. Other commentators have described the Party as more criminal than political, characterized by defiant posturing over substance. I am not one of these scholars. For me, the Black Panthers are a noble example of People Taking Charge of their destiny. They will always have a special place in my soul, and I will forever mourn their losses as though they were my own. Anyone that feels even a small bit of rage at the way people are treated in this country and is sickened by the foul stench of bigotry and racism, should take courage from these fine men and women who, at the risk of their own lives, chose to put the needs of the many above the needs of the few or the one. They are among the truest examples of what it means to be an American that one will ever find. Power to the People!