Formed in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was the largest Black revolutionary organization that has ever existed.
Famous for taking up guns in defense against police brutality, the Panthers had many other little-known sides to their work. They organized dozens of community programs such as free breakfast for children, health clinics and shoes for children.
Such was their success that they rapidly grew to a size of 5,000 full time party workers, organized in 45 chapters (branches) across America. At their peak, they sold 250,000 papers every week. Opinion polls of the day showed the Panthers to have 90% support amongst Blacks in the major cities. Their impact on Black America can be measured by the response of the state. J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI described them as “the number one threat to the internal security of the United States”.
In this chapter, we will be looking at the formation of the Panthers, their program and activities, but more importantly, what marked the Panthers out to be different from all other organizations, what led them to be the inspiration to generations around the world to join the struggle against oppression.
The Civil Rights Movement
The formation of the Panthers was the direct result of the development of the civil rights movement which had already been in full swing for more than a decade before they were created.
The movement had largely been based in the south and around demands for desegregation of the busses, schools, waiting rooms and lunch counters. Hundreds of thousands had been mobilized to participate in the demonstrations, sit-ins and freedom rides. Both from the police, local white mobs and the Ku Klux Klan, civil rights protesters faced the constant threat of brutal attack or even death. Despite this, the guiding philosophy of the civil rights leaders – in particular Martin Luther King – remained one of civil disobedience and passive resistance.
The increasing ferocity of the violence put a great strain on the movement. Contrasting views on a strategy for Black liberation began to emerge. Stokely Carmichael was prominent among those who opposed passive resistance and represented the feelings of a new generation of Blacks who felt that the peaceful approach was played out.
Alongside the mainstream civil rights was another current: much smaller than King’s movement but still with significant numbers were the Black Muslims. The Nation believed in separation instead of integration and were completely opposed to passive resistance. Their radical ideology was appealing but they refused to participate in the civil rights movement or to become involved in the activities of non-Nation members.
Malcolm X saw the limitations of both the Muslims and King’s strategy of non-violence. He saw the need to embrace the social and economic issues and he attempted to put forward a more coherent strategy than any Black leader up to that point. It was against this background of upheaval that the Black Panther Party was created. The Panthers took the revolutionary philosophy and militant stand of Malcolm X, they were determined that although Malcolm X had been cut down, they would make his ideas come alive.
The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. They met in the early sixties whilst at Meritt Junior College in West Oakland. The civil rights movement had ignited Black America: Seale and Newton were no exception. Both were active in Black politics for several years before they came together to form the Panthers. Bobby Seale was part of RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement) and both Seale and Newton became involved in a college-based group called the Soul Students Advisory Committee. These experiences were critical in the formation of the ideology of the Panthers as it led to them rejecting the philosophy of what they called the cultural nationalists.
In Seize the Time, Bobby Seale explains,
“Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a Black man cannot be the enemy of the Black people, while the Panthers believe that Black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in Black nationalism and Black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and are therefore ineffective.”
Cultural nationalism was a powerful current in the Black movement and one which influenced Malcolm X in his early years as a Black Muslim. The nationalists rejected the integrationist approach and believed in separation from whites.
In forming the Panthers, Seale and Newton made a clean break with both the integrationist and the separatist approach. They argued instead that the economic and political roots of racism were in the exploitative capitalist system and that the Black struggle must be a revolutionary movement to overthrow the entire power structure in order to achieve liberation for all Black people.
Under pressure from the mass civil rights struggle, the government had made certain concessions: promoting Black officials, mayors, Congressmen etc., but no lasting improvement to the daily lives of most Black people had taken place. In fact, whilst segregation laws had been broken down, the level of poverty had actually increased. Black unemployment was higher in 1966 (after more than a decade of struggle) than in 1954.
32% of Black people were living below the poverty line in 1966.
71% of the poor living in metropolitan areas were Black.
By 1968, two-thirds of the Black population lived in ghettos.
The Panthers realized that the movement needed to progress beyond the battles for desegregation and to address the fundamental economic problems that people faced in their daily lives. They were the first independent Black organization to have a clear analysis of the type of society we live in: one in which a small class hold all the economic and political power and use it to exploit the majority.
Bobby Seale said,
“We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”
This was the guiding philosophy of the Black Panthers. But critical to their development was the knowledge that it was not enough to have the right theories, that this must be translated into a concrete set of demands that people can relate to and a clear course of action to achieve those demands. And so the first task of Seale and Newton was to sit down and write a program for the Panthers.
Black Panther Party
Platform and Program
What We Want
What We Believe
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community. We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
2. We want full employment for our people.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the white American businessmen will not give full employment, then the 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 white man 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 was 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 Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.
We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second amendment to the constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal state, county and city prisons and jails.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black communities, as defined by the constitution of the United States.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the US constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of Black people as to their national destiny.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands 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, 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 such principles, and organizing its powers in such a 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 more 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 usurpations, 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 security.
As soon as the program was written, they printed 1,000 copies and went out onto the streets to distribute them. Seale, Newton and their first member, Bobby Hutton put their months paychecks together to rent an old shop front as a base for operations. They painted up a sign saying Black Panther Party for Self Defense and on January 1, 1967 the office was opened. Weekly meetings and political education classes were held to spread the word, and so the first chapter of the Panthers was formed.
The party began to grow not only because an organization of that character with a clearly worked out program was needed at that time but because they based themselves in the community, working with the people, for the people. They had an office, they had the ten point platform and program – now was time to put that program into action.
The Panthers decided to take up their constitutional right to carry arms and to implement Malcolm X’s philosophy of self-defense, by patrolling the police. They did this at a time when severe police brutality was common – the police would beat down and kill Blacks at random. They would even recruit police from the racist south to come and work in the northern ghettos.
On one occasion, whilst on patrol, they witnessed an officer stop and search a young guy. The Panthers got out of their car and went over to the scene and stood watching their guns on full display. Angrily, the policeman began to question them and tried to intimidate them with threats of arrest. But Huey P. Newton had studied the law intimately and could quote every law and court ruling relevant to their situation.
Huey stood there with a law book in one hand and a gun in the other and told the “pigs” about his constitutional right to carry a weapon as long as it was not concealed. He told them about the law and said that every citizen had the right to observe a police officer carry out his duty as long as they stood a reasonable distance away. And he told them about the Supreme Court ruling which defined that distance.
A crowd gathered and watched this whole scene in amazement. The Panthers made it clear that they were not looking for a shoot-out and that they would only use their guns in self-defense. They took the opportunity to distribute copies of their ten point program, inform people of the Panthers ideology and invite them to their political meetings. Meanwhile, the flustered and nervous cop took the opportunity to get the hell out of there.
The gun had a huge psychological effect, both on the Black community and the police. For the police, it reversed the fear that they so enjoyed creating in others. But for the Black community, it fired their imagination, people felt empowered by seeing Black brothers and sisters protecting their interests.
There were two sides to the carrying of guns though, most people saw it as a positive move but others were put off by the militaristic image. On the other side, many brothers in particular, came to the Panther office purely for the gun, the Black uniform – the whole image. When this happened, the Panthers would simply explain that the Black struggle was about a whole lot more than just picking up the gun: it was about educating yourself and then others, about organizing the community programs, selling the newspaper and serving the people. At the same time, they would get the brother to work in the nursery for a while, looking after the children while other members went out on party business. In this way, they tried to make sure that people understood the Panther ideology and that they got a balanced view of what it was all about.
The programs were of key importance in the Panthers strategy. Firstly, they demonstrated that politics was relevant to peoples lives – to feed a hungry child, give out food, clothing and medical care showed that the Panthers related to people’s needs. Secondly, it showed what could be achieved if you were organized. The programs achieved a great deal with very limited resources but it also raised in peoples minds how much more could be achieved if they had the resources available to the government and the business corporations. Some people have criticized the community programs saying it was not a revolutionary thing to do but Bobby Seale answers this clearly.
“A lot of people misunderstand the politics of these programs; some people have a tendency to call them reform programs. They’re not reform programs; they’re actually revolutionary community programs. A revolutionary program is onset forth by revolutionaries, by those who want to change the existing system for a better system. A reform program is set up by the existing exploitative system as an appeasing handout, to fool the people and to keep them quiet. Examples of these programs are poverty programs, youth work programs and things like that.”
The first program the Panthers organized was the Free Breakfast for Children Program. Lesley Johnson explains how this led her to get involved in the Panthers.
“Well, one of the things that I could immediately respect and admire the party for, was its Breakfast for School Children Program. You know my parents were both workers, my father was a shipper and my mother, she worked cleaning clothes, rubbing the spots out, what was known as a spotter. And there were times when I was growing up, the week’s oatmeal or whatever would run out and I went to school hungry. So that I could really appreciate what the party was doing.”
The Panthers would go out and get donations of food from businessmen. Any chain of stores that refused even a small donation would be boycotted. Leaflets would be produced and distributed in the community exposing that business.
The programs usually took place in a church hall. Party members would have to work very hard, starting work at 6am every day. They would prepare breakfast, serve children, they would usually sing some songs with them and then, when the children left, they would have to clear the place up and go out to collect provisions for the next day.
The success of the Panther’s political activities and community programs and their huge growth and influence and membership soon brought them under fire from the American state. The FBI intensified the COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) against them. Nearly every office in the country was raided at some point. In Chicago, all the food provisions for the breakfast program were burnt out. During one raid in the spring of 1968, Bobby Hutton, the party’s first member, came out with his hands up. The police shot him in the head and killed him. The attacks became even more vicious in 1969. On December 4, at 1am, the police burst into Fred Hampton’s apartment and opened fire in the bedroom where he lay sleeping with his pregnant girlfriend. Another Panther called out that a pregnant sister was in the room and the police paused their firing. Deborah Johnson recalls:
“One of the policemen grabbed my robe and threw it down and said ‘what do you know, we have a broad here.’ Another man grabbed me by the head and shoved me into the kitchen. I heard a voice from another part of the apartment saying ‘he’s barely alive’, or ‘he’ll barely make it’. Then I heard more shots. A sister screamed from the front. Then the shooting stopped. I heard someone say ‘he’s as good as dead now.'”
In 1969 alone, 25 Panther members were killed. But the FBI’s operations went further. Aside from the constant arrests of Panther members which disrupted the work of the organization and drained them financially, the FBI infiltrated the party and manufactured rivalries and disputes between different members.
Today, some would explain the demise of the Panthers as due to the successful operations of the FBI. Undoubtedly, this placed an enormous strain on the organization but there are many countries in the world where political opposition faces even greater repression from the state. Without underestimating the difficulties, they cannot entirely account for the fall of the Panthers. There are a number of factors which contributed.
Women in the Panthers
The role of women within the Panthers was an area with many problems. At one point, women comprised 70% of the membership of the organization. Yet, all the leading positions were occupied by men. This is not a petty point because it illustrated the different roles that men and women took on. It seems that many women were confined to secretarial, administrative, childcare or other traditional roles whilst men were encouraged to develop the political ideas, speaking and leadership abilities. Also, some of the brothers complained that they were not taking directions from a woman! At other times it was found that accusations of being a counter-revolutionary were spread about a woman just because she did not want to sleep with someone.
These problems would have cut the Panthers off from a whole layer of Black women who were not prepared to put up with this nonsense. However, we have to see that sexist attitudes were not unique to the Panthers – it is something that occurs in all organizations because it is related to the oppressive nature of this society and the way in which it exploits women. The Panthers did take action against these attitudes but they did not fully succeed – equality in the party was never achieved. And you cannot be a true community organization, fighting the oppression of society if women are being oppressed within your organization.
The membership of the Panthers was 5,000. This seems pretty low when you consider all they achieved but the reason is that those 5,000 members were all full-time! You could not be a member of the organization unless you were unemployed or prepared to give up your job. It is a sign of the tremendous commitment that the Panthers inspired, that they had 5,000 full-time workers but they would definitely have had a much, much larger membership if they had allowed students and people who were working to join. In effect they cut themselves off from hundreds of thousands of people who would have supported them. This also set them apart from the rest of the community.
Revolutionary Black Workers Groups
At that point in time, there were several radical Black workers groups such as DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), DODGE – named after the car plant in Detroit and ELARUM (Eldron Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement). They organized large numbers of revolutionary Black workers. Although they had some Black caucuses within the trade unions, the Panthers did not sufficiently develop this aspect of the work. It was of particular importance because the Black working class is critical in the struggle for Black liberation.
The Panthers were one of the few groups who understood the whole basis of American society had to be transformed. It was this understanding that gave them a revolutionary outlook. But this alone, guarantees nothing. The clarity of ideas which enables the development of a coherent and effective strategy is essential in accomplishing the task of the overthrow of capitalism. We would argue that there were many confused ideas in the Black Panther Party. Some believed they could develop on the basis of a struggle conducted by a small armed minority and didn’t have a strategy for building a mass organization which could be sustained over a longer period.
Huey Newton says in Revolutionary Suicide
“But we soon discovered that weapons and uniforms set us apart from the community. We were looked upon as an ad hoc military group, acting outside the community fabric and too radical to be a part of it. Perhaps some of our tactics at the time were extreme; perhaps we placed too much emphasis on military action.”
This was particularly important as they had reached their high point at the time of the ebbing of the huge civil rights movement. Had the organization been developed with a more long term perspective then the Black Panthers would have been in a position to put themselves at the head of a mass resurgence of radicalism amongst the Black population or even in wider American society. This, above all demonstrates the need for a clear forward view of how events will unfold in society. That is why a careful and disciplined study of events is an important aspect of shaping the outlook of any revolutionary organization.
The Panthers have left us with an invaluable experience. Their dedication, will and bravery in the face of what might have appeared as insurmountable odds is an example which any serious Black activist or revolutionary should be proud to follow. They were the highpoint of the civil rights movement.
Adrian Wood & Nutan Rajguru