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What Were The Black Panthers? Facts And Truth About A Controversial Movement

Culture | October 15, 2020

Huey Newton in a photograph that became a famous Black Panther poster. Source: museumca.org

The Black Panthers -- officially, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense -- strike a fearsome pose in the racial tumult of the late 1960s. The assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968 brought out a younger generation of black leaders -- Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and others -- who projected strength and power. Black Power. While the group's image attracted media attention, there was more to the Black Panthers than sensationalistic news reports and reductive histories would have you believe.

The Unfortunate Mythology That Surrounded Them

An image that seems connected to the myth of the Black Panthers. Source: (Sacramento Bee)

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966 in Oakland, California. Newton and Seale met at Merritt College and formed the party to break from the integrationist and nonviolent tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their mission was to combat oppression. Despite this mission, several myths arose regarding the Black Panthers, including the perception that the Panthers were dangerous racist thugs. Contrary to these myths, they did not advocate violence; however they did believe that they had the right to defend themselves.

Their Influences And Goals

Bobby Seale a the John Sinclair freedom rally. Source: (Wikipedia)

Seale was inspired by King’s words, and created a youth program. The Black Panthers were influenced by Malcolm X’s speeches, Mao Tse-Tung’s teachings, and a book, The Wretched of the Earth, by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. They formed the Black Panthers after the assassination of Malcolm X and the police shooting of Matthew Johnson, an unarmed teenager. The party took as its slogan “Power to the People,” with the goal of getting more African Americans elected to office. The initial Panther activities focused on monitoring police activities.  

The Party Platform

Huey Newton. Source: (National Archives)

To develop their "Ten Point Platform and Program," the foundation of the Black Panthers, Seale and Newton asked residents of their community about their concerns. The Ten Points were as follows:

• We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

• We want full employment for our people.

• We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.

• We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

• 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 the present day society.

• We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

• We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

• We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

• 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 want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

They Were Often A Positive Force

A community food program. Source: (Black Past)

The Black Panthers also did good in the community, providing free breakfast for children, legal aid, and adult education. By 1968, they had more than 2,000 members, attracting people in part because their goals appealed to everyday people. They also affirmed black beauty, helping to attract even more members to the group. Despite the myth that they were a misogynistic group, they did have female members.

The FBI Thought They Were A Threat

Women were often members as well. Source: (Ford Foundation)

Because of their communist and revolutionary elements, as well as their practice of armed self-defense against police, the Black Panthers were frequently targeted by COINTELPRO, a program within the FBI. J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, considered the Black Panthers to be one of the greatest threats to national security as they were sympathetic to the communists and posed a threat to the powers that be. The Panthers were also targeted by other law enforcement groups. In response to COINTELPRO, Panthers would avoid going home so that they could protect their families, moving into “Panther Pads,” which helped to create a deeper sense of community.

Newton's Arrest

Source: (National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

In 1967, Newton was convicted of killing an Oakland police officer, John Frey, but that conviction was later overturned. There were other instances of violence as well. Eldridge Cleaver, the editor of the Black Panthers’ newspaper, and Bobby Hutton, the Panthers' treasurer, were involved in a shootout with the police that left Hutton dead and two officers wounded. After this, Cleaver moved to Algeria, where he began to recruit members from other countries.  

Additional Arrests

Protests that arose after the "Panther 21" were arrested. Source: (VASHTIE)

In 1969, Seale was arrested in connection with the torture and murder of Alex Rackley, whom some thought was an FBI informant. After Seale was arrested, Fred Hampton rose in prominence, and began to attract Hispanics and sympathetic whites to the group. Then, in Chicago, later that year, the police killed Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark, while they slept in their apartment. Also in 1969, 21 of the leading Panther members were arrested in New York on charges of terrorist activity. Eventually, they were acquitted. Additional arrests led to dwindling membership as people were concerned with being identified with such a “hot” group.  

The End Of The Original Group

Source: (IMDb)

On August 5, 1970, Newton was released from jail and began to refocus on social programs. In 1972, Newton centralized power in Oakland. When Seale was released from prison that same year, he ran for mayor of Oakland, and although he lost, his bid helped to get 50,000 African Americans registered to vote.

The original Black Panthers disbanded in 1982. In 1989, the New Black Panther Party formed in Dallas, Texas. The New Black Panther Party, which has been labeled a hate group, has no relation to the original Black Panthers.  

Tags: Black Panthers | Bobby Seale | Civil Rights | The Civil Rights Movement | Huey Newton

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!