In midst of the Civil Rights Movement, on the eve of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) traveled to Lowndes County, Alabama as part of their Freedom Summer initiative. Lowndes County consisted was 80% African-American but had no African-American registered voters. The scourge of white supremacy violently discouraged African-American participation in the political process, despite the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which had passed nearly a century earlier. However, the African-American residents of Lowndes County, in spite of the strength of the Klan and other white terrorist groups, told the SNCC
activists that they wanted to vote. In defiance of the status quo, and under the guidance of SNCC and Freedom Summer activists, the citizens of Lowndes County Alabama hosted their own election. The political dynamic of the South throughout much of 20th century was such that the Democrats had a stranglehold over the region’s politics; in most places, the Republican Party did not exist. Thus, the citizens of Lowndes County needed a new party with a new symbol. The party? The Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The symbol? The Black Panther.
Thus, in the summer of 1965, the Black Panther party was born. Unfortunately, the election held in Alabama did not result in widespread change, though it begat a powerful symbol. A year later, two activists in Oakland California, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, needed a symbol for their radical activities. The two rallied behind the Black Panther image. Under their leadership, the Blank Panther Party transformed from a group focused on the North to a national organization by the early 1970s. The Black Panthers established themselves as one of the premier Black Nationalist groups with tinges of anti-Colonialism and Marxism.
Popular understanding of the Black Panthers is mixed at best. Their reputation portrays them as a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine radical group that embraced strong rhetoric and action against white supremacy. This reputation is not unearned. Perhaps the most famous actions by the Black Panthers was the famous “Police the Police” idea. Frustrated with the corrupt and racist police force in Oakland, California, uniformed members of the Black Panthers armed themselves and followed the local police on their patrols. They observed the police to ensure that they would not be overly brutal or violent. However, this was not always a peaceful endeavor, as several shootouts between the police and the Black Panthers occurred, sometimes resulting in deaths.
The Police the Police strategy was not the only display of violent strategy employed by the Black Panthers. When the California State Legislature considered a bill, the Mulford Act, to outlaw the open carrying of weapons – largely in reaction to the Police the Police strategy – Seale and other Black Panthers stormed the legislative chamber, guns in hand, to show their opposition to the proposed law. While the bill eventually was eventually signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan and several Black Panthers – including Seale – were convicted of various misdemeanors, the stunt rocketed the Black Panthers to national prominence.
However, the Black Panthers did not restrict their activities to violent outbursts, they also proposed and enacted a host of programs. In response to the passage of the Mulford Act the Black Panthers released their “Ten Point Program” which outlined their goals and propositions and represented their vision of black anti-capitalist progressivism.
The Black Panthers also implemented a series of social programs designed to help impoverished African Americans living in urban environments. Women Panthers often championed these programs and served a wide variety of community needs. These programs included the Free Breakfast Program, community health clinics, grocery giveaways, senior citizen transportation, Shoes for Kids, legal aid, afterschool programs, and familial incarceration support. In at least one instance, the Black Panthers opened a full-fledged school.
The funding for these programs is almost as interesting as their success. The Black Panthers, especially after the stunt in the California state legislature and their subsequent expansion beyond Oakland, garnered support from various white and black radicals more than happy to monetize their enthusiasm. Alongside philanthropic donations, the Black Panthers also launched a speaking tour – in 1969 they host 190 speakers and raised $2,000 per speech – as
well as their own newspaper to raise funds. Perhaps their most famous source of funding was merchandising, such the poster of Newton and his arms.
Unfortunately for the Black Panther Party, group infighting and heavily-coordinated FBI targeting under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover led to the collapse of Seale’s and Newton’s party by the mid-1970s. However, their iconography, their brazenness, and their ideology inspired numerous other groups to adopt their symbol – the Panther – and fight for justice in their own communities.
How should we deal with the Black Panther’s legacy? Are they merely violent upstarts or are they righteous warriors? Certainly, one can sympathize with their beliefs, support their survival programs, but maintain concerns with their violence and violent imagery. Others may see their violence as justified in a wholly racist world and place them in the same category as the occasionally violent trade unionists and labor activists in the late 1800s fighting off Pinkerton Guards and corrupt militias. There’s no right way to evaluate the Black Panthers but it is important that we all take all of their activities into account before rendering judgement.