From 1966 to 1976, the Black Panther Party (BPP) protected Black communities from police brutality with armed community patrols, ran popular community service programs such as Free Breakfast for Children, operated consumer health programs, community education programs, and stood as an example to African Americans of the time the power of political activism.
The Black Panther Party was the offspring of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), and the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). The Panthers served as the prototype for many movements alive today, and remain a legendary part of Black History.
Africans from across the Diaspora can learn form the effective political strategies used by the Black Panther Party, the social programs (known as ‘survival programs’) they leveraged to ease poverty, and just how far white supremacist governments will go to suppress real activism.
The Black Panther Party History And Achievements
In order to understand how the Black Panther Party came to power, one must understand the atmosphere of the 1960s, particularly 1968. The Vietnam war was raging and the Tet Offensive had just begun.
Blacks were becoming disillusioned with the results of the “end of segregation” (Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and then-President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1968). And it was becoming more evident that Klansmen had traded their hoods for police badges.
Martin Luther King, JR had been assassinated in March, Malcolm X had been assassinated only three years earlier, and racial tensions were high. A civil rights protest staged at a white-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina was broken up by state highway patrolmen and 3 Black college students had just been killed.
College campuses became cauldrons of unrest, particularly amongst young, black students. For instance, students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., staged and a 5-day sit-in, laid siege to the school’s administration building, and shut down the university in protest over its ROTC program and the Vietnam War. In place of those programs, Black students raised the demand for a more Afrocentric curriculum. Skirmishes and political uprisings were commonplace.
It was out of these circumstances that the Black Panther Party was born.
Both Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton were both students at Merritt College in Oakland California. Both of the young men lived in the crime and poverty stricken communities where police attacks against Blacks were an everyday thing. News of the killings of young Black college students and innocent civilians prompted the two to organize the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
The Party’s initial objective was the protection of the community from police brutality. At the time, only 16 of Oakland’s 661 police officers were Black.
To achieve this, Huey P. Newton had found a law that permitted the carry of loaded shotguns as long as the weapon was visible and not pointed at anyone. With the law on their side, the Black Panther Party intimidated police into compliance, and created safe spaces to serve their community with what became known as survival programs.
The greatest of these programs was arguably the Oakland Learning Center – an all encompassing educational and cultural center where children and adults learned culture, history, martial arts, reading, writing, and mathematics from an Afrocentric perspective.
The Black Panther Party Ten Point Program
The Black Panther Party was founded on what became known as the 10 Point Program. The entire program below gave direction and discipline to the efforts of the Party.
Every community organizer and student of Black Consciousness would do well to review and commit this program to memory.
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 Capitalists 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 were 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 are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. 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 The 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 The 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 [And Women] 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 U.S. 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.
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 them, a decent respect of 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 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 the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such 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.
Black Panther Party Survival Programs
1. Alameda County Volunteer Bureau Work Site2. Benefit Counseling
3. Black Student Alliance
4. Child Development Center
5. Consumer Education Classes
6. Community Facility Use
7. Community Health Classes
8. East Oakland CIL (Center for Independent Living) Branch
9. Community Pantry (Free Food Program)
10. Drug/Alcohol Abuse Awareness Program
11. Drama Classes
12. Disabled Persons Services/Transportation and Attendant
13. Drill Team
14. Employment Referral Service
15. Free Ambulance Program
16. Free Breakfast for Children Programs
17. Free Busing to Prisons Program
18. Free Clothing Program
19. Free Commissary for Prisoners Program
20. Free Dental Program
21. Free Employment Program
22. Free Food Program23. Free Film Series
24. Free Furniture Program
25. Free Health Clinics
26. Free Housing Cooperative Program
27. Food Cooperative Program
28. Free Optometry Program
29. Community Forum
30. Free Pest Control Program
31. Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program
32. Free Shoe Program
33. GED Classes
34. Geriatric Health Center
35. GYN Clinic
36. Home SAFE Visits
37. Intercommunal Youth Institute (becomes OCS by 1975)
38. Junior and High School Tutorial Program
39. Legal Aid and Education
40. Legal Clinic/Workshops
41. Laney Experimental College Extension Site
42. Legal Referral Service(s)
43. Liberation Schools44. Martial Arts Program
45. Nutrition Classes
46. Oakland Community Learning Center
47. Outreach Preventative Care
48. Program Development
49. Pediatric Clinic
50. police patrols
51. Seniors Against a Fearful Environment
52. SAFE Club
53. Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation
54. Son of Man Temple (becomes Community Forum by 1976)
56. Senior Switchboard
57. The Black Panther Newspaper
58. Teen Council
59. Teen Program
60. U.C. Berkeley Students Health Program
61. V.D. Preventative Screening & Counseling
62. Visiting Nurses Program
63. WIC (Women Infants, and Children) Program
64. Youth Diversion and Probation Site
65. Youth Training and Development
While Black Panther Party programs gained widespread popularity amongst the oppressed masses, the “policing the police” program” attracted the attention of the FBI’s COINTELPRO.
COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program) began a series of secret and often illegal projects aimed at watching, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting the Party.
COINTELPRO tactics included discrediting targets through psychological warfare such as planting false reports in the media, smearing through forged letters, harassment, wrongful imprisonment, and extralegal violence and assassination.
The Decline of the Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party flourished until COINTELPRO operations started to focus almost completely on the Black Panther Party and its members.
The federal government launched an atrocious secret war that included the following illegal offenses:
- On February 8, 1968, on the campus of South Carolina State College, local police backed by the National Guard fire on a crowd of unarmed students; 33 black activists are shot, and three die.
- In March of 1968, Arthur (Glen) Morris, brother of Bunchy Carter, is shot and killed by “agents” of the U.S. government. He is the first member of the Black Panther Party to be killed. Anthony Coltrale is killed in Watts by a local police officer, and the Kansas City Black Panther Party office is raided by police and five Panthers are arrested.
- In April of 1968, an Oakland police shoot-out results in the murder of Bobby Hutton; Eldridge Cleaver is wounded. Seven other Panthers are arrested. That month, an Oakland police shoot-out results in the murder of Bobby Hutton; Eldridge Cleaver is wounded. Seven other Panthers are arrested.
- In July of 1968, The Seattle Black Panther Party office is raided by local police. Captain Aaron Dixon of the Seattle Black Panther Party and Panther Curtis Harris are arrested for grand larceny. Both are eventually found not guilty. Captain Dexter Woods of the San Francisco BPP arrested for interference with police.
- In 1969, Chicago Panther David Smith is arrested for selling the Black Panther Party newspaper – yeas, you read that right – arrested for selling a newspaper! In that same year, Panthers Joel Brown and Ron Davis are attacked, maced, and arrested by police for allegedly blocking a public walkway while selling Black Panther Party newspapers, and the San Diego and Sacramento Black Panther Party offices are raided.
These are just a few of the atrocities committed against the Panthers. Hundreds of others were falsely imprisoned, driven out of the country, or flat our murdered.
Because of the effectiveness of their programs and their political alignment with socialist and communist principles, the government of the United States believed it was justified in waging an atrocious war against the Black organization. No other contemporary organization in American history faced this kind of oppression.
The FBI COINTELPRO was effecting in bogging the Black Panther Party down in the criminal justice system. Dissension began to arise amongst its members over conflicting political doctrines and tactics.
Raids and legal costs drained the Party of its resources, and with many of its leaders dead, imprisoned, or exiled – Huey had fled to Cuba to avoid prosecution for a crime in 1974-membership and activity began to decline.
The Party was officially dissolved in 1976.
The New Black Panther Party
America would have liked the world to forget about the Black Panther Party and its principles. But the legacy of the Party lives on in the New BPP.
The movie Panther (1995) introduced a new generation to the Black Panther Party, giving rise to several new Panther organizations that took up the organization’s the 10 – Point Plan.
These organizations include The New Black Panther Party, curently under the leadership of Hashim Nzinga, and The National Alliance of Black Panthers under Shazza Nzingha. Although these organizations seek to claim the Panther legacy, the original party members contend that the party is dead, and that these organizations do not reflect the views or the spirits of its founders.
Regardless, great leaders have taken up the legacy of the Party, including Khalid Abdul Muhammad (seen above) and Attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz.
The work of the New Black Panther Party continues with efforts to liberate members of the original Party who are still (!) incarcerated.
Eight former Black Panthers are currently in prison in California on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Similar charges were thrown out back in 1975 after it was determined that the evidence used to indict the men was extracted by police torture.
Two of the men have been held as political prisoners the past thirty years in New York State prisons, but the other six have been living regular lives, working and raising families. A ninth man is still being sought by the police. He was never caught.
These men, known collectively as the San Francisco 8 are being held on $3 million bail each. This bail is considered excessive and the men, their legal team and their supporters are trying to get it reduced so that those members of the SF 8 who are not currently serving time can go home during the upcoming legal proceedings.
The struggle to gain these men’s freedom is gaining but will require much more public support. In a manner similar to the campaign waged in 1971-1972 to free Angela Davis and the ongoing campaign to free Mumia Abu Jamal, this campaign must become a widespread and international campaign.
The fight continues!