Black Panthers and the Rise of the Black Power Movement
Tony Lavale Jefferson, Jr.
Colorado Technical University
Modern American History: 1950 to the 21st Century
Melody J. Studebaker
The Black Panthers preached racial pride, self-defense and the organization of Black America into a political force. Black power as it was later coined was unheard of at the time, but the Black Panthers brought it into existence with rallies, protest and community organizing.
Black Panthers and the Rise of the Black Power Movement
The thought of black power or Black Americans having any kind of power or influence was almost unheard of in the 1960s and the decades before. The rise of the Black American has a storied history, specifically with the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the Black Panther party. A sense of community is always the bond that holds people together. Decades of slavery, race issues, and other programs designed to disenfranchise Black Americans destroyed the fabric of community. The Black Panthers were established to bring to the attention of the world the problems and issues facing the oppressed in America. According to Williams, Y. (2008), “the slow pace of progress associated with the civil rights movement was coined by some as the reason the Black Power Movement existed.”
The power of the panthers was tremendous. Their influence spread around the country fast after starting in Harlem and later spread into some foreign cities. Their ideas and agenda were codified into a ten-point program as stated in Huey Newton’s dissertation War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America written in 1980 it list as follows:
1. We want Freedom. We Want Power to determine the destiny of our black community.
2. We want full employment of our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black community.
4. We want decent housing fit for Shelter of Human Beings.
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.
6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
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.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace
The 1960s was a time of chaos and many did not know if they would make it through the day much less to the next. Incidents of police brutality, race mobs, fire bombings of black establishments, the Ku Klux Klan, the nonviolent stance of the civil rights movement, and other acts of violent contributed to groups forming to stop oppression and raise awareness about it. The Black Power movement was not a race baiting engine of violence at its core; it was a movement to help black people finally stand up for their rights and themselves. During this turbulent period, the only defense black people had were themselves. The Black Panthers, along with others such as Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and other Black Liberation groups believed in self-defense and any other means necessary to get their point across, to stop the harassment, to stop the violence. The civil rights movement didn’t believe meeting violence with violence was a good idea, but the black power movement saw the civil rights leaders as catering and trying to assimilate with white society. The black power movement believed in separate but equal, they didn’t want integration, because they didn’t want to concede they felt to white society.
Any movement by a minority draws the eyes of the government and The Black Panthers like their civil rights counterparts were a constant target of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Central Intelligence Agency investigations. The FBI at the time was under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and in 1968 called the Black Panthers “the single greatest threat to internal security of the United States” Williams, Y. (2008) (p.16). In 1971, the House of Representatives Committee on Internal Security had some strong opinions about the legacy of the Black Panthers saying that they “fascinated the left, inflamed the police, terrified much of America and had an extraordinary effect on the black community.” They went on to say in the same meeting that “even moderate blacks, who disagree with their violent tactics, felt the Panthers served a purpose in focusing attention on ghetto problems and gave the black community a sense of pride” Williams, Y. (2008) (p.16). The Panthers stance on armed self-defense, did not sit well with officials and police, but was a badge of honor within the organization and in the black community
The Panthers weren’t the only black power group during the black power movement, but were by far one of the most popular ones. There was the back to Africa movement popularized by Marcus Garvey, the Nation of Islam religious group popularized by Malcolm X and many others that contributed to the success and legacy of the civil rights movement in the bigger picture of things. During those turbulent 60’s much power lied with the Drug Lords that controlled many areas of influence in the African American society. The Black Panthers and their leader Huey P. Newton had many altercations with the drug lords because of the Panthers stance against drugs and drug use among blacks. He also saw the Panthers influence waning because of the rampant drug use in the black community. He often sought to find common ground with drug dealers in ways they could positively help the community.
Ironically, Huey Newton came into conflict with Tyrone Robinson, a drug-dealer in Oakland. On 22nd August, 1989, Robinson pulled a gun on Newton. It is claimed that Newton's last words were, "You can kill my body, but you can't kill my soul. My soul will live forever!" He was then shot three times in the face by Robinson. In essence this act of violence should have killed the whole Black Power Movement and the influence of the Panthers, but despite the loss of such a profound leader, the movement and the Panthers continued.
At a time where living in the inner city and ghetto seemed more like dying in hell, the Black Panthers were what was needed to uplift these communities that often go unnoticed or promptly ignored by the mainstream. They provided a ray of hope, armed self-defense made the black community feel safe and the food drives and immunizations made the community healthier and showed that black people could take care of their own. To uplift a people provide what they need and not just what they want, the Panthers recognized a need in the community from which they themselves lived and it was much easier for them to identify what was needed and what was not. The Panthers garnered widespread appeal through partnerships with other ethnic minorities and the poor, such groups as the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the American Indian Movement; this was called “Rainbow Radicalism”. Rainbow Radicalism helped the Panthers develop cross-racial and international appeal spreading the idea of Black Power globally Williams, Y. (2008) (p.19). The Panthers felt that black people needed to be more concerned with politics, because the ruling class was doing nothing for the betterment of blacks. They felt that the Panthers should be a political party with the same or equal billing as the national ones.
They say there is strength in numbers and this is something the Panthers believed in dearly. They organized with the United Farm Workers in 1969 to protest the opening of a Safeway grocery store in Oakland, California, in what seemed an unlikely alliance the two groups worked together to prevent the store from opening, much to the shock of then Safeway CEO Robert Magowan. Magowan didn’t believe that the United Farm Workers had the resources or power to effectively close his stores, but there is strength in numbers and Cesar Chavez believed the Black Panthers had just the numbers and clout they needed to get the job done Araiza, L. (2009) (p.200). The Panthers often partnered with and had good relationships with other progressive and militant organizations regardless of racial or ethnic background, because at its core the Black Panthers worked to address issues on behalf of all oppressed groups. They believed in multi-racial solidary and the belief that their cause wasn’t a race struggle but a class struggle. Once other groups teamed together, they become a force to reckon with and the establishment better take note.
Those that accused the Panthers of race baiting or fear mongering didn’t truly understand the core of what the Panthers believed in. They believed the little man can have a big voice and can be heard in a room full of big men. They believed that issues facing everyone and not just once specific group needed to be addressed equally, to truly have equality regardless of social status, race or gender. The Panthers saw the greatest need in the African-American community, they felt that black people didn’t have a voice in the time when they really needed it, and they felt the civil rights leaders had other goals. The civil rights movement wanted to fit in and the black power movement wanted to stand out.
In emphasizing such important goals as community service and institution building, and in laying out a nationalist and internationalist agenda, the Panthers embraced black powers ethos of racial self-determination. “Ultimately,” as Peniel E. Joseph explains, “black power accelerated America’s reckoning with its uncomfortable, often ugly racial past. In the process, it spurred a debate over racial progress, citizenship, and democracy, that would scandalize and help change America” Williams, Y. (2008) (p.19). America has often, in the course of history, tried it’s best to cover up and forget its misdeeds and ugly side. The Panthers and groups like them tried to get America to see the error of its wrongs and try to fix them if at all possible. The Panthers weren’t trying to ruin the establishment or coexist in the way of the times; they wanted better for their community and for all oppressed people.
In order to remove the stigma of oppression, the issues of the oppressed must be addressed and the civil rights movement started the discussion, but lost the message along the way. The black power movement forced the ugly truth down the throats of the establishment daily, never relenting on the hope of equality for the oppressed. Class more than race dominated the times and although it was coined the Black Power movement, it stood as an example for other oppressed and ethnic minorities in troubling times. It was hard to do a lot with so little, but the Panthers and groups like them made a way out of no way. Seeing babies and younger people of color being beating and mistreated by police and the establishment, struck a chord with the Panthers, it’s one of the main reasons they were formed.
The murder of Emmett Till was one of those chords that struck and brought about a more aggressive movement. The progress of the civil rights movement was marred by the continued violence and increase of it against people of color in the 60’s. Black people were getting tired and fed up; mad at the atrocities that people could wield against other people. Emmett Till was killed for presumably whistling at a white woman, he was beaten, castrated and eventually hung and killed. The thought that someone could do this to a child was unbelievable. For 19 straight weeks Till’s story dominated local papers in Mississippi and nationwide.
An outcry for swift justice was seen as slander by white Mississippians from the NAACP, as Till’s story circulated throughout the nation. The killing not only encouraged a newfound self-awareness among black youth as “black” and, therefore, as being susceptible to violence, but also provided additional motivation to the formation of political organizations such as the Black Panther Party, which advocated a more aggressive pursuit of reform than the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Till’s influence on “the Party” appears not only in the recollections of members, who were nearly the same age as Till when he was murdered, but also in the Party’s skillful use of images of injustice to raise civic awareness and mobilize a new movement for social reform, efforts to monitor the police, and establishment of community-based, social service programs which sought to create a hopeful future for new generations of black youth Young, H. (2008) (p.23). Till’s murder both scared and empowered black youth in uncertain times, they knew they were targets, but they also knew that they had a voice and they could do something to prevent violence from happening to them. The use of violence might not have been the best response, but it showed that blacks weren’t just going to turn the other cheek this time as long preached by the civil rights movement. With the increase of police brutality and the reaction to blacks by the general public, a recipe for disaster for the establishment was brewing and the killing of Till didn’t exactly quail the movement that was a long time coming.
The youth of a nation will always succeed the traditional generation before them and make strides for social change, which the former wouldn’t even dream of. The Black Panthers were becoming more acceptable to a wide range of oppressed people including whites that didn’t belong to the ruling class of people. The main difference between the black power movement and the civil rights movement is they weren’t trying to belong, they were trying to change. It’s a lot easier to assimilate than to change a mindset set in stone for over 500 years and probably even before that. When a group tried to change the mind of the masses in the 60’s they were viewed as Communist and left leaning anti-establishment liberals who mean nothing but trouble.
Huey P. Newton along with others was the undisputed face of the Black Panthers, the Harvard grad, something almost unheard of at the time, outlined the goals and purpose of the Black Panthers in his dissertation War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America published in 1980. By that time, the Panthers had already become a force politically, socially and were ingrained in the fight for equality. The influence of the Black Panthers might have seemed to wane after the death of Huey Newton, but with a movement this big, the ideology survives the founder every time. Huey Newton was an enigma, a revolutionary, an intelligent man of color that saw a need in his community and banded together no matter the loss he personally felt, to uplift his people and the lives of the oppressed. Huey Newton’s legacy will always be tied to the uplifting of his race and the down trodden, no matter the attacks or reexamine of him as a person, his legacy preceded him in life and death.
Almost as enigmatic as Newton himself, were Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale who along with Newton risked it all to see equality in their communities and stepped up to the plate as concerned youth during that time. Being popular wasn’t popular with these particular youth as they just wanted a change, a simple admittance of wrong and a plan to fix it all. They wanted the violent loss of life to stop and they wanted a new beginning for the little man in the room. Cleaver was the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party and one time presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. Bobby Seale was a Co-founder along with Newton and served in the US Air Force before the founding of the Panthers.
Two incidents helped to shape the public image of the Panthers even as it propelled the group into becoming a national organization. The first incident of public note occurred on May 2, 1967, when about 30 Panthers accidentally interrupted a session of the California Legislature in an effort to protest an impending gun bill that the group believed to be anti-Panther. This led the media to paint the Panthers in a category “guns” and also led to the second incident, the violent image painted by the media, although the guns were now gone, led to the first confrontation between the Panthers and the police where shots were actually fired. This incident resulted in the death of an Oakland police officer, the injuring of another and the serious injuring of Huey Newton. Newton’s arrest focused negative national attention on the group, but the murder trial made Newton an international cause and a celebrity allowing the group a national stage on which to expound their views Williams, Y. (2008) (p.19).
In Bobby Seale's Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, first published in 1970, in the chapter on "Pigs, Problems, Politics, and Panthers," there is a section devoted to describing the activities of the "Jackanapes, Renegades, and Agent Provocateurs." The renegades were those individuals, who joined the Black Panther Party (BPP), but continued to "goof off" and failed to obey the rules until they were "busted" by Seale or Huey Newton or other Panther leaders Franklin, V. P. (2007) (p.553). There were many agents that had infiltrated the Panthers, from police to government officials trying to undo and ruin the Panthers. Former criminals given a second chance to do something positive with their lives by the group could never seem to leave their criminal past and jeopardized the judgment and vetting process of the group. The group wasn’t perfect, but in trying to do the positive things in the communities ravaged by drugs, racial violence and class warfare, they balanced out the rough spots that appeared in the group. The Black Panthers like many groups throughout history left quite an impression on the psyche of America and black communities have always paid reverence to them.
In his introduction to the excellent anthology The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, the editor Charles E. Jones discussed what he considered the mythologies surrounding the Panthers, including the idea that "the BPP was a 'lumpen-based' organization." Jones examines the educational background of Panther leaders and concluded that most were college students and high school graduates and that "the diversity of the Party membership is often overlooked." He argued that "the socioeconomic profile of the rank-and-file Panthers contradicts the lumpen perception of the organization," and he suggested that "the typical Panther" was a "high school or college student" Franklin, V. P. (2007) (p.556). “Lumpen”, a meaning coined by Cleaver, describes a low life, a person that most likely will amount to nothing but what his or her environment dictates they be. The Panthers weren’t just a collection of miscreants and criminals they were a very articulate and educated group.
The Panthers illustrated an earnest desire not simply to reform the system but to transform American society. This is perhaps the most significant part of their legacy in helping America realize "some abstract thing called freedom". In the final analysis, the Panthers' real significance and legacy is to be found here, not among the thorny road of civil rights failures, dreams deferred, and radicalism gone wild, but among the lilies of community responsibility, self-determination, and community control, in the hopes of delivering "power to the people" Williams, Y. (2008) (p.19). By not trying to fit into what society felt they should be and do, the Panthers set themselves apart from many groups and garnered much respect even if the ensuing party didn’t agree with their message or the means by which they implemented it.
In conclusion, the legacy of the Black Panthers and the Black Power Movement influenced a new generation years after it was declared defunct as a group in the late 80’s. For almost 2 and a half decades the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with and even with death, drug abuse rumors and other negative connotations, the groups influence was immense. Many studies have been conducted and will be conducted in the future about the Panthers; these studies will both praise and condemn them. This will not change the fact that the Panthers left a lasting legacy, a living breathing thing that gains life each day the oppressed continue to fight the establishment. Black power is being proud, standing up to be counted and realizing that your voice must and will be heard. The Black Panthers believed it and they made America believe it.
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