The Black Panthers, originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The group was a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization with the goal of protecting African Americans from police abuses.
The Black Panthers
LESTER HOLT, narrator:
The Black Panther Party rose from concern about increasing police violence against black citizens in Oakland, California. In 1966 political activist Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party with the help of his Oakland City College classmate Bobby Seale and his childhood friend David Hilliard. Unlike the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers believed that blacks should act aggressively in their own defense when police violated their rights.
Unidentified BLACK PANTHER Member: So the concept is this, basically, the whole black nation has to be put together as a black army.
JEANNE THEOHARIS (Professor, Brooklyn College): Newton and Seale very much understood this as a matter of rights. And so, part of how they would police the police was that they would carry guns, because in 1966 in California it was legal to carry an unconcealed weapon. But part of what they would also carry was tape recorders, legal casebooks. The part of the idea behind policing the police and the police patrols and then educating the community was about what are your rights vis-a-vis the police, and making the police have to live up to those rules and to those rights. And kind of transforming the relationship between the police as sort of an occupying force and a force that was sort of not there to protect necessarily the black community and beginning to say, no, we are not going to allow this kind of policing.
HOLT: The Black Panthers also worked for social reform by creating a free breakfast program for needy children, medical services for the poor, and educational lectures about black history and politics. Soon, chapters of the Black Panther Party opened in major cities around the country, from California to New York City. To many, especially in the African American community, the Panthers were heroes.
But their aggressive rhetoric, military style dress, and open display of weapons, made law enforcement agencies such as the FBI consider them a threat. In 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover began a campaign to neutralize the Black Panthers. He instituted COINTELPRO, a counter intelligence program originally used in the 1950s against suspected communists in the United States.
THEOHARIS: The FBI’s COINTELPRO strategy against the Panthers involved sowing dissention between the Panthers and the other groups. Hoover and the FBI realized that people are already distrusting each other, so they began to send out anonymous letters saying ‘so and so is about to kill you, so and so said this about you.’ So, playing on feelings of distrust that were there but amplifying them and kind of stoking these tensions until the point when in some cases they explode.
HOLT: The FBI paid informants in the Panther organization to pass false information to the police that would result in arrest of the panthers.
THEOHARIS: Part of what you see in the Panthers in the late 60s and early 70s is just people fighting charge after charge after charge. And so, so much work goes into defending people. The vast majority of those charges don’t stick, but it doesn’t matter. Because, you know, if you have a group that has a lot of membership and most of what that membership is doing is raising money or trying to make sure that it’s leaders are not in jail as opposed to building other kinds of programs, it’s very powerful in terms of the way it weakens the organization.
HOLT: The Black Panthers were further weakened when long time party leaders left the organization. Bobby Seale resigned in 1974, Huey Newton fled to Cuba to avoid an arrest charge. A change in leadership and renewed focus on developing community programs could not save the Panthers. By the close of the 1970’s the Black Panther Party disbanded.
The Black Panther Party was born in Oakland, California, in 1966, a little over 50 years ago. Its history holds vital lessons for today's movement to confront racism and police violence, yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Black Panthers.
Black Panthers, Civil Rights Movement, African Americans, Blacks, Black Panther Party, BPP, Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, David Hilliard, Police, Policing, Abuse, FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, COINTELPRO, J Edgar Hoover, Social Reform, Arrest, Activism, Martin Luther King Jr, MLK, Racism, Racist, Jeanne Theoharis, Brooklyn College, Oakland, California, Militarism, Militaristic, Socialism, Violence, Civil Rights