The Black Panthers, Revisited and Reconsidered – posted 11/20/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/4/2016
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Founded by two college students from Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers went on to become the most famous and controversial radical group that came out of the 1960’s.
I had heard a story on NPR and I had seen a couple news stories about this anniversary but nothing that I believe does the subject justice.
I think the Panthers were probably the most misunderstood 1960’s political group. Widely condemned, the Panthers had horrible press. Images of the Panthers invariably focused on shootouts with the police and on political trials where Panther leaders were defendants. Even though their ideology was expressly anti-racist, they were portrayed by much of the media as a black nationalist hate group.
There is another side to the Panther story that has been little told. That is the story of the Panther rank and file – not the leaders. The Stanford historian Clayborne Carson put it this way:
“The irony of the Black Panthers is that the image is one of a Black man and a gun. But the reality is that the majority of the rank and file at the end of the 60’s were women.”
The Panthers created a number of survival programs that spoke to unaddressed needs in the Black community. The best known of these programs was the Free Breakfast for Children program. Back in the day, Panther chapters across the country served about 20,000 meals a week. The program became the inspiration and blueprint for schools throughout the country to provide free breakfast and lunch.
The Panthers went to churches, small businesses, and grocery stores to seek out food and cash donations to support the program. It was a total volunteer effort. Additionally, some chapters of the Party sponsored grocery giveaways. Hunger and malnutrition remained community concerns.
With access to quality health care a major problem, the Panthers operated People’s Free Medical Clinics that provided basic health care. These neighborhood-based clinics had staffing from volunteer medical professionals. Among the services provided were screening for sickle cell anemia, well-baby exams, pediatric care and gynecological exams. Also, the clinics did first aid, and testing for high blood pressure, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and diabetes.
With so many in jail, the Panthers ran a free busing-to-prison program to enable family members to see their relatives who were incarcerated.
In Oakland California, which was a Panther stronghold, the Panthers started the Oakland Community School which had a powerful positive effect in the broader Oakland community. The school operated from 1973 until 1982 and in 1977 it received an award from the California state legislature for educational excellence.
We now know that the FBI and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the Panthers through a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO. Hoover was on record saying the Panthers were the number one threat to national security. The FBI and local police did everything they could to destroy the Panthers. They used infiltration, dirty tricks, harassment via the legal system and illegal force. Even in the absence of evidence, they repeatedly raided the homes of Panther leaders in an effort to neutralize and put people behind bars. They forged correspondence, sent false anonymous letters, and worked to create tensions and hostility between factions in the black liberation movement.
Those with a pollyanna view might be surprised how far the FBI went. The law became an obstacle for the FBI. Through what amounted to psychological warfare, they successfully worked to create a sense of fear and paranoia among Panther members.
in the 1970’s, the Church Committee of Congress investigated COINTELPRO. Congress ultimately wrote a scathing denunciation of the FBI’s conduct which was completely contrary to constitutional rights and civil liberties.
In this connection, I have to mention the case of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Panther leader from Chicago. In one of the most disgraceful moments in FBI history, the Chicago police, with FBI assistance, engineered the assassination of Hampton and his fellow Panther leader Mark Clark. They were shot and killed in bed. Hampton was 21 years old at the time. A fuller account is presented in Jeffrey Haas’s book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton. The Hampton assassination is a case study for law enforcement in how it can go horribly wrong.
Any honest assessment of the Panthers must acknowledge the illegal and reprehensible conduct of the FBI and Hoover. At the same time, the Panthers also had a dark side. The best account I have seen is in Hugh Pearson’s little known book The Shadow of the Panther.
Pearson shows how the Panthers in the Bay Area degenerated into thuggery. The obsession with guns and violence was ultimately self-destructive. Huey Newton, who had initially been an inspirational leader, got lost in substance abuse.
The Panthers had many self-inflicted wounds. Pearson tells some shocking stories. He, with justification, concluded that the Panthers became more about defiant symbolism than about concrete achievements. It was not all repression that killed them. Like other radical groups of the era, the Panthers actively contributed to their own demise.
Like so many things about the 1960’s, fairness requires full disclosure. In my opinion, the positives about the Panthers have never been adequately recognized.
Admittedly, I do not write in a disinterested academic way. When I was a college student living in Hartford Connecticut, on Saturdays, I used to sell The Other Voice, an underground newspaper of that period. Over a period of time, I met and got to know some Panther members who were selling the Black Panther newspaper downtown. I never personally saw the alleged anti-white attitude of which Panthers were accused. The Panthers and I bonded over good places to sell papers on the street. We often talked politics. This was long before social media.
People who are serious about progressive change in the 21st century should study and learn from the experience of the Black Panthers. That learning should include both the positive and negative lessons. I do think the Panthers’ focus on guns scared away many people who might have otherwise been sympathetic. At the same time, the Panthers’ defiance, their speaking truth to power, attracted masses of young people. Many former members still talk about the purpose and meaning they derived from their commitment. The Panther ten-point platform still resonates.
The Panthers inspired a generation to stand up and fight racial oppression, poverty, and inequality at the local level. Long before Black Lives Matter, and in a much more hostile environment, the Panthers audaciously motivated and organized people to fight for their human rights. .