This is the first of a four part series on the history, legacy, and continuing relevance of the Black Panther Party. Founded in 1966 in the spirit of the politics of the late Malcolm X, and highly influenced by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Panther Party was a Black revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization. For a time they played the leading role in the Black Liberation struggle in the U.S. and inspired people across the country to take up revolutionary politics. This stood in sharp contrast to much of the civil rights movement which pushed for integration into white supremacist capitalist society.
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 during a time of major social upheaval in the U.S. and internationally. Malcolm X had been killed the year prior—by the Nation of Islam, the NYPD, and the FBI. In 1965 there had also been a major rebellion against police brutality in Watts, a Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. There was also a growing anti-war movement in the U.S. as more and more people were inspired by the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people against the U.S. invasion. And in China, Mao and others had launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in an effort to stay on the revolutionary road to communism and struggle against those pushing for the restoration of capitalism in the country.
This political climate was essential to the founding of the Panthers. BPP founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale’s first conversation was a debate over whether it made sense to support the U.S. government and the civil rights movements. While Bobby was more inclined to support them, Huey had heard Malcolm X speak in Oakland before, and used Malcolm’s arguments to convince Bobby that it didn’t make sense to seek integration into a white supremacist capitalist power structure. A few years later, when they started working together to found the Black Panther Party, they both read a lot of Malcolm’s writings. Malcolm’s views and clear political criticism of white supremacy were essential to the political development of Bobby and Huey, as well as so many others. While Malcolm died too soon after breaking with the Nation of Islam to implement his new political ideas, it was precisely these ideas that had such a profound impact on the founding and development of the BPP. As Huey put it in his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide:
Bobby had collected all of Malcolm X’s speeches and ideas from papers like “The Militant” and “Muhammad Speaks.” These we studied carefully. Although Malcolm’s program for the Organization of Afro-American Unity [which Malcolm founded shortly before his death] was never put into operation, he had made it clear that Blacks ought to arm. Malcolm’s influence was ever-present. We continue to believe that the Black Panther Party exists in the spirit of Malcolm…the words on this page cannot convey the effect that Malcolm has had on the Black Panther Party, although, as far as I am concerned, the Party is a living testament to his life work…Malcolm’s spirit is in us.
Malcolm X, revolutionary, advocate of armed-self defense for the Black community, and founder of the Organization for Afro-American Unity. Malcolm’s final platform inspired the Panthers.
But Malcolm was not the only influence on the Panthers, they also looked to revolutionaries internationally such as Franz Fanon, the West Indian Marxist revolutionary, who eventually joined the Algerian National Liberation Front and fought and died in their war of national liberation from French colonial rule. His book, The Wretched of the Earth became required reading for new members of the Party. This book outlined the psychological impact of colonialism and racism on the oppressed and spoke to how colonial domination pushes some of oppressed to seek integration into the oppressive society of the colonizers.
The founding of the Panthers was also influenced by the writings of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Revolution, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). Not only had Mao and the Chinese Communist Party led the struggle of 600 million people to drive out the Japanese fascist invaders and overcome the U.S.-sponsored Chinese Nationalist government, but Mao and others in the CCP were also doing everything they could to continue the revolution after overthrowing their oppressors. The GPCR was an effort by Mao and his allies to struggle against those with the CCP who were intent on overturning the revolution, restoring capitalism, and establishing themselves as a new ruling class. This struggle was eventually defeated, and capitalism was restored in China. A new capitalist class has emerged there which not only oppresses its own people but is increasingly dominating people around the world in poor countries in Africa, Asia, and South America.
The GPCR in China, while eventually defeated, inspired revolutionary movements around the world, from the Panthers to peasant revolts in India, revolutionary demonstrations in the Philippines, the strikes and student actions of May 1968 in France, and much more. At the time revolutionary movements around the world were on the advance, and the imperialist powers were on the retreat. In this political climate there was enthusiasm the whole world over for revolutionary developments, and real hope that despite the difficult trials in front of them, the people could make a better world. The wide-spread belief that a better world is possible, and that people have the power to bring it about through struggle, was also an essential ingredient in the founding of the BPP. Without hope of making real change, rebellion becomes a mere ritual, a futile exercise. But when people have hope, rebellion is an earth-shaking force that can move mountains and topple governments.
It’s in this context that mass rebellions developed throughout the U.S. in the 60s, and in particular in Black ghettos across the cities of America. In 1964-1965 there were major uprisings and rebellions in the Black ghettos of almost every major city in the U.S. At this time the cities, even those in the North, were incredibly segregated, even more so than they are today. And, much like today, the mass rebellions were often sparked by police brutality and white supremacist violence. Uprisings occurred in Cleveland, New York City, Philadelphia, Rochester, Jersey City, and many other places.
Black Panther Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton (right) and Bobby Rush (left) in the Chicago BPP headquarters. Behind them are posters of Mao, Huey, Malcolm and other revolutionaries.
The social situation, the people’s hope for change, and the brutal oppression that Black people faced made the ghettos a powder keg. People were ready to fight back against injustice and oppression together, albeit in a spontaneous and relatively unorganized fashion. Perhaps the most significant of these was the uprising in Watts, a Black ghetto in Los Angeles. Watts was poor, the people oppressed, and the LAPD brutal. So when the pigs brutalized a Black man and his mother after a traffic stop, things popped off.
The rebellion in Watts lasted five days, during which more than 4,000 people were arrested—most of them Black—35 people were killed—mostly by police gunfire—many were injured by the pigs, and over $200 million worth of property was damaged. All told it was the most violent urban outbreak in the U.S. since World War II. In the end the National Guard had to be called in to put down the rebellion by force. While the rebellion was eventually defeated, it showed the power that Black folks had, and also the brutality with which the U.S. government treated them when they started to fight back.
The rebellion in Watts had a huge impact in the Black community. The former BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver described this change in his book about his time in Folsom prison, Soul on Ice. Prior to the rebellion, most people were ashamed to be from Watts. As he put it, “Watts was a place of shame. We used to use Watts as an epithet in much the same way as city boys used ‘country’ as a term of derision.” It was such a poor and run down ghetto and people didn’t feel pride in coming from there. But after the rebellion Eldridge noticed a big difference in “all the Blacks in Folsom.” People were proud to be from Watts, they saw the rebellion as a heroic and courageous struggle, even though it was eventually put down. As Eldridge put it, Black people in Folsom were “saying, ‘I’m from Watts, Baby!’—whether true or not.” One prisoner contrasted the approach taken in Watts with the integrationists who advocated that Black people needed to be content with minor token changes to white supremacist society. The prisoner said that the people in Watts were “putting an end to that ‘go slow’ crap and putting sweet Watts on the map—my black ass is in Folsom this morning but my black heart is in Watts!” Eldridge noted that “tears of joy” were rolling from the prisoner’s eyes as he made this proclamation.
The shift was a big one, from shame of being from a poor and oppressed community, to proud identification with the heroic struggles of that community against the white supremacist capitalist power structure. The rebellion in Watts played a big role in inspiring others to stand up and fight back. Two years later, in 1967, there were 123 major and minor uprisings or similar “outbreaks” in cities across the U.S. according to the National Advisory Committee on Urban Disorders.
Beyond just inspiring the poor folks in the ghettos and the prisons, who Malcolm called the “grass roots,” the Watts rebellion also had a big impact on some progressive middle-class Blacks in the Civil Rights Movement. For them, it helped to clarify that integration into the white supremacist capitalist power structure in the U.S. was little more than an illusion, a way to keep people chasing after a dream that can never be achieved, a dream that plays into the hands of the oppressor and quickly becomes a nightmare for the oppressed.
The Watts rebellion had a particularly profound impact on Martin Luther King Jr. Prior to this point MLK had largely been pushing an integrationist approach. However, the death of Malcolm X a few months before Watts, and their conversation in 1964 made a big impact on MLK. After the Watts rebellion MLK spoke of the Black ghetto as a “system of internal colonialism.” The next year, he stated that “the purpose of the slum is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness…The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.” He went on to state that “now is the time to have a confrontation between the forces resisting change and the forces demanding change.”
Residents in Watts celebrate their triumph over the pigs during the rebellion by posing for a photo near a police car.
However, while Watts was a major turning point and an inspiration for many, it was eventually put down by the force of the U.S. government. The spontaneous movement had its limits. In his autobiography, Huey P. Newton wrote of the contradictory nature of the Watts rebellion. While the rebellion itself was immensely powerful and inspirational, it also showed that without a serious organized movement, and real revolutionary leadership, the pigs and the army would be able to crush similar rebellions time and time again. And yet, in 1965, there was not a single organization which could carry out such tasks and provide revolutionary leadership to the movement. The Organization of Afro-American Unity might have been able to do so if Malcolm had lived longer, but it had fallen apart after his death.
Huey and Bobby were in dialogue about these issues at the time:
Much of our conversation revolved around the groups in the San Fransisco, Oakland, and Berkeley areas. Knowing the people who belonged to them, we could evaluate both the positive and negative aspects of their characters and the nature of their organizations…We started throwing around ideas. None of these groups were able to recruit and involve the very people they professed to represent—the poor people in the community who never went to college, probably were not even able to finish high school. Yet these were our people; they were the vast majority of the Black population in the area. Any group talking about Blacks was in fact talking about those low on the ladder in terms of well-being, self-respect, and the amount of concern the government had for them. All of us were talking, and nobody was reaching them.
This left them in a difficult predicament. On the one hand, Black people across the country were fighting back against the white supremacist capitalist power structure. On the other hand, by itself their spontaneous rebellion could not overcome this power structure, and there was no existing political organization that was willing or able to organize among the poor and marginalized who constituted the vast majority of the Black population. In response to this situation, Huey and Bobby didn’t give up hope. Instead they saw it as a problem that had to be solved to advance the Black Liberation struggle.
Martin and Malcolm shaking hands in 1964. This was the only time that they met in person.
At first they tried pushing some existing organizations to become more radical. But quickly they came up against obstacles. Those organizations which did exist talked a lot, but they were not actually interested in organizing among the Black masses. These were their established practices and tendencies and they weren’t too interested in doing new things. They also were particularly opposed to revolutionary politics—even if they occasionally claimed otherwise—and the need for armed self-defense in the Black community.
Again they faced an obstacle, but again Huey and Bobby did not give up. Instead, they realized that even though none of the existing organizations were revolutionary, there was still a need for revolutionary organization in the Black community. And so, the solution was to create a new organization, from scratch. This may seem like a daunting task, especially given that it was only the two of them at the start. But despite the fact that it was only two of them, that neither had ever been part of a revolutionary organization before, and countless other obstacles, Huey and Bobby courageously went ahead and worked to get a revolutionary organization together.
Describing how the events in Watts and around the world had influenced the two of them and Black people more broadly Huey stated:
We recognized that the rising consciousness of Black people was almost at the point of explosion. One must relate to the history of one’s community and to its future. Everything we had seen convinced us that our time had come. Out of this need sprang the Black Panther Party. Bobby and I had no choice but to form an organization that would involve the lower-class brothers.
This speaks to the reality of the situation and Huey and Bobby’s political conviction. They recognized that if they wanted to advance the Black Liberation struggle, they had to form a new organization. There was no other way forward.
In order to be better able to build this organization they read the works of revolutionaries like Franz Fanon and Mao Zedong. Reading the works of these and other revolutionaries had a profound impact on Huey, Bobby, and the formation and development of the BPP. They recognized that many had come before them and struggled for revolution and liberation. By reading about these struggles they gained valuable lessons that they applied to their own situation in the U.S. As Huey put it:
We read these men’s works because we saw them as kinsmen; the oppressor who controlled them was controlling us, both directly and indirectly. We believed it was necessary to know how they gained their freedom in order to go about getting ours. However, we did not want to merely import ideas and strategies; we had to transform what we learned into principles and methods acceptable to the brothers on the block.
This method was essential the success of the BPP: Learning the general lessons from the particularities of other revolutionary struggles and then applying these general lessons to the particular situation that the Panthers found themselves in. In fact, it was preciously this approach that led to the founding of the Panthers and the creation of the Ten-Point Program. Huey and Bobby closely studied the programs of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, but also realized that the program they developed had to deal with the situation in the U.S. and therefore would necessarily be different from those pursued by revolutionaries in other parts of the world. From this approach they developed the Party’s program which would inspire thousands of people across the country and become required reading for all BPP members.
Cover of the first issue of “The Black Panther.” Originally a four page newsletter, the publication later developed into the Party’s newspaper which was sold in cities all across the country.
The program itself consisted of ten points, with each point broken into two parts of “What We Want” and “What We Believe.” In this way the basic goals of the Party were spelled out, and the beliefs behind them laid clear in a way that directly appealed to Black people around the country. For example, in the program they stated that they wanted “Black men to be exempt from military service.” They also clarified that “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.” In this way, they were able to clarify the larger political issues behind what the Party wanted, and spell out an analysis of the situation in the U.S. and internationally that was clear, cutting, and expressed—in an organized fashion—many of the most advanced ideas that were being put forward in the Black community and in mass rebellions like Watts.
One of the most well known, and often misunderstood and misrepresented points of the program is the call for Black people to arm themselves in self-defense. This is especially true today where the question of gun control is typically framed in terms of progressive people advocating more gun control against conservatives and reactionaries who push for Second Amendment rights. While the NRA and conservative gun-nuts are definitely not friends of the people, much of the contemporary debate on gun control ignores the reality that the oppressed people of this country are regularly subject to oppression and violence at the hands of the armed agents of the racist capitalist government, namely the police, “correctional” officers, and other such pigs.
Cover of a 1970 edition of “The Black Panther” showing the link between Malcolm X, the Panthers, and the need for armed-self defense.
In advocating greater degrees of gun control, well-meaning liberals often fail to realize the fact that armed self-defense has historically been an essential way in which oppressed communities defend themselves from their oppressors. What’s more without such an approach, its impossible to actually overcome the oppressors, who are more than willing to have their armed representatives use the most brutal forms of violence to crush the rebellions of the oppressed and exploited masses. It’s undoubtedly true that many “well-intentioned” liberals are simply unwilling to accept the fact that the U.S. government is not for the people, but rather is a racist criminal state run by and for the capitalist pigs who profit off the oppression and exploitation of the people of this country and those around the world.
Even in the Panther’s time, there were many such liberals. However, Huey and Bobby knew that they couldn’t tailor their program to the illusions of vaguely progressive middle-class Americans. Instead, they needed to put forward a program for Black Liberation that drew on the lessons of revolutionary history and resonated with the most advanced ideas of the Black masses. Speaking to this point and the need for armed self-defense Huey wrote:
Mao and Fanon and [Che] Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by any philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint. They had suffered a holdup by gangsters, and rape; for them, the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force. At bottom, this is a form of self-defense. Although that defense might at times take on characteristics of aggression, in the final analysis the people do not initiate; they simply respond to what has been inflicted upon them. People respect the expression of strength and dignity displayed by men who refuse to bow to the weapons of oppression.
In this spirit of revolutionary struggle, and with this clarity on the importance of armed self-defense, Huey and Bobby founded the Black Panther Party. Their first community program was to patrol the police while armed. Huey emphasized that they began with this program because they saw that it would get the attention of the community, give them something to identify with, and clarify the difference between the Panthers and non-violent Civil Rights groups who passively accepted being attacked by the police and white supremacists.
The art of Black Panther Emory Douglas captures the revolutionary link between Black Liberation and armed self-defense.
The patrols were initially a huge success. A few Panthers would go around the community with their guns and stop whenever they saw a pig questioning someone. The law at the time allowed people to monitor the police from a “safe distance,” and even do so while armed as long as they did not “interfere with the police performing their duty.” When they came across a pig questioning a community member, the Panthers would ask the person if the pigs were abusing them. They would also recite the relevant portions of the penal code to everyone in the area to inform people of their rights and show them that they could stand up to the pigs.
The patrols attracted a lot of attention from the community, and when the Panthers stood up for someone being harassed by the police, many people were excited to hear about their organization, the Ten-Point Program, and how to get involved. As Huey put it, “The chief purpose of the patrols was to teach the community security against the police,” and it was huge success. Police brutality and murder fell dramatically in the communities that they patrolled, and many people joined the party.
As the Party grew and expanded its programs, Black people in the surrounding areas and across the country were excited to get involved. The Panthers represented a real break with the middle-class integrationist politics of the Civil Rights groups. Instead of passively accepting police beatings and attacks from other white supremacists, the Panthers armed themselves and defended against these attacks. Instead of advocating slow-progress and integration into the white supremacist capitalist power structure, the Panthers advocated self-determination for the Black community, national liberation, and socialist revolution.
These ideas resonated with working class and poor Black folks across the country, who knew from their daily experiences that promises of integration were little more than a fleeting illusion, a carrot to keep them complacent and obedient. Perhaps some of their middle-class and upper-class brothers and sisters could partially integrate into white supremacist society, but for the poor and working-class Black folks, there was no such hope. And if they ever forgot it, bosses, racists, and the pigs reminded them of “their place” by firings, lynchings, arrests, and the like.
One such working-class Black person was Reggie Schell from Philadelphia. Reggie worked at a sheet metal plant for years, and the plant itself was segregated. White workers worked in the top floor of the plant, largely as skilled laborers and technicians working on the machines and they got paid better than their Black counterparts. All the Black people worked in the lower level of the plant at the foundry, the sheet metal department, and on the punch presses.
These were dangerous forms of manual labor in a factory that placed little value on the safety of the Black workers. People on the line would often lose a finger or even worse during the day, and the company provided little or no support to workers injured on the job. In response to the dangerous conditions, the racist attitudes of the management, and the pay discrepancies between white and Black workers, Reggie led an effort to unionize the workers at the plant. This effort itself represented real class consciousness, the understanding the need for working people to get organized and fight back against those who oppress and exploit them.
Pigs attack peaceful protestors in Selma, Alabama. The vicious beatings inflicted on the protests demonstrated to many the limitations of the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violent approach.
However, Reggie said that it was the events in Selma that really developed his political consciousness in a larger sense. In 1965 MLK and others in the Civil Rights Movement organized a series of marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. These marches were a protest against the suppression of voting rights of Black people in the South, and they were met with violent opposition by the police and other white supremacists. The pigs even “deputized” a number of these white supremacists to give them legal protection for attacking Black folks. However, MLK and the other leadership of the marches advocated a non-violent approach, so the marchers did not fight back or defend themselves as the pigs and other white supremacists attacked them, beat some of them unconscious, and even killed a number of the marchers.
Reggie described the effect that watching these events had on him:
I used to come home from work and just watch how the police beat the women and the children. You know, just about every day I used to think forward to watching that, because it did something to me inside. Like I say, I had started to pick up some kind of militancy on the job. Then I met with some people and started talking about trying to do something or join something that we thought would help change the situation for Black people in this country. After a couple of months of just kicking around, reading, and studying together, we decided that it would be this new group, the Black Panther Party.
I think the first time we heard about them was when the Panthers stormed Sacramento with guns. We heard about it on TV and in the papers. We knew then that after looking at Selma and Birmingham, and continually just watching people being beaten and there was no struggle back—I think that was really the thing that excited me about it [joining the Panthers]: that at least we’d have a chance to fight back now.
Reggie Schell, Defense Captain of the Philidelphia Branch of the BPP, speaks to Panthers at a rally.
Reggie went on to found the Philadelphia branch of the BPP and eventually became the Defense Captain of that branch. His story is typical of many Black folks around the country who joined the Panthers. They already had some good ideas, they saw the limitations of the Civil Rights Movement’s integrationist approach and non-violent resistance, and they knew that Black people needed to fight back against the white supremacist capitalist power structure if they wanted to achieve liberation. The Panthers gave an organizational form to these aspirations, they inspired and galvanized thousands across the country to get involved in the struggle, and they provided much needed leadership to political struggles in Black communities across the country.
In the next section of this series we will discuss the development of the BPP in greater detail, focusing on how they grew from a local group in Oakland to a national organization with branches in major cities all across the country.