Some fifty years after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland, Calif., the movement remains a flashpoint in the struggle for black equality in the USA.
Formed in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., in part to monitor police violence in black communities, the group became infamous for taking up arms and for its stark contrast to the passive Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights movement.
Here's what you need to know about the Black Panthers:
1. Why was the party formed?
The Panthers grew out of the generally pacifist civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was part of an African-American culture of self-discovery and self-determination that was flowering in many parts of the country at the time.
It’s not widely known that the Panthers trace their origins to a fight to make education at a small Oakland, Calif., junior college more relevant to a student body that was more than 45% black.
In the early 1960s, one of the party founders, Bobby Seale was studying part time at Merritt College in Oakland. Every year, the college celebrated “Pioneer Day,” honoring the history of settlers who came West in the 1800s. But Seale and others noticed African Americans were never mentioned in settlement of the American West.
The students created the Negro History Fact Group, which called for the school to offer classes covering African history and, as it was called then, Negro history in America. Out of that came the Soul Students Advisory Council.
Seale and Huey Newton went on to found the Black Panthers. They chose the name, Newton said at the time, because the black panther doesn’t strike first, “but if the aggressor strikes first, then he’ll attack.”
That organizing work led them to conclude that only by claiming power could the black community live and flourish.
2. What was the Black Panther Party's stance on guns?
Newton, who had studied law, knew that it was perfectly legal to carry loaded weapons in California as long as they were not concealed. With that knowledge, the Panthers began walking the streets of Oakland armed, converging on police who pulled over black residents to observe and, it must be said, intimidate.
Later, in 1967, the Panthers went to the California Legislature in Sacramento, also while armed. The episode led then-governor Ronald Reagan, a Republican, to call for gun-control legislation. “Anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their mind,” Reagan said.
But the Party wasn’t about guns, Seale says; it was about empowering the black community in the face of a racist system.
Gallery: A closer look at the Black Panther Party
3. What did the party members hope to accomplish?
Newton and Seale crafted a very political 10-point plan to empower Black communities economically. Whereas the more mainstream civil rights movement focused on the largely rural South, the Black Panthers were perhaps better known for their actions in the North, in inner cities and on the West Coast.
The plan contained basic demands such as self-determination, decent housing, full employment, education that included African-American history, and an end to police brutality.
It also included more radical demands that were very much in tune with the times. They included freedom for all incarcerated black men, their exemption from military service and a national vote in which only black people would be allowed to participate in order to determine their will “as to their national destiny,” according to the document.
The party gained followers and momentum in the late 1960s, launching multiple “survival until revolution” efforts such as a free breakfast program for children, food banks, health clinics and education outreach. These community-based programs garnered goodwill and support in black and other communities nationwide.
4. Were women a part of the Black Panther Party?
While many believe that the majority of players in the Black Panther Party were males wearing the Party’s iconic black beret, that’s simply not the case, according to historians. By the 1970s, women made up more than 50% of the membership of the Panthers.
5. What led to the demise of the party?
Internal divisions, personality cults, and the efforts of the FBI created bitter divisions within the party. Members began to turn on each other. Violence flared.
In a shootout with Oakland police in 1968, Panthers national treasurer Bobby Hutton, just 17, was killed. Police raids and other conflicts with Panthers in Los Angeles and Chicago ended with shootouts and deaths.
Internally, there were violent disputes between factions and a series of purges. Members of the New Haven chapter tortured and killed Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old Panther whom they believed was an FBI informant, in 1969.
Three Panthers were convicted of murder in the case. Seale was accused of having ordered the killing because he had visited the building where Rackley was being held. The jury deadlocked on the charges, and the prosecution declined to retry the case.
It was the beginning of the end.
Still, the Panthers struggled on for several more years. In 1973, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, and fellow Panther Elaine Brown — who would lead the group from 1974 to 1977 — ran for the Oakland City Council.
“That was part of the agenda, to run for political office. We were a political party, we were not a gang. We were concerned with issues and programs,” Seale says.
Neither was elected, and by the late 1970s the Party was effectively defunct.