A Brief History of the Black Panther Party

Last updated on September 11th, 2017 at 07:39 am

Huey Newton at microphone.  Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

Huey Newton at microphone. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

The Black Panther Party or BPP (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) was a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982, with its only international chapter operating in Algeria from 1969 until 1972. On October 29, 1966, Stokely Carmichael – a leader of SNCC – championed the call for “Black Power” and came to Berkeley, California to keynote a Black Power conference. At the time, he was promoting the armed organizing efforts of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Alabama and their use of the Black Panther symbol. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale decided to adopt the Black Panther logo and form their own organization called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Newton and Seale decided on a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, black berets. Sixteen-year-old Bobby Hutton was their first recruit.

Kathleen Cleaver, Oakland, 1968<BR>Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.

Kathleen Cleaver, Oakland, 1968.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.

At its inception on October 15, 1966, the Black Panther Party’s core practice was its armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behavior of police officers and challenge police brutality in Oakland, California. In 1969, community social programs became a core activity of party members. The Black Panther Party instituted a variety of community social programs, most extensively the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and he supervised an extensive counter intelligence program (known as COINTELPRO) of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain the organization of resources and manpower. The program was also accused of using assassination against Black Panther members.

Government oppression initially contributed to the growth of the party as killings and arrests of Panthers increased support for the party within the black community and on the broad political left, both of whom valued the Panthers as powerful force opposed to de facto segregation and the military draft. Black Panther Party membership reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members, then suffered a series of contractions. After being vilified by the mainstream press, public support for the party waned, and the group became more isolated. In-fighting among Party leadership, caused largely by the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, led to expulsions and defections that decimated the membership. Popular support for the Party declined further after reports appeared detailing the group’s involvement in illegal activities such as drug dealing and extortion schemes directed against Oakland merchants. By 1972 most Panther activity centered on the national headquarters and a school in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics. Party contractions continued throughout the 1970s. By 1980 the Black Panther Party had just 27 members.

Eldridge Cleaver, Berkeley.  Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.

Eldridge Cleaver, Berkeley. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blankfort.

The history of the Black Panther Party is controversial. Scholars have characterized the Black Panther Party as the most influential black movement organization of the late 1960s, and “the strongest link between the domestic Black Liberation Struggle and global opponents of American imperialism.”

The Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party first publicized its original Ten-Point program on May 15, 1967, following the Sacramento action, in the second issue of the Black Panther newspaper. The original ten points of “What We Want Now!” follow:
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists 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.

Black Panthers documentary film coming to PBS

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panther Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland. Oakland, July 28, 1968. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panther Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland. Oakland, July 28, 1968. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames.

Change was coming to America in the turbulent 1960s, and the fault lines could no longer be ignored—cities were burning, Vietnam was exploding, and disputes raged over equality and civil rights. A new revolutionary culture emerged, and sought to drastically transform the system. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would, at least for a short time, put itself at the vanguard of that change. Stanley Nelson tells the vibrant story of a pivotal movement that feels timely all over again.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the first feature length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails.

Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure trove of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. Much of the archival footage used in the film has never been publicly broadcast before, with much time and effort going into locating and digitizing obscure resources.

Featuring Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, and many others, alongside a soul-power soundtrack of the music so integral to the Party’s identity, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is an essential history and a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that gave rise to a new revolutionary culture in America. The film took seven years to complete. Nelson interviewed over fifty people for the film, with around thirty making it into the final cut. Infamous wiretaps of the Black Panthers were never accessed through the Freedom of Information Act, despite repeated attempts on behalf of the producer.

The film is the first of a three-part series of documentary films about African-American history America Revisited. It will be followed by Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and The Slave Trade: Creating a New World.

Indie Lens Pop-Up, presented by the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Independent Lens and Nashville Public Television, invites you to attend their free advance screening of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution on Saturday, Feb. 13, at 2 p.m. at the Nashville Public Library, Main Branch, 615 Church Street.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by NPT producer LaTonya Turner and featuring Fisk University’s Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr., Professor of History, Dean of the School of Humanities Social and Behavioral Sciences; and Linda T. Wynn, Lecturer, Department of History and Political Science. The event is free and open to the public.

The film will air on PBS nationwide beginning Tuesday, February 16. Local airings are scheduled for 8 pm Tuesday, Feb. 16; and Wednesday and Friday, Feb 17 and 19 at 1 am on WNPT-HD. It also airs at 4 am Wednesday and Friday, Feb 17 and 19 on WNPT2.