The Black Panthers

Lee Sustar and Alan Maass tell the story of the Black Power movement's best-known organization--one that influenced millions in its brief heyday.

The History of Black America

IN 1969, Life magazine published a series of articles on revolution, asking whether one could happen in the U.S. This was no anticommunist rant, but a worried analysis of the rising fortunes of the left in America.

No revolutionary organization of that era frightened the ruling class as much as the Black Panther Party. Launched in 1966 in the Black ghettos of Oakland, Calif., to resist racist police violence, the Black Panthers grew rapidly and seemed to have the potential to assume the leadership of the massive Black street rebellions that swept every major U.S. city in the mid-1960s.

Where Malcolm X had made revolution part of the political debate in the U.S. before his assassination in 1965, the Black Panther Party attempted to bring one about.

The Panthers emerged as a national organization just as Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's administration showed itself incapable of controlling the Black Power revolt or stopping the racist campaigns of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Moreover, the specter of looming U.S. defeat in Vietnam, combined with a growing antiwar movement, had put Johnson on the defensive.

Where the established civil rights movement was concerned primarily with ending legal segregation in the South, the Panthers, like Malcolm X, took up the demands of Northern Blacks, who faced unemployment, poverty, police violence and "de facto" segregation.

The Panthers' militant Black nationalism reflected the radicalization of millions of Black people in the North who, of course, sympathized with the civil rights movement, but who yearned for the very different struggle that would be necessary to uproot racism in the North--and who were driven to more left-wing conclusions by the experience of the anti-racist struggle, along all the other social upheavals of the time.

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ORIGINALLY CALLED the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the group took its name from the Lowndes County, Ala., Freedom Organization, led by the increasingly radical and Black nationalist Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

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Initiated by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Panthers' original 10-point program included a call for "freedom," the "power to determine the destiny of our Black community," an "immediate end to police brutality and murder of our people" and freedom for all Black prisoners.

At that time, California gun laws permitted anyone to carry a weapon as long as it was openly displayed. The Oakland cops couldn't prevent armed Panthers from following patrol cars and "monitoring" the racist police.

In the spring of 1967, a nervous California state legislature drafted gun control legislation--only to be confronted by an armed contingent of Black Panthers who pushed their way into the state Capitol building as then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, addressing a youth group outside, looked on. The Panthers announced that they were opposed to the gun control bill because it would leave Blacks helpless in the face of police terror. The incident made headlines around the world and catapulted the Panthers to prominence.

To a ruling class alarmed by semi-insurrectionary Black urban rebellions in Newark, N.J., and Detroit, the Panthers' growing popularity was a threat to be taken very seriously. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.

The government was particularly worried by the Panthers' attempt to link up with other oppressed groups and "progressive" organizations. This willingness to make alliances outside the Black community, including with white leftists, distinguished the Panthers from other nationalists. Huey Newton argued that since Blacks made up less than 15 percent of the U.S. population, they needed allies in order to win liberation. He denounced the Black groups that opposed making such ties as "pork chop nationalists" for retreating into lifestyle politics and separatism:

There are two kinds of nationalism, revolutionary nationalism and reactionary nationalism. Revolutionary nationalism is first dependent upon a people's revolution with the end goal being the people in power. Therefore, to be a revolutionary nationalist, you would by necessity have to be a socialist. If you are a reactionary nationalist, you are not a socialist, and your end goal is the oppression of the people.

While the Panthers' politics evolved over the years, they hinged on a Maoist conception of a revolutionary party as an elite group that led "the masses." The Panthers reproduced the same reverence for leading members that was typical of Maoism. They conceived of the revolution as a coordinated movement of oppressed groups and "national liberation" struggles, an idea popularized by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Vietnamese military struggle against the U.S.

Though explicitly calling themselves "Marxist-Leninists," the Panthers tended to focus their attention not on the Black working class, but on what Karl Marx called the "lumpenproletariat"--the class of permanently unemployed "brothers off the block," to use the Panthers' words--as the leading force for revolution in the U.S.

Where Marx and Marxists after him argued that the lumpenproletariat's disconnection from the economy made it an unstable and relatively powerless compared to the organized working class, the Panthers argued that since they had no stake in capitalist society, they would be the most willing to overthrow it.

Thus, while the Panthers did form caucuses and organizational networks at the General Motors plant in Fremont. Calif., and in a few other factories, they lacked a systematic working class orientation that might have provided the party with a more stable membership and a powerful political force. As the experience of militant Black autoworkers in Detroit showed at the time, Blacks could and did take their militant nationalism into the workplace.

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MEANWHILE, THE government intensified its repression against the organization, with constant raids and harassment long with a campaign of penetrating the organization with spies and provocateurs. The Panther's policy of armed self-defense was used by the state to justify the repression. Between December 1967 and December 1969, 28 Panthers were killed by police and hundreds more were arrested on trumped-up charges.

The most hideous example of repression came in Chicago in December 1969 when officers attached to the Cook County, Ill., State's Attorney's office, armed with machine guns, shotguns and pistols, stormed into a West Side Chicago apartment and murdered local leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark while they slept.

Ironically, Hampton represented a wing of the party that was increasingly at odds with those who stressed self-defense. Hampton had helped develop a free breakfast program for Black children, perhaps the most successful of the survival programs, which in some cities included providing free medical care and drug rehabilitation.

But the police and the FBI didn't differentiate between Panthers who favored self-defense and those who did not--this was merely an excuse to use the utmost violence against revolutionaries.

The savagery of the American state knew no bounds. Bobby Hutton, the third person to join the Panthers, was shot and killed by police in 1968. Bobby Seale was bound and gagged during a trial in New Haven, Conn., in which he was accused of a murder that took place on a day Seale was not in the city. In 1969, it was estimated that 384 Panthers were jailed.

Despite the constant vilification in the media, the Panthers retained passive support. A 1970 Harris poll for Time magazine found that 25 percent of Black Americans--over 5 million people--said they respected the Panthers "a great deal."

This repression went a long way toward destroying the Panthers. But the organization also suffered from political disorientation, especially as the years went on. Seale and his followers argued that the Panthers should take advantage of the new openings for Blacks in electoral politics. In 1972, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, and the Panthers endorsed Brooklyn Rep. Shirley Chisholm's campaign for president.

Internal differences intensified within the Panthers. While the group continued in name, it was essentially defunct by 1973.

But despite the brief length of its heyday, the importance of the Black Panther Party can't be underestimated. Whatever its weaknesses, it was the first openly revolutionary organization in 40 years to achieve anything close to a mass following in the U.S. As such, it provided a model for people moving from protest to radical ideas to revolutionary action. Given the barbaric repression used against the Panthers, that is no small achievement.

A version of this article first appeared in the November 1987 edition of Socialist Worker.