It has become an almost forgotten chapter in the African-American history. But the Black Panther Party had a distinctive position in the civil rights era, having achieved national and international notoriety because of the organization’s role in the Black Power movement in the United States.
To many Americans, including Black Americans, the Black Panthers have always borne a controversial image, largely because of its left-leaning philosophy that largely rejected the non-violent foundation of some of the other dominant groups in the civil rights era.
The Panthers were a revolutionary group that was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Heuy Newton and Bobby Seale as a means to respond to the large volume of complaints and incidents of police brutality. But they quickly expanded into other areas, providing free breakfasts for urban residents and putting together schools in Oakland.
The organization's leaders used philosophies that were largely seen as being socialist in nature, with a strong emphasis on Black nationalism. The organization developed a following through its newspaper, The Black Panther, which had a circulation that eventually grew to 250,000.
The Black Panthers famously created what it called its Ten-Point Program. It was a document that conveyed a list of economic and social concerns, calling for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.”
Over the years, the Black Panthers turned their backs on the Black Nationalism it became known for, saying that it was akin to "Black racism.” The organization became more focused on a more colorblind, more socialistic philosophy.
The Panthers were viewed as highly frightening by many of the country’s leaders in the 1960s. In fact J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI conducted extensive surveillance and police harassment in an effort to thwart the organization’s effectiveness.
In more recent years, the Panthers have enjoyed a new look by historians and political scientists who focus in their neighborhood service programs and initiatives to encourage youth in the Black community.
“The Black Panther organization is probably one of the most misunderstood groups in all of the civil rights era,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African-American History at Ohio State University and the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.
“When Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Panthers in 1966, they wanted to operate within the law of the land,” Jeffries said. “But, they felt, given the rash of police brutality in Oakland at that time, they had a right to defend themselves. “
However, Jeffries said that the Panthers should be remembered for the work in the community. “It’s important that, when we reflect on them, we look at them as community organizers, sometimes more successful than others. They had successful programs that had nothing to do with guns. They had free breakfast programs and community schools that they founded.”
The Black Panther Party’s membership reached a peak of more than 10,000 by 1970. However, it became the victim of a series of troubles, from internal disagreements and defections to some leaders being incarcerated and the changing political climate among African-Americans. By the 1980s, the Panthers continued to have influence in politics locally in Oakland but their membership nationally had declined dramatically.
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(Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)