In Oakland California on October 15th, 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale took the black power group called “Revolutionary Action Movement,” and re-formed it into the legendary “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” The Party started with only six members: Elbert “Big Man” Howard; Huey P. Newton (Defense Minister), Sherman Forte, Bobby Seale (Chairman), Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton (Treasurer). Three years later, the Party membership peaked at 10,000.
The Black Panther ideology began as an abstract form of black nationalism that drew a good amount of members into its ranks, but eventually black nationalism was downplayed in favor of revolutionary socialist rhetoric.
The times influenced the way the Panthers thought. The left-wing hadn’t yet died out, and as such the BPP and its leaders were influenced by Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, the Cuban revolutionaries and the Algerian revolutionaries. Critique of the ideology of its members was open, and so there was a good amount of debate and free thought in the organization.
Conversely, there was no real ideological plurality, and even the original “black nationalist” ideology was eventually dropped when it was denounced as “black racism.” All currents however, were united by their support for the Party’s following Ten-Point Program:
1. WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES. We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.
2. WE WANT FULL EMPLOYMENT FOR OUR PEOPLE. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every person employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the American businessmen will not give full employment, then the technology and means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
3. WE WANT AN END TO THE ROBBERY BY THE CAPITALISTS OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of our fifty million Black people. Therefore, we feel this is a modest demand that we make.
4. WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS. We believe that if the landlords will not give decent housing to our Black and oppressed communities, then housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that the people in our communities, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for the people.
5. WE WANT DECENT 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. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.
6. WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE. We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide our selves with proper medical attention and care.
7. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, ALL OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES. We believe that the racist and fascist government of the United States uses its domestic enforcement agencies to carry out its program of oppression against black people, other people of color and poor people inside the United States. We believe it is our right, therefore, to defend ourselves against such armed forces and that all Black and oppressed people should be armed for self defense of our homes and communities against these fascist police forces.
8. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO ALL WARS OF AGGRESSION. We believe that the various conflicts which exist around the world stem directly from the aggressive desire of the United States ruling circle and government to force its domination upon the oppressed people of the world. We believe that if the United States government or its lackeys do not cease these aggressive wars it is the right of the people to defend themselves by any means necessary against their aggressors.
9. WE WANT FREEDOM FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE NOW HELD IN U.S. FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY, CITY, AND MILITARY PRISONS AND JAILS. WE WANT TRIALS BY A JURY OF PEERS FOR ALL PERSONS CHARGED WITH SO-CALLED CRIMES UNDER THE LAWS OF THIS COUNTRY. We believe that the many Black and poor oppressed people now held in United States prisons and jails have not received fair and impartial trials under a racist and fascist judicial system and should be free from incarceration. We believe in the ultimate elimination of all wretched, inhuman penal institutions, because the masses of men and women imprisoned inside the United States or by the United States military are the victims of oppressive conditions which are the real cause of their imprisonment. We believe that when persons are brought to trial they must be guaranteed, by the United States, juries of their peers, attorneys of their choice and freedom from imprisonment while awaiting trial.
10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE’S COMMUNITY CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are most disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Unfortunately, it is likely the Black Panthers’ lack of ideological plurality made it easier to dismantle. Unity was too fragile when the government of the United States began its underhanded methods to take down the Black Panthers using illegal COINTELPRO tactics.
During its existence, the Black Panther Party didn’t limit its own political activities to “peaceful demonstrations” as Martin Luther King Jr. did, and they didn’t simply attend marches and sit-ins like many a bourgeois “socialist” party. Instead, the Panthers were inspired to actually serve the people and confront law enforcement when necessary.
The Panthers viewed the black neighborhoods as their territory and themselves as the natural protectors of black communities. The police were oppressors and interlopers. This led them into many violent confrontations with the police, which they termed, “Policing the police.” When the Party was founded Oakland’s police force was composed of 661 officers, but only 16 of them were African-American.
During the Panthers’ high points of Party activity, many police departments diversified, which decreased the level of abuse of African-American by police somewhat. In addition to their direct action of “policing the police,” the Panthers took part in programs that helped to strengthen ties to the communities other organizations claimed to be helping.
The BPP survival programs included the Free Breakfast for Children Program, clothing distribution, classes on political science and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates and testing for sickle-cell disease.
Such survival programs were proof the Black Panther Party was not just talk, and that their efforts to serve the people were a huge part of their success.
“[T]he greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” — J. Edgar Hoover on the Black Panther Party
Sometime in August of 1967, the US government decided to unleash their illegal “Counter Intelligence Program” (COITELPRO), which had existed since 1956, on the Black Panthers, with the order to “neutralize” such “black nationalist hate groups.”
The Panthers were among many left-wing groups on the time, along with the Weather Underground and American Indian Movement, which were seen as a legitimate threat to US power.
COINTELPRO authorized the use of illegal surveillance, forged letters, wrongful imprisonment, police harassment, assassination and other extralegal violence. It took fifteen years, but eventually COINTELPRO tactics were responsible for the dismantling of the Black Panther Party, which finally died in 1982.
There is much that can be learned from the Black Panther Party’s overall positive legacy, their mistakes and successes.
If a revolutionary socialist party wishes to have success amongst the people, it must serve the people. At the same time, ideological purity and inner-party unity must be achieved in order to better protect the party from its class enemies and better coordinate its activities.
Most of all, the BPP’s legacy was something the black people in this country can be proud of: an organization whose purpose was to serve and protect the people, something the police (despite their claims) can never do, as servants of the ruling class.