Black berets, black leather jackets and black power: these are the iconic symbols of the Black Panther Party, a nationalist movement that disrupted late 20th-century America. Founded by two students, the Black Panther Party was a successor to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early ’60s.
Its founders believed civil disobedience (boycotts, non-violent protests and breaking unjust laws) had run its course in the struggle for black liberation. Instead, they advocated for armed patrols of city streets to defend against police violence (known as ‘copwatching’), developed social programs for communities and encouraged self-defence and racial pride.
From wartime migration to providing a visible black challenge to rampant police brutality, the origins of the Black Panther Party are a vital part of modern history.
The Second Great Migration
During World War Two, the American population experienced its second greatest movement of people in the county’s history. From 1940, the demand for labour drew millions of black Americans from the southern states to the north and west. Cities such as Portland, Los Angeles and Oakland offered skilled and much better-paid jobs in the wartime industry.
These cities also offered the prospect of escaping the Jim Crow discrimination that black Americans faced daily in the South, where many lived in sharecropping plantations that exploited their labour.
As they settled, mostly in cities, the migrants built up black communities as well as black political influence, which strengthened civil rights groups such as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The migration dramatically changed the predominantly white demographic of the northwest, and racial tensions soon bubbled up as both black and white areas became overcrowded.
While the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s had dismantled the legal Jim Crow system of segregation in the south, the prejudices of the north remained largely the same. With more and more people crowding into cities, housing shortages created ghettos where black Americans had reduced access to higher education, political representation and economic advancement.
Founding the Black Panther Party
Recognising that the days of civil disobedience which had served civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. well were gone, two students at Merritt College in Oakland decided on a new course of action. In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence.
Newton and Seale had met in 1962 and both had been members of various black power organisations. They were well-read, experienced debaters familiar with the black nationalism and anti-imperialism of Malcolm X.
Following the assassination of Malcolm X and the murder of a black teen, Matthew Johnson, by the police, Newton and Seale knew they needed a new approach to challenge racism and police brutality.
A visiting talk at Berkeley’s 1966 Black Power Conference by activist Stokeley Carmichael called for ‘black power’ and promoted the armed efforts of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a black political party that used the panther as its logo.
Newton and Seale adopted the panther as their party’s symbol, deciding on the black beret and leather jacket as a uniform.
Policing the police
As their first course of action, Newton studied Californian gun laws, discovering you could legally carry arms if they were visible. By reselling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to socialist students at Berkeley, Newton and Seale raised enough money to buy a couple of shotguns.
Armed party members began following the police to record acts of brutality. The Panthers followed at a distance and, when confronted by police officers, stated their legal right to carry guns and to bring the officers to court if they violated their rights. The visibility and numbers of the party steadily grew in 1967, especially when the party provided an armed escort for Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X.
In May 1967, the California State Assembly Committee on Criminal Procedure met in Sacramento to discuss the ‘Mulford Act’, which would make carrying loaded firearms in public illegal. The Panthers sent 26 members to protest the meeting – armed. The protest drew massive attention and led to co-founder Bobby Seale’s arrest along with 5 other members.
It was this image of the Panthers – armed, clad in black leather uniforms – that fed the stereotypes of black hostility and dominated the media narrative of the organisation for years to come.
In September 1968, FBI Director Edgar Hoover even claimed the Black Panthers were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” at the time, and began focusing the bureau’s efforts towards disbanding the party.
“Serve the people”
Yet from the beginning, the Black Panther Party was part of a much wider and radical movement grounded in black pride. Newton and Seale drew on Marxist ideology for the party’s manifesto, writing the party views and political objectives in a Ten-Point Program.
The Ten-Point Program called for an immediate end to police brutality, employment for black Americans and land, housing and justice for all. In principle, the program did not discriminate on the basis of race, sexuality, or gender. It was first published in the party newspaper, The Black Panther Newspaper, in May 1967 after the Sacramento demonstration.
Inspired by Mao’s advice in The Little Red Book, Newton called on the Panthers to “serve the people”. As a result, the party started several successful community programs, such as free breakfast programs for school children, originally run out of a church in Oakland, and free health clinics in 13 communities across the country.
These services not only demonstrated a successful model of free meals and healthcare, but gave the Panthers a space to educate young people in liberation and black history.
While the organisation later struggled because of internal tensions, deadly shootouts and the FBI’s continued counterintelligence strategy targeting them, the Black Panther Party was undoubtedly a short but important part of the ongoing civil rights struggle. At its peak in 1968, the party had grown to roughly 2,000 members, including famous political activist Angela Davis.
Combining successful social programs, a visible challenge to police brutality and a revolutionary attitude to inclusivity, the Black Panther Party built strong foundations for a continued black liberation campaign, which endure in equal rights movements today.