The legacy of the Black Panthers

Black Against Empire:

The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

For those who didn’t live through the 1960s and 1970s—that infamous era in the US most often described with the word “tumultuous”—the Black Panther Party is the stuff of legends. The Panthers boldly stood up to the unbridled brutality and racism of America’s police forces, stepping outside of the boundaries set by the civil rights movement, openly advocating fighting fire with fire, and aligning themselves with foreign governments and organizations considered anti-imperialist, including the National Liberation Front (NLF) of Vietnam.  

The Panthers not only accurately gauged the possibilities of some of the most critical moments in history, they stepped up to the plate and offered a revolutionary political vision precisely when millions of people—Black and white—were looking and listening. During their heyday they had the entire world transfixed, either with them or against them, waiting to see what they would do next. Up against the most powerful forces on earth, the Panthers had them trembling.  

Authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. provide a thorough and meticulously researched history of the Black Panther Party in their indispensable book, Black Against Empire, describing how and why the Party emerged when it did, the evolution of its politics, and its eventual dissolution. They do so with deep compassion and respect for their subject combined with a nuanced understanding of the vibrant, fluid political context within which the Panthers were operating and evolving as well as the complex internal dynamics and limitations of the Party. Relying almost entirely on primary source materials (including The Black Panther newspaper), the authors construct the most expansive history of the Party written to date.   

One of the biggest strengths of the book is its explanation of the historical processes that created the conditions that were to shape the political trajectory of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the eventual founders of the Black Panther Party and two of the most important political actors of their era. While their prominence on the world historical stag makes them unique, theirs was also the story of millions of Black Americans. “The Newtons,” write Bloom and Martin, 

moved to Oakland in 1945, following the path of many black families migrating from the South to the cities of the North and West to fill the jobs in the shipyards and industries that opened up with the onset of World War II. When the war ended, many blacks were laid off as wartime industry waned, and soldiers returning from the war created a labor surplus. Both new and expanded black communities in cities across the country rapidly sank into poverty. While the Newtons were better off than many of the black families they knew, they were poor, with seven children to feed, and often ate cush, a dish made of fried cornbread, several times a day. 

Newton and Seale met for the first time in 1962 at a rally opposing the US blockade of Cuba held at Merritt College in Oakland, California, where they both attended classes. They soon began looking more seriously into political theory and history, reading W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and others, and engaging in the all-Black study groups founded by Donald Warden, who would be widely influential to many of the leaders of the Black liberation movement.   

The dismantling of the Jim Crow system of segregation was the backdrop to Newton and Seale’s teenage years and early adulthood. Bearing witness to mass struggle and the legal victories engendered by it, Black America wanted more, despite the brutal repression it was forced to endure. But it was the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 that filled young Black people in particular with an even greater urgency. Bloom and Martin’s account of Bobby Seale’s reaction to the murder of Malcolm X describes a widespread sentiment that continued to develop and deepen in cities and towns all across the US:  

Bobby’s rage overflowed. He gathered six bricks from his mother’s garden, broke them in half, and stood in wait at the corner, hurling bricks at the cars of any whites he saw passing by. “I’ll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X,” he swore, “and if they want to kill me, they’ll have to kill me.”

It was in October of 1966 that Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (eventually dropping the last half of the name). Within a matter of months they had their first young, enthusiastic recruit in sixteen-year-old (Lil’) Bobby Hutton. Tragically, Hutton would be murdered by police just over a year later and only two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., an event that would precipitate riots in 120 US cities involving 500,000 Americans—equal to the number of soldiers then stationed in Vietnam. During this time the ranks of the party swelled. As the authors note:

By December [1968], the Party had opened offices in twenty cities, from Los Angeles to New York. In the face of numerous armed conflicts with police and virulent direct repression by the state, young black people embraced the revolutionary vision of the Party, and by 1970, the Party had opened offices in sixty-eight cities from Winston-Salem to Omaha and Seattle. The Black Panther Party had become the center of a revolutionary movement in the United States. 

The Panthers cut their activist teeth with the case of a twenty-two-year-old construction worker named Denzil Dowell murdered by police in Richmond, California, in 1967. The Panthers worked closely with the Dowell family, featured the case prominently in their newspaper, and held street rallies against the police and for justice for Denzil. The authors explain, “The Panthers graphically introduced the public to a new vision of black politics. Like the leaders of the earlier Civil Rights Movement, the Panthers continued to focus on black liberation. Yet, rather than appeal for a fair share of the American pie, the Panthers portrayed the black community as a colony within America and the police as an ‘army of occupation’ from which blacks sought liberation.”  

Equally as fascinating and inspiring as their meteoric rise was the ability of the Party to evolve with the concurrent left movements, to interact with and impact them. In the midst of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s and gay liberation movements, and the burgeoning student movement, the Panthers’ politics had a hearing that extended beyond the Black struggle—but they brought their vision of Black liberation to all of those struggles, connecting and strengthening them and vice versa. It’s widely known, for example, that Huey Newton noted that “homosexuals . . . might be the most oppressed people in society,” but he also proposed the elimination of anti-gay language within the Party, arguing, “The terms ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.” 

Women such as Roberta Alexander forced the discussion of sexism within the Party and in particular the inaccessibility of positions of power for women Panthers. The issue of gender equality was widely debated (as it was on the left in general) and it seems that an initial approach to sexual politics based on traditional gender norms had shifted through debate and discussion to the beginnings of a more all-encompassing view. But this process was complicated and held back by an intense pressure—internal and external—for unity at all costs. Ultimately and unfortunately, this meant that the struggles for Black liberation and women’s liberation were framed as competing. And, as Bloom and Martin explain, “The extreme repression the Party endured further intensified the common belief and feeling that the racial and class components of the struggle had to take priority” 

It is by now well documented that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI directed the vast majority of operations within their counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) between 1967–71 towards the destruction of the Black Panther Party. The incessant, debilitating raids on their offices, the widespread infiltration of the branches by agent provocateurs, and the harassment, arrests, brutalization, and even assassination of the Party’s members, like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, greatly constricted their ability to operate efficiently and produced immeasurably high levels of internal strife. But it says something quite profound about the possibilities of the era and the state of mass consciousness—as well as the Panther’s ability to seize the moment—that despite this intense state repression, the Panthers still garnered such broad support. Most famously, after Huey Newton was arrested and thrown in jail for allegedly murdering a police officer, the Panthers successfully framed the campaign for his freedom in terms of the right of Black people to exercise self-defense in the face of racist police attacks. They flipped the script and “put America on trial.”  

The “Free Huey!” campaign became deeply integrated into the antiwar movement, most firmly in the student movement. Rallies, demos, and speak-outs were often saturated with “Free Huey!” signs, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia. And after years of struggle, Newton was eventually released. For many white, middle-class college students, it was their first foray into racial politics, and the Panthers mostly embraced their support. At a 1967 rally on Berkeley’s campus, Bobby Seale put it succinctly, “We don’t hate nobody because of color. We hate oppression.” They put racism at the center of the antiwar movement, and their message had a deep impact on Black soldiers fighting in Vietnam as well.  

More than anything, Black Against Empire offers readers a much more dynamic understanding of the political strategy of the Black Panther Party. A long-standing perception of the Party as having a “two-pronged strategy”—armed self-defense and community service—isn’t entirely accurate. Bloom and Martin contextualize the tactics promoted and practiced by the Panthers and examine their gravitation towards or away from those tactics. Early on in the Free Huey campaign, for example, the Panthers closely aligned themselves with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), seeing the two groups as closely linked (though they would later eclipse SNCC, as the authors explain). And as early as 1968, Eldridge Cleaver announced his candidacy for president on the Peace and Freedom ticket, while Kathleen Cleaver ran for California State Assembly against Willie Brown. Bloom and Martin write, “Eldridge Cleaver’s run for president represented disaffection with both Democratic and Republican Parties and was, in the words of the New York Times, an effort ‘to use the traditional election process to win an audience and to organize for the radical movement.’” It becomes clear that, at least for a section of the leadership, these tactics were based on a strategic assessment of the political landscape.  

Of course, the debates about armed self-defense and community service have been magnified because they are at the heart of the ideological split between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, eventually devolving into a bitter faction fight. But the question of why certain tactics—for example the decision to arm themselves and confront the police—could propel them onto the political stage and garner mass support at one moment only to alienate large swathes of their supporters and allies at another, is what Bloom and Martin help readers to understand. They write:

The politics of the Black Panther Party contained a tension. On the one hand, much of the Party’s political leverage and appeal to members derived from armed resistance to the police. On the other hand, the ability to withstand repression by the state depended largely on support from more moderate allies. 

As the Vietnam War drew to an end and a number of political concessions were granted, the Panther’s call for armed resistance began to lose its resonance, and their broad audience, a crucial component of their ability to sustain their organization, began shrinking. Newton, more than anyone, saw the writing on the wall and began to argue openly against insurrectionary politics, a shift that became very apparent in the pages of the Party’s newspaper, and toward a more concerted focus on what they likened to a social democratic strategy, community service and, eventually, local electoral politics back in Oakland.  

While Newton was right to move away from the rhetoric of armed self-defense, the alternative he advocated wasn’t the answer either; their membership dropped and support faded. Never again were the Panthers, or any group that has come after them, been able to capture the imagination of such a massive segment of the population with the prospect of revolution.  

The boldness of the Black Panther Party was matched only by the boldness of their historical circumstances. The complex, rapidly changing political context ultimately presented profound challenges to the young Party that pushed it to its limits. In the starkest terms, they came up against questions to which there were no immediate, available answers. Still, the Panthers have left activists and revolutionaries today with a rich legacy from which there is so much to learn. For these reasons and more, this book is essential reading.   

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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