Violent revolutionary organization of the 1960s and 1970s
Its members engaged in drug dealing, pimping, rape, extortion, assault, and murder.
Aimed to harass the police, to protest against “police brutality” and America’s allegedly racist power structure, and ultimately to ignite a violent race war in the United States
In 1966 Huey Newton turned his Oakland, California street gang into the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a group whose raison d'etre was to harass the police under mask of a “political” program. Because of its obsession with guns and “self defense,” the organization caught the political fancy of Sixties radicals who considered themselves to be at war with the United States. The Panthers were termed “America’s Vietcong” by Tom Hayden. As onetime Panther Eldridge Cleaver would acknowledge in a 1998 Sixty Minutes interview: “If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country.” In 1967 the group shortened its name to the Black Panther Party (BPP).
BPP leaders studied the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong for guidance on how to establish revolutionary socialism in the U.S. through mass organizing and community-based programs. But no tract influenced the Panthers more profoundly than did Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1965), which condemned colonialism’s legacy and advocated a peasant-led revolution of "absolute violence" as a means of liberating African people. Hailed by the New Left as “the vanguard of the revolution,” BPP’s six original members included Huey Newton (Defense Minister), Bobby Seale (Chairman), “Little Bobby” Hutton (Treasurer), Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Sherman Forte, and Reggie Forte.
To define his organization’s mission, Newton wrote a ten-point program which stated, among other things, that “the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income”; that “this racist government has robbed us [blacks], and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules”; that “if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people”; that education should “expos[e] the true nature of this decadent American society”; that “Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us”; that “all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial”; and that “all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”
The “self defense” part of the Program involved appearing in public places heavily armed. While the anti-police (“pig”) rhetoric captured the attention of radicals who were beginning to flirt with “revolutionary violence,” the reality was that BPP (which patrolled the streets in armed squads) was engaging in warfare against the police rather than “defending the people” against them. As Eldridge Cleaver told Reason magazine in 1986: “We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence.”
Exemplifying the temper of the times, the Panthers became a national phenomenon by the late 1960s, displacing Martin Luther King (“Uncle Martin”) and other traditional civil rights leaders. But while they were radical icons by day, by night the Panthers grew into a criminal organization that engaged in drug dealing, pimping, extortion, assault, and murder. They committed more than 300 violent felonies in a single year (1969), as Edward J. Epstein has documented. During BPP's years as an active entity, its members and former members would kill at least 15 law-enforcement officers and would injure dozens more.
Among his fellow Panthers, Newton enforced obedience to his will by means of beatings and torture. One of his many female lovers in the Party, Elaine Brown, would later reveal that one of Newton’s preferred methods of punishing errant members was stomping: “The floor was rumbling, as though a platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood was everywhere. [The victim’s] face disappeared.”
On February 21, 1967, BPP provided an armed escort for Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, at a Bay Area speaking engagement. When newsmen tried to get closer to Shabazz than the Panthers wished to allow, police tried to enforce order with their nightsticks. In response, the Panthers loaded shells into their shotguns. After a tense standoff of several minutes, both sides backed off. Newton, however, gloated that the Panthers had “won” as a result of their “superior firepower.”
Adopting Mao’s phrase that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” some thirty Party members with rifles and shotguns marched into the California State Assembly at Sacramento to protest a proposed arms-control law on May 2, 1967. This incident propelled the organization to national prominence.
In August 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation instructed its counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, to “neutralize” such “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” as BPP. The FBI had only five agents available to monitor BPP activities in the entire Bay Area where the Panthers were based. In these circumstances, the Bureau accused some Panthers of being informers and planted letters containing insults purportedly written by one Panther leader to another. The purpose was to divide the group and decrease the level of violence its members could commit against others. But when one Panther’s life was threatened for being an informer, the FBI sent a memo instructing its agents to cease the practice.
In October 1967 Huey Newton shot and killed Oakland police officer John Frey. The facts of the case were beyond dispute. But Newton's attorney, Charles Garry, alleged that because the American justice system, from the police through the courts, was thoroughly infested with racism, it would be impossible for a young black like Newton to get a fair trial anywhere in the country. “The system,” Garry claimed, was responsible for putting so many innocent black males in jeopardy.
During his trial for Frey’s killing, Newton became a national hero to New Leftists like Tom Hayden, who, as noted earlier, celebrated the Panthers as “America’s Vietcong,” proudly likening them to the Communist guerrillas who were killing U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The Panthers’ contention that blacks constituted an “internal colony” in America and could only be liberated by armed revolution, became standard rhetoric for the Left.
In December 1967 BPP formed a coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was composed mostly of young whites who opposed the Vietnam War. Out of this coalition, the “Free Huey” movement was created by leftists sympathetic to Newton’s effort to fight back against a satanic United States.
Stokely Carmichael, the former Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a nationally known Black Power proponent, was recruited into BPP and became its Prime Minister in February 1968. Carmichael adamantly opposed permitting whites to join the “black liberation” movement, a position that ran counter to the Panther view.
In September 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the Frey killing and was sentenced to a prison term of fifteen years.
That same month, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described BPP as the single “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
By the summer of 1969, the alliance between the Panthers and SNCC began to unravel, in large measure because of the dispute over the inclusion of whites in the movement.
In May 1970 the California Appellate Court reversed Newton’s conviction and ordered a new trial, on grounds that the judge had erred by not giving jurors the option of convicting Newton of involuntary manslaughter. After two more trials that ended with hung juries, the State of California dropped its case against Newton.
As of 1970, BPP consisted of approximately 2,000 members spread across the United States. The following year, Newton ordered all BPP chapters nationwide to close their offices and consolidate their efforts by relocating to Oakland. He revamped the organization, saying it was time to “put away the gun” and, quoting Mao, “serve the people.”
The Panthers thereafter initiated a “free breakfasts for children” program which they claimed was responsible for serving a thousand meals each day to students in San Francisco schools. When one journalist checked the veracity of this figure, however, he found that the actual number of meals served was no more than fifty. Moreover, the food was usually extorted from local businessmen. It should be noted further that the Panthers’ “free breakfasts” were political, not charitable, endeavors. The serving of meals was accompanied by question-and-answer recitation drills for the young recipients, drills that characterized the police as “pigs,” and described “the capitalists” as “the pigs who control the country” and “steal from the poor.”
During this period, a young Yale law student named Hillary Rodham (who would eventually become Hillary Clinton) was introduced by one of her professors, Thomas Emerson (known as “Tommy the Commie”) to Panther defense attorney Charles Garry. Garry helped Miss Rodham get personally involved in the legal defense of several Black Panthers, who were then being tried for the May 1969 torture, murder, and mutilation of one of their own members, Alex Rackley, who they had suspected of being a police informant.
In August 1974 Newton had a violent falling out with Bobby Seale. Newton expelled Seale from the Party in a most brutal manner, whipping him mercilessly and then sodomizing him with such force that Seale had to have his anus surgically repaired. As a Party member would later recall, “You have to understand, it had nothing to do with sex. It was about power.”
On August 6, 1974, Newton shot and killed a 17-year-old Bay Area prostitute named Kathleen Smith. Soon afterward, he pistol whipped his tailor, Preston Callins, during a dispute, inflicting four skull fractures on the victim.
Pimps throughout the Bay Area, angry at Newton for having killed one of their breadwinners, put a bounty on Newton’s head, prompting him to disappear from public sight. When Newton failed to show up for his arraignment for the Smith murder charges, he was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. It was later learned that Newton was in Cuba, where he would remain for approximately three years. During that period, young Elaine Brown, who Newton had groomed (by means of instruction and violent beatings) to be one of his closest lieutenants, assumed control of BPP's day-to-day activities. It was Newton, however, who maintained ultimate authority from his base in Cuba, relaying his orders to Brown via daily telephone calls.
In 1974 a 42-year-old white woman named Betty Van Patter, who had recently been hired to keep the financial books of an Oakland-based Panther “Learning Center,” found something wrong with the Panthers’ record books and informed Brown. Van Patter was unaware that the Panthers were in fact using the Center as a vehicle by which to embezzle millions of dollars in California education funds. Nor did she know that the Center also served as the pretext for a Panther shakedown operation of “after hours” clubs whose owners were required to “donate” weekly sums, on pain of death if they refused. On Newton’s orders, Brown oversaw the Panthers’ kidnap (on December 13, 1974), rape, and murder of Mrs. Van Patter. On January 13, 1975, the victim’s corpse, with the head caved in, would be found floating in San Francisco Bay.
With Newton in exile, BPP’s social and political significance swiftly declined and ended by 1976.
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