Founded in October 1966 by Huey Newton (1942-1989) and Bobby Seale (b. 1936), the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense became the most widely known black militant political organization of the late 1960s. The Black Panthers attracted widespread support among young urban blacks, who wore the group's distinctive black leather jackets and black berets and often openly displayed weapons. Also attracting the attention of local police and the FBI, the group declined as a result of deadly shootouts and destructive counterintelligence activities that exacerbated disputes between Panthers and other black militant groups.
Newton was already a black militant activist in 1961 when he met Seale, a fellow student at Oakland's Merritt College. Both joined the Afro-American Association, a black cultural organization led by Donald Warden, but they became dissatisfied with Warden's procapitalist form of black nationalism. Their sentiments were more in accord with those of Malcolm X, especially after his 1964 break with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and of Robert F. Williams, the then Cuban-based guerrilla warfare advocate. After affiliations with the Merritt's Soul Student Advisory Council and with the Williams-inspired Revolutionary Action Movement, Newton and Seale created the BPP in order to expand their political activity, which mainly involved "patrolling the pigs"--that is, monitoring police activities in black communities to ensure that civil rights were respected.
The BPP dropped "for Self-Defense" from its name in 1967, but the group remained a paramilitary organization held together by Newton's eclectic ideas, which were drawn from Marxist-Leninist and black nationalist writings and from the examples of revolutionary movements in Asia and Africa. Although Newton and Seale once gained funds and notoriety by selling books containing the quotations of Mao Tse-tung, the revolutionary tract that most influenced Panther leaders during the mid-1960s was Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1965). The party's appeal among young blacks was based not on its unrefined ideology but on its willingness to challenge police power by asserting the right of armed self-defense for blacks. The explicit political goals of the Panthers were summarized in the last item of their ten-point Platform and Program: "We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny."
On October 28,1967, the development of the BPP was profoundly affected by Huey Newton's arrest on murder charges after an altercation with Oakland police that resulted in the death of one policeman and the wounding of another. With the party's principal leader in jail, the role of spokesmen increasingly fell to Seale and Eldridge Cleave (b. 1935), a former prison activist and Malcolm X follower who became the Panthers' minister of information. Cleaver, a writer for the New Left journal Ramparts and a powerful public speaker, increasingly shaped public perceptions of the Panthers with his calls for black retribution and scathing verbal attacks against black counterrevolutionaries.
During February 1968, former SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (b. 1941), who had been asked by Cleaver and Seale to appear at "Free Huey" rallies, challenged Cleaver's role as the dominant spokesman for the party. Carmichael's Pan-African perspective, emphasizing racial unity, contrasted sharply with the desire of other Panther leaders to emphasize class struggle and to attract white leftist support in the campaign to free Newton. Although Carmichael downplayed his policy criticisms of the party until he resigned as the Panther's prime minister in the summer of 1969, the ideological and personal tensions between Carmichael and other Panthers signaled the beginning of a period of often vicious infighting within the black militant community. A SNCC-Panther alliance announced at the February rallies broke apart by the following summer. After the Panthers branded Ron Karenga, the head of a Los Angeles-based group called US, a "pork-chop nationalist," escalating disputes between these two organizations culminated in January 1969 with a gun battle on the UCLA campus that left two Panthers dead.
Police raids and the covert efforts of the FBI's counterintelligence program contributed to the tendency of Panther leaders to suspect the motives of black militants who did not fully agree with the party's strategy or tactics. In August 1967 the FBI targeted the Panthers when it launched its COINTELPRO operations designed to prevent "a coalition of militant black nationalist groups" and the emergence of a "black messiah" "who might unify and electrify these violence-prone elements." FBI-inspired misinformation, infiltration by informers, and numerous police assaults contributed to the Panther's siege mentality. On April 6, 1968, police attacked a house containing several Panthers, killing the seventeen -yea r-old treasurer of the party and wounding Cleaver, who was returned to prison as a parole violator. In September 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to from two to fifteen years in prison. The following December, two Chicago leaders of the party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were killed in a police raid. By the end of the decade, according to the party's attorney, twenty-eight Panthers had been killed. At that time, Newton was still in jail (his conviction was reversed on appeal in 1970); Cleaver had left for exile in Algeria rather than return to prison; and many other Panthers elsewhere were facing long prison terms as a result of intense repression. In 1970 Connecticut authorities began an unsuccessful effort to convict Seale of the murder of a Panther in that state.
During the early 1970s, the BPP, weakened by external attacks, legal problems, and internal schisms, rapidly declined as a political force. After Newton was released from prison in 1970, he sought to revive the party by rejecting Cleaver's inflammatory rhetoric emphasizing immediate armed struggle. In place of police confrontations, Newton stressed community service, such as free-breakfast programs for children and, during the mid1970s, participation in electoral politics. These efforts to regain popular support were negated, however, by published charges that Newton and other Panthers engaged in extortion and assaults directed against other blacks. By the mid-1970s, most Panther veterans, including Seale and Cleaver, had deserted or were expelled from the group, and Newton, faced with various criminal charges, fled to Cuba. Upon his return to the U.S., Newton remained a controversial figure. Although he completed a doctorate and remained politically active, he was also involved in the drug trade. He was shot to death in Oakland in the summer of 1989 in a drug-related incident.
David Malcolm Carson
of the American Left,
edited by Mari Jo Buhle et al.
New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
Anthony, Earl. Picking Up the Gun. New York: Dial, 1970.