I wrote this piece about the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter for Newsweek back in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the Panthers’ birth in Oakland. Sadly, it’s still relevant today.
Google “Black Panther” today and the first hit is the superhero slated for big-screen star treatment in 2017. That Black Panther debuted in Marvel comics in 1966—the same year Oakland college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party, 50 years ago in October. Both superhero and mortal men took their name from the ferocious feline Stokely Carmichael and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) adapted as a logo for a political party in Alabama in 1965. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization failed in its effort to overthrow the all-white power structure that ran the majority black county, but the symbol remained, tensed and ready to strike. The real-life Panthers just had better style than the cat in the cat suit.
The Afro, the leather jacket, the shades—that look has been referenced in films like Forrest Gump and Beyonce’s 2016 halftime Super Bowl show, where she and her dancers freaked white America out just by donning black berets. But to see the truth of the real Black Panther Party (BPP) you need to look behind the shades.
“There have been these Blaxploitation cutouts [that stand in for] the way we think of these historical figures,” says Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. “These were human beings, they weren’t angels; there’s lots of complicated stuff: There was gun violence, people were murdered… this was a complicated organization. But there’s still lots we don’t know about the breadth of the party.”
“Do you think anyone still cares about the Black Panthers?” I was asked at a dinner party in Oakland, just miles from the college where Newton and Seale came up with the party’s Ten Point Program and flipped a coin to see who would be Chairman. (Seale won; Newton became Minister of Defense.) And this was from someone who had produced a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther on death row for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. How does the Panthers’ legacy, that had more to do with making breakfast for kids than offing the pigs, relate to today’s protests against police brutality, fueled by cellphone videos and organized by Black Lives Matter (BLM)?
Most ex-Panthers see a through-line from their brand of civil provocation to BLM. “Black Lives Matter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-black racism that still permeates the American landscape,” Seale has said though some question what principles are underlying the new protest movement, and where they go from here. “I’m not sure what your point is raising all the names of these people who are dead if you don’t have a real plan for what to do,” says Elaine Brown, chairwoman of the Black Panther Party from 1974 to 1977. “And they don’t seem to have a plan. Our plan was revolution. We had an ideology; it was called revolution.”
The Black Panthers got more than a mascot from Carmichael. The formerly nonviolent SNCC organizer was the first to use “Black Power” as a rallying cry; he changed his mind about civil disobedience after seeing Civil Rights protesters beaten by police in the South. “You tell all those white folks in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead,” he said.
“A toddler named Huey Newton was spirited from Monroe [Louisiana] to Oakland with his sharecropper parents in 1943,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in The Warmth of Other Suns, her award-winning book about the African-American diaspora. “His father had barely escaped a lynching in Louisiana for talking back to his white overseers. Huey Newton would become perhaps the most militant of the disillusioned offspring of the Great Migration.”
Billy X. Jennings was Newton’s aide and is now the party’s unofficial historian; his website, It’s About Time, is a clearinghouse for all things Panther. Jennings’ parents were from Anniston, AL, where locals torched a Freedom Riders bus in 1961. “First thing we did when we came to California was my dad had to buy my mom a TV,” says Jennings. “Every day we’d watch Walter Cronkite breaking down what’s going on and my mother used to get so mad at Bull Conner and the rest of those racists she would get up and turn off the TV, boiling mad. She’d look at me and say, ‘Boy, don’t you never let nobody treat you like that!’”
“I was highly influenced by Martin Luther King at first and then later Malcolm X,” Seale said in 1988. (He declined to be interviewed for this article; Newton was murdered by a member of a drug-dealing gang not far from where he grew up in Oakland in 1989.) “Largely the Black Panther Party came out of a lot of readings, Huey and I putting scrutiny to everything going on in the United States of America.” Armed with guns and law books the two began their “police patrols”: Newton, Seale and other members of their nascent party, carrying law books and guns, would drive around Oakland’s black neighborhoods and pull over to observe cops who had stopped citizens.
“The guns [were] loaded,” Seale recalled. “They’re not pointing at anyone because we also know California Penal Code, you can’t even… point a loaded weapon at anyone because it constitutes assault with a deadly weapon. So really I begin to feel secure with our posture, particularly with the people around, the Black community who stayed around to watch this and to see the police back down… Ultimately, they made a law against us, to stop us from carrying guns. That’s how legal we were.”
On May 2, 1967 a contingent of about 30 Panthers, men and women, went to the state capitol in Sacramento to protest proposed legislation that would ban the public display of loaded weapons—a bill inspired by the sight of armed Black Panthers in the news. Governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn in front of the capitol building, talking to a group or parochial school children when the Panthers arrived. Reporters covering Reagan quickly abandoned him and the kids to photograph the armed revolutionaries strolling toward the steps. “Who in the hell are all these niggers with guns?” a security guard was heard to ask another, and after the Panthers marched into the assembly chamber, chaos ensued. The group was ordered to leave and many members, including Seale, were arrested for “disturbing the peace.”
The Mulford Act (aka, the “Panthers Bill”) passed with the support of Reagan and the National Rifle Association and today California has some of the strictest open-carry laws in the nation. But the Panthers were never really about the guns, though the sight of armed black men was a real conversation starter. “Huey Newton used to say that the gun is not necessarily revolutionary because all of the police have guns,” says Brown. “It’s the ideology behind the gun that matters.”
“I think one of the things that the Panthers taught us is that in terms of resisting state violence and the politics of anti-racism, the way to win is not going to be through some kind of armed struggle,” says Peniel E. Joseph, author of Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.
By the time Newton get out of prison in 1970 (he had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the killing an Oakland policeman in 1967 but his conviction was reversed on appeal), the Black Panther Party had grown to over 50 chapters, boasting thousands of new members. And while many of these new recruits came for the guns, they stayed for the ideology.
Jamal Joseph was 15 when he entered a BPP office in Brooklyn in 1968. Joseph was an honor student who had been radicalized by the assassination of Dr. King.
“My friends had told me I’d have to prove myself and probably have to kill a white dude, if not a white cop,” he recalls. “Jumping up in the meeting, not really listening to someone explaining the Ten Point Program, I said, ‘Choose me, brother! I’m ready to kill a white dude!’ The whole room gets quiet. The brother that was running the meeting calls me up front and looks me up and down, real hard. He was sitting at a wooden desk and reaches into the bottom drawer, my heart was pounding, like, ‘Oh, my god, he’s gonna give me a big ass gun!’ And he hands me a stack of books: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, the famous ‘little red book’ we all carried [Quotations from Chairman Mao]. And I said, ‘Excuse me, brother, I thought you were going to arm me.’ And he said, ‘Excuse me, young brother: I just did.’”
Ideas are far more dangerous than guns; sometimes, it seems, so are pancakes. According to Seale, he and Newton came to Mao and other communist thinkers after the fact. (They made money selling Quotations from Chairman Mao to Berkeley students for a dollar, after buying them for a quarter. The profit helped them buy their first guns.) The Ten Point Program they came up with was more than a manifesto; it contained a blue print for action.
“The germ of the social programs was always in the party’s original imagining of itself,” says Nelson. Police brutality was number seven on the BPP manifesto; employment, housing and education took precedence.
After 1970, the majority of party members were women and “serve the people” initiatives, such as the Free Breakfast for Children program, were mandated by the central committee. The FBI had already successfully infiltrated the BPP and much of the internal strife that finally tore the party apart was being stoked by inside informants—and obsessively monitored by J. Edgar Hoover, who called them “the greatest threat to the internal security of this country.” It was in the early seventies that COINTELPRO, the bureau’s secret program to disrupt revolutionary groups, was most active.
“What Hoover feared about the BPP the most was not the berets and the guns,” says Jamal Joseph. “It was the Panther breakfast program. He thought this was the most subversive program in America…. He was right in that it was a formidable organizing tool because we used the breakfast program to point out to kids that not only do you have the right to eat, but what kind of country do you live in that you have to go to school hungry?”
And breakfast was the least radical of the group’s demands; Point Six says, “We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people,” and starting in the early seventies, the Panthers began doing it for their communities.
“Like all the social programs, the party encouraged them but didn’t provide resources to develop them,” says Nelson. “They had to figure it out for themselves… they had to find their own volunteers and doctors, nurses, medical supplies…” The idealistic medical personnel they recruited were inspired by the example of the Medical Community for Human Rights, a group of doctors who’d been part of 1964’s Freedom Summer. And the DIY clinics that sprang up in storefronts and trailers in cities across the country, where people would come for emergencies or to be screened for sickle cell anemia, were part of a larger trend. The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco was started to treat residents for crabs and bad acid trips, while Boston’s Women’s Health Clinic begat the feminist health bible, Our Bodies, Our Selves.
“You can say that he radical health movement was kind of constituency-based,” says Nelson. “Feminists had their clinics, hippies had their clinics, and African Americans had their clinics.”
While some party members boast about the clinics still being around, “The Panthers are a little bit liberal when they say they’re still running,” according to Nelson. The Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center in Seattle, for instance, is named after a Black Panther who started a free clinic there in the seventies but is now part of the non-profit Country Doctors Community Health Centers.
“I think it would be impossible today to do what the Panthers would do, which would be to go to a storefront, take some equipment and some doctors, or people with training, and set up a clinic,” says Nelson. You’d need to have the existing health care structure utterly decimated—as it was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Two days after Katrina ripped through the city, when bodies were still floating in the flooded streets and President George W. Bush was flying overhead, a former Black Panther named Malik Rahim started the Common Ground Clinic. “When asked how in the world are you going to do this when the city is destroyed he’d say, ‘We did this when we were Panthers,’” says Nelson. “That’s actually a material legacy.”
Inspired by the example of the Panthers’ free clinics, a group of medical students established themselves as White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL) on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2015, with the goal of eliminating racial discrimination in health care. “While we see our work as complementary efforts toward similar goals, there are many differences between WC4BL and the Black Panther Party, for instance the fact that we work within the medical institution while they worked from outside,” members wrote in a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health. “The reality is we speak from not only a more privileged position, but a safer one.”
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” While there’s no evidence that Mark Twain actually said that, it’s the sort of expression that historians use to explain the similarities and differences between then and now, and groups as diverse as the Panthers, which took root in the ghetto, and Black Lives Matter, born on the Internet.
In 1970 the Panthers had achieved celebrity status and their fundraisers for the Panther 21 (New York members arrested on charges of planning bombings throughout the city) were held in some of Manhattan’s swankiest apartments. Tom Wolfe attended one at Leonard Bernstein’s home and gently lampooned the proceedings in “These Radical Chic Evenings.”
“’I’ve never met a Panther,’” one of the attendees told Bernstein’s wife; “’this is a first for me!’… never dreaming that within forty-eight hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States…” (Nixon had come to share Hoover’s obsession with the Panthers and the white liberals that supported them.)
Almost 50 years later, members of BLM were invited to meet with President Obama at the White House. Obama had criticized the group for not moving beyond protest. “Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” said the president. When one of those in attendance said that they felt their voices weren’t being heard he said, “You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States.”
It was December 2014 and there were people protesting police shootings in large numbers across the country, shutting down roads and, perhaps more importantly, malls in the run-up to the holiday season. “It felt like that meeting was ‘come and sit down and let’s figure out how we can get back to business as usual,’” says Ashley Yates, a BLM activist from Oakland who attended that meeting. “In some of his more private moments Obama put on his ‘I’m a former organizer myself’ [thing], but I did feel like we had some genuine moments in which we were able to really get grounded in the history of what we were doing and acknowledge that we are in a long fight…
“I don’t know how helpful it was but it did feel like in that moment we were seen,” she says. “But it also felt like Obama was taking that moment to tell us to go slower, something we talked about later. A little bit of both, a little bit of politician double-talk—‘It’s a long fight, guys, and since it’s a long fight you might want to save your breath.’ And we’re like, ‘We have enough to go hard.’”
Call it one of those rhyming-history moments: LBJ said something similar to MLK, sometimes in the same room, during the Civil Rights struggle. One obvious difference being that Obama is our nation’s first black president and today’s movement has less clear goals than ending segregation. Though Black Lives Matter, the organization, has a set of guiding principles that can be found on its website and they are as lofty in their own way as the Panthers’ Ten Point Program. Yates distinguishes the organization from the movement, which includes any number of organizations, many with conflicting agendas. The so-called New Black Panther Party, which original Panthers have uniformly condemned, had just staged an armed march in St. Louis when I talked to Yates; “You’re probably not going to see BLM chapters participating in that,” she said.
“I also think just the declaration ‘Black Lives Matter’ is everything that the Panthers were about,” says Yates. “Just saying that black people are worthy of defense, that black people are worthy.” The 31-year-old spokeswoman has her own history with the BPP. While a member of the Legion of Black Collegians at the University of Missouri, Yates brought Fred Hampton, Jr. to speak on campus. The younger Hampton, son of the Chicago leader murdered by Chicago police in 1969, was in his mother’s womb at the time of the shooting; today he is chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee, which bills itself as “a revolutionary organization.”
“Someone in our delegation had a grandfather who was in the Panthers who was still doing time,” recalls Yates of Hampton’s visit to Mizzou. “He stood up and said, ‘My grandfather stood up with your father, we respect you; thanks for coming to our school.’ Fred Hampton, Jr. stood up and rattled off that man’s prison ID number and said, ‘I just saw your grandfather last week.’ It was a moment that shows the legacy, the folks who’ve been doing this work for decades haven’t been forgotten, even if they’re political prisoners. Folks like him are still doing the work that his father did.”
The idea of “community” has morphed since the Panthers’ time (not to mention Obama’s). “I think Black Lives Matter is absolutely connected to the larger Civil Rights-Black Power period,” says Peniel E. Joseph. “It’s rooted in the same fight but things have changed because the black community has become much more stratified, much more geographically separated than it was 50 years ago.”
Born in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, Black Lives Matter went from a hashtag to a movement slogan with the Ferguson protests following the shooting of Michael Brown. Social media allows the movement and its most recognizable figures to remain in touch in ways that the Panthers could hardly have imagined. BLM spokesman DeRay Mckesson, for instance, posted a video on Periscope of himself getting arrested in Baton Rouge following the police shooting of Philandro Castile.
“All we had were transistor radios and walkie-talkies, mimeograph machines,” says Jennings of the Panthers’ early days. “It took until 1994 and Rodney King getting his ass kicked for people to believe that there was really police brutality going on. And look at all the thousands of people who took ass-kickings way before that time!”
Though the methods for distributing cellphone, dashboard and body cam videos have made the outrage more instantaneous (and incontrovertible), some ex-Panthers feel that there’s no substitute for organizing. “It’s almost like we have too much information,” says Jamal Joseph. “People spend so much time on their devices, reading on their laptops that we’re not getting in the same room the way we did.”
His story is more dramatic than most; Joseph was one of the Panther 21 (who were acquitted of all 156 charges in 1971) and later, the Black Liberation Army, which ambushed police in the seventies. He served time in Leavenworth for his involvement in a 1981 Brinks robbery in which two security guards were killed, and earned two college degrees while inside. Today he is a full professor at Columbia, “of which I used to say, ‘Let’s burn this damn place down!’”
He is often called upon to speak of his experiences to young black activists today. “When I talk about I get a little dismayed,” he says. “I give a pretty good speech, a pretty good pep talk. They take it to heart and then they leave and get right back on their news feed, you know what I mean? ‘ ‘Panthers were cool,’ they tweet, and then go back to what they were doing.”
The Panthers’ rise and fall in some ways paralleled the rise of feminism. “Women were in charge of a lot of things, they just weren’t well known,” says Elaine Brown, who had previously worked in a West Hollywood strip club called the Pink Pussycat. “One of the running themes was no one was afraid of these brothers ‘cause we had guns too!” (Brown left the party in 1977 in the wake of Newton’s increasingly thuggish and drug-fueled behavior. He was accused of shooting a prostitute, pistol-whipping a tailor and beating up a woman in the BPP. “Huey’s position was that it wasn’t a problem for me because it didn’t happen to me,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a problem because I stopped this stuff a long time ago.”)
“One of the great things about BLM is that it moves away from the sexism, homophobia, misogyny, of the [sixties] movements,” says Peniel Joseph. “Says we’re going to place the most vulnerable black people at the center of our discourse, and that’s going to uplift everyone.”
By the early seventies the Panthers were shifting from agitation to trying to change the system from within. Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1972 and lost in a runoff; Brown ran unsuccessfully for city council twice before managing the successful campaign of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first black mayor, in 1977.
“Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown’s run for elected office reminded me that we must be as organized on the inside as we are on the outside,” says BLM’s Mckesson, who ran for mayor of Baltimore this year. “An outside-only strategy is not a strategy to win. The Black Panthers serve as an important model for a way to organize and have inspired activists and organizers in continuing to develop new ways of organizing as tools change and the context changes.”
October will be like old-home week for many Panthers in Oakland; the Oakland Museum opens a big show called All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 and there will be reunions of both party members and people from affiliated groups such as the Brown Berets, the Young Lords and a largely forgotten white group from Chicago called the Young Patriots, who had met with Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader that Hoover privately feared was the black “messiah” who would unite the disparate revolutionary groups of the sixties.
“They organized the same way the BPP did around tenants’ rights,” recalls Brown, and they were not the most natural of allies. “Some of them would have jackets with a Confederate flag sewed on them and they were working with the BPP to the point where, when Fred Hampton was killed, many of them were calling him Chairman Fred. I’m talking about tobacco-chewing, teeth-missing, no-shoe-wearing, call me nigger—that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the SDS white people who went to school in Berkeley. I’m talking about some serious white people.”
Such coalitions weren’t made to last, perhaps; if they had, Brown believes, “these people would not be voting for Donald Trump.” But there’s a limit to what such parties can achieve, after all.
“The goal of the BPP was not to have every member of the black community become a Panther,” says Jamal Joseph. “The goal of the party was to show people the possibility of struggle, the possibility of fighting for your freedom. We wanted to make ourselves obsolete.”