This was a paper I wrote for high school. The assignment was to do something related to the civil rights movement. I wanted to do a paper on the Black Panthers, and the teacher reluctantly agreed. Although I was interested, I knew nothing about the Black Panthers at the time, and the Christian High library was not a lot of help. (This was in the days before the internet really took off).
There were no books on the Black Panthers in the library, so I looked over every book I could find on the 60s or the Civil rights movement and pulled out everything that was tangentially related to the Panthers, and then threw it all together in this paper. Which is why it reads so jumbled. Like my paper on The Japanese Student Movement, I learned a lot more about this subject in the following years, and would undoubtably write a different paper today if I had the opportunity.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was organized in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale in a ghetto in Oakland California, although the “self defense” part was eventually dropped. Its initial goal was to protect blacks from police brutality, but eventually it evolved into a communist group that combined both Marxist and Maoist ideals. The Black Panthers worked closely with white revolutionary and radical groups that shared their goals. In fact the Black Panthers worked more with white groups than any other black civil rights group at the time, which brought them into disagreements with some black groups. In particular, an alliance was formed with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the spearhead of counter-culture’s political movement. SDS hoped to benefit from the Panther’s publicity. The Panther’s claimed the biggest problem was “the economic exploitation of both blacks and whites by profit seeking capitalists.” The Panthers would also demand complete black control of ghettos, including business and the police, freedom for all blacks in prison, and draft exemption for Blacks from Vietnam, which they considered to be a racist war. The Panthers rejected white culture and instead chose Afro hair styles, dashiki robes, and black power handshakes. They also coined the slogan “Black is Beautiful.” Seale and Newton themselves took inspiration from Malcolm X.
The Panthers’s first challenge occured during the Chicago riots. During the hot days of July, police refused to turn on fire hydrants so black children could cool off in them. The riots ensued, and the national guard was called in. The guardsman were inexperienced and trigger happy. Several innocent blacks were killed just walking down the street. One boy was killed in his own yard bringing the garbage out. The Panthers said, “We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of innocent black people.”
In 1966, James H. Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was killed by a sniper on a civil rights march. [Ed. Note: Actually I got this wrong. He was only wounded.] This incident caused outrage among blacks, and caused many to question if they would ever achieve their goals. John Lewis, the chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) struggled to keep the group peaceful, but was unsuccessful. He was replaced by Stokley Carmichael, who supported Panther ideals. By the end of the decade, the words “Non-violent” would be dropped from SNCC’s name. Carmichael was born in Trinidad, but grew up in Harlem. He was one of SNCC’s founding members in 1960, and led several student protest activities throughout his college years.
Also in 1966, the Panthers were joined by Eldridge Cleaver, who was on parole after being sentenced to twelve to fourteen years in 1958 for assault with intent to kill. Cleaver’s gift for speaking captivated many people, and he proved a valuable asset to the Panthers.
In 1967, Huey Newton was found guilty of murdering an Oakland Police officer, but the decision was reversed on appeal.
Bobby Seale was one of the “Chicago Eight”, a group that was accused of crossing state lines to start an anti-war riot at the Democratic National Convention. Interestingly, he was the only black man among the group. Nixon was out to make an example of this group, and many of them were sentenced to five years in prison. [Ed. Note: overturned on appeal]. Seale was not sentenced to prison.
In Los Angeles, three Black Panthers were killed in a shoot out with police. This incident fueled hatred between the two groups, and further shoot outs between police and panthers throughout the nation caused deaths on both sides. Cleaver himself fled to Algeria after a shooting incident in 1968. He would not return until 1975, when he claimed he had undergone a religious conversion and renounced many of his earlier beliefs. He was arrested for parole violations, and not released until 1979.
The Police claimed the Panthers were arming themselves for an all-out attack. The Panthers claimed the police were trying to exterminate them, so the Panthers sandbagged their headquarters against police attack, and armed Panther followers. While the California Senate was deliberating a gun control law that would have forced the Panthers to disarm, the Senate was rushed by 26 heavily-armed Panthers. The Panthers were disarmed by the security at the door.
That same year, Carmichael left SNCC to become the Prime Minister of the Panthers. The following are two quotes by Carmichael that reveal his views:
“When you talk of black power, you talk of bringing the country to its knees, of building a movement that will smash everything Western Civilization has created.”
“We have to wage a psychological battle for the right of black people to define their own terms, define themselves as they see fit and organize themselves as they see fit. We are concerned with getting the things we want, the things that we have to have to be able to function. Will white people overcome their racism and allow for that to happen in this country?”
Carmichael was replaced at SNCC by H. Rap Brown, who, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, would shout, “We must move from resistance to aggression, from revolt to revolution!” Brown would eventually aggravate Congress to pass what would be known as “The Rap Brown Act.” This act allowed peaceful protesters to be legally arrested. While arguing about this act, a Louisiana congressmen told his colleagues to “forget about the first amendment.” The Rap Brown Act was used heavily against the Panther in the following years.
Seale and other Panther leaders were accused of torturing and murdering a former Panther whom they suspected of being a police informer. The jury failed to reach a verdict.
Despite all their problems, the Panthers won support in the ghettos by feeding free breakfast to poor black children. The children were also given a free coloring book from the Panthers, which glorified killing white policemen.
In 1969, 14 police officers made an early morning raid on the apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, whom they suspected of having illegal weapons. Hampton and several other Panthers were sleeping in the apartment, when the police opened fire. Four Panthers were wounded, Hampton was killed in his bed. The police claimed they fired in self-defense, but an analysis of the area showed they had fired some 100 bullets in exchange for one from the Panthers. Panther Brenda Harris, who was in the apartment, testified in court: “They came in shooting. They shot me, they shot Mark Clark, and this other pig, he came in with a machine gun and he started shooting toward the back and they were yelling to each other, ‘There is some over there in the back. Get them’, and he would shoot over toward that direction, and he was just shooting with the machine gun, just going crazy.” Attorney General John Mitchell justified the police action, calling the Panthers a threat to National Security.
In 1969, Newton was charged with murder in a street brawl, and Carmichael resigned from the Panthers. The movement was hurting as its leaders were vanishing, and the remaining leaders quarreled constantly. Added to the decline of black radicalism, it spelled death for the Panthers.
So what happened to the leaders? Two former Panthers were implicated in the Brink Robbery incident in 1981. Newton spent three years in prison for shooting a police man, and afterwards was in and out of jail. He was last released in 1989, after serving time for a parole violation. Seale now studies and teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia. He has also published a book on barbecuing.
Teacher’s Comments: The Police used PIG, Pride Integrity Guts, to their advantage.