In the years following the end of slavery in America, a number of black political organizations were formed. Some promoted the idea of black Americans returning to their African homelands. Others, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), favored integration and equal rights legislation. During the 1960s, however, a black activist organization called the Black Panthers openly called for an armed revolution against the oppressive white culture they held responsible for perpetuating racial inequality.
In the early 1960s, a voters' rights group in Alabama called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization used black panthers as a symbol of black empowerment. The group ultimately disbanded, but not before influencing a young black Louisiana native named Huey P. Newton. Later, when living in Oakland, California, Newton decided to form his own black activist organization with the help of several friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard. In 1966, the first meeting of the Black Panthers Party for Self Defense was held in Oakland, California.
Unlike the non-violent civil rights organizations led by such men as Martin Luther King, Jr., this party decided that the only way for the black community to gain respect and political power was to take aggressive action. One popular target was the federal government, whose archaic laws regarding racial equality allowed secret white power societies such as the Ku Klux Klan to flourish. The assassination of black activist Malcolm X was also a catalyst for the group's calls to action.
The activities of the Black Panthers were not limited to political rallies and demonstrations, however. The social wing of the party attempted to address many of the problems faced by impoverished black communities. One program designed to gain the support of disenfranchised black citizens was a free breakfast program. Party members prepared and distributed free breakfasts for poor families living in housing projects or ghettos. The popularity of these free programs is said to have prompted the federal government to sponsor free school breakfast programs across the country.
The leadership of the party found themselves the targets of a relentless law enforcement campaign against "subversive organizations." In 1967, Bobby Seale and others entered the chambers of the California legislature armed with guns in an effort to protest a proposed gun control law. Huey Newton was charged with the shooting of a white Oakland police officer later that year, although the circumstances surrounding the event were not clear. He became an underground cult hero, with young war protesters demanding his release.
With the senior leadership of the Black Panthers in disarray, the individual chapters of the party became much easier to dismember. Law enforcement officers managed to infiltrate and disband many of the key chapters in California, New York City, and elsewhere. Seale was charged, along with seven other peace activists, for conspiring to create a riot during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. David Hilliard was charged with assaulting police officers during a gunfight in 1968. Huey Newton was granted a second trial and eventually released in 1970, but his freedom was short-lived.
By 1973, the Black Panthers' leadership was either in prison, exiled to other countries, or under surveillance. Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and David Hilliard were all expelled from leadership roles. In 1974, Huey Newton left the United States for Cuba. He would eventually return to the United States, but by the end of the 1970s, the group had become only a shell of what it had been.