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What Was the Black Panther Party?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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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.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon962957 — On Jul 26, 2014

Seen Chicago 2014? Not like 68.

By stl156 — On Oct 21, 2012

@jcraig - I feel that the Black Panther Party was neither a good or bad organization in regards to how they acted and how they set about their cause.

One has to take their time into context as it was a time when African Americans needed to rise up for their rights and organizations, like the Black Panthers, felt that they had waited long enough and that it was time for them to act in order to achieve the rights that they justly deserved.

Although there were instances where riots occurred and people were held hostage, these occurred all throughout the 1960's and even into the 1970's by other organizations and was not a common occurrence.

For the most part, the Black Panther Party was devoted to its cause for equality and they were only a small part, the radical part, of a larger picture.

By jcraig — On Oct 21, 2012

@Emilski - I agree and I feel that the Black Panthers were not near as bad as some other organizations.

One reason that they received all the negative press was because of their role in starting the Chicago Riot in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention.

1968 was probably the most turbulent time in the Civil Rights Movement and unfortunately this led to their negative depiction in the press.

The truth about the organization was that although they were very radical and sometimes acted out militantly, they did not commit real grievous acts in the context of their time in history and there were many other organizations that committed worse acts. The problem was the Black Panther Party was the biggest organization at the time, so they received all the negative press.

By Emilski — On Oct 20, 2012
I like studying history, and I really feel that the Black Panther Party has been view rather negatively throughout history in a pretty unfair light.

Although the organization was very radical during its time, it merely fit in with other radical groups that were springing up during the Civil Rights Movement and I think out of their call to action, history merely labeled them as an upstart group with ulterior motives.

In my studies of this group I have found that although they were still a pretty angry organization against the established order, they were nowhere near as bad as they have been depicted in the media and I think a lot of this has to do with racism within the media during the time, that did not allow their voices to be heard and instead just painted them as an organization that must be feared, despite what they did or did not do.

By whiteplane — On Oct 18, 2012
What do Black Panthers today do? The only time I have heard of them was in the 2008 election when they allegedly obstructed people from entering polling stations. Other than this unfortunate incident, they don't seem to have much presence these days. How strong is the group and what do they stand for now?
By profess — On Oct 18, 2012

What was the connection between Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party? Were they officially linked or just informally?

By chivebasil — On Oct 17, 2012
The Black Panther Party has fallen prey to a degree of historical revision. They have been painted as extreme and militant. And while that is not completely false, the group stood for a whole lot more than violence and hatred of white people.

I was a member in the late 60s and it was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. For the first time, I was proud to be black. I saw myself as part of a rich history, and not as part of a slave class which was the dominant mood in the country at the time. We never fought, we never destroyed any property, we just asserted our right o be proud of who we were.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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