The Black Panther Party emerged at a time of political activism and excitement at the possibility of radical social change. While the Panthers rise was rapid and dramatic; its fall, slow and brutal. Ultimately a mix of Government repression,...
The Black Panther Party emerged at a time of political activism and excitement at the possibility of radical social change. While the Panthers rise was rapid and dramatic; its fall, slow and brutal. Ultimately a mix of Government repression, inter-organizational conflict, and strategic mistakes destroyed The Black Panther Party.
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Black Against Empire
by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
After 1966 during their initial years The Black Panther Party grew from a small group based in the Oakland to a national and even international organization. In turn, The Panthers created a tiered organizational structure to accommodate their rapid expansion. At the top, of the Panthers' governing body, was the Central Committee, comprised Black Panther founders Huey P. Newton as Minister of Defense and Bobby Seale as Chairman, along with Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, Deputy Minister of Information Frank Jones, and Chief of Staff David Hilliard. The Central Committee was always based at national headquarters in the Bay Area. The intermediate level was formed by state regional chapters such as Illinois, Maryland, and New York. The leaders of these chapters were either chosen, or if self-selected, confirmed by Chairman Seale or a representative of national headquarters. these Local branches represented the Panthers at a ground level. The rank-and-file members would report to branch or chapter leaders depending on Party organization development in a specific geographic area. At the bottom, community workers were members of the Black community who desired to be Panthers, but who were not official members. They often performed various Party duties, such as selling the Party's newspaper, working on the free breakfast programs, and attending political education classes. Their status became even more difficult to distinguish from rank-and-file members after 1969 because police infiltration made the Party discontinue official accepting new members.
During this early period the most prominent Panther, Huey P. Newton, did not directly participate in the building of the national Black Panther Party. That task was carried out by Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, and state and local leaders throughout the country. Because Newton was arrested for murdering of a police officer in Oakland, California in October 1967 and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in September 1968, he was not released from prison until August 1970 after his lawyers gained a new trial on appeal. While in prison, Newton became a device for recruitment during the national “Free Huey” campaign. Newton would achieved mythical status among many Black and radical activists as a political prisoner.
The Panthers were winning the hearts and minds of African Americans who had grown impatient with the Civil Rights movement’s emphasis on gradual legislative change, While each Black Panther chapter had their own distinct political culture depending on its location, all Panther chapters were influenced by the founders’ principles and strict discipline. Members’ opinions were sought on diverse issues, but after decisions were made, they were to be implemented promptly and without question. The early Panther armed patrols, the military experience of Seale and many other members, and the Panther’s militant rhetoric gave the Panthers a paramilitary image and a commitment to disciplined action. The Panthers considered themselves at war with the oppressive capitalist state and racist political system. To ensure discipline, Party leaders utilized corporal and other punishments when a member violated Party rules or risked a fellow Panther’s members life unnecessarily.
In 1968 Party membership dramatically expanded nationwide following the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Hutton (one of the first members of the Party), and the summer’s urban protests and rebellions. by 1969, the Black Panther presence was felt in almost every major city in the country, and the BPP gained thousands of recruits. However, even during the peak period 68-70 of the organization’s membership, the Party would lose members to government repression and organizational purges that attempted to weed out government infiltrators and agent provocateurs.
During this period, serious political and ideological differences would start to developed within the Party. Panthers outside of California complained about their lack of involvement in decision making at the national level. After many violent confrontations with police officers, national Party leaders began to downplay armed self-defense and place greater emphasis on community service programs, especially the popular free breakfast programs for children, free health clinics, and liberation schools. However, some Panthers in other parts of the country disagreed with these policies. Consequently, internal conflicts that were manipulated by the FBI emerged, which led to a major schism within the organization. The 1968–70 period culminated in a series of Party purges and expulsions that were confirmed by Newton and the Central Committee.
As the Black Panthers had attracted the nation’s attention, so J. Edgar Hoover decided that they had to be destroyed. the government’s attack on progressive and radical Black groups like the BPP was systematic and vicious. The BPP was the victim of almost 80 percent of the 295 FBI authorized “actions” against Black political groups. The FBI’s covert action program against the BPP began in 1968 and continued until 1971 when the Bureau allegedly terminated all of its counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO) against domestic groups because of security leaks. . As the BPP gained national and international prominence, the FBI attempted to promote violent conflicts between the BPP and other Black power groups, encourage BPP internal dissension, undermine Panther support, and provoke local police attacks on the BPP. With such repressive tactics, in many instances, the FBI succeeded in neutralizing the Party’s political programs.
The BPP was confronted with comprehensive government repression that took diverse forms. All Panthers were subject to police surveillance and harassment. Police officers regularly harassed both the leadership and rank and-file Party members. They issued parking and traffic tickets for minor and/or nonexistent violations and often arrested Party members on trumped up charges. Court fines for traffic violations and unjustifiable arrests forced the BPP to allocate time and money to legal matters rather than organizing in the Black community. Between December 1967 and December 1969, the Party paid more than two hundred thousand dollars in bail-bond premiums, money the BPP would never recover. During the same period, at least twenty-eight Panthers were killed. These deaths, which occurred early in the Party’s history, were usually the result of conflicts with local police and FBI-inspired intra-party strife and external conflicts with other Black power organizations. Consequently, Panthers were often beset with a siege mentality, unsure who to trust and uncertain about when they might meet death.
To counteract the onslaught of government repression, the Party developed several measures, which included purging suspected infiltrators, improving ties with traditional community groups, and intensifying its community survival programs. The Black Panther Party was the target of systematic and comprehensive political repression by all the levels of government. Despite this government repression, the BPP’s first four years were its most successful in terms of growth in chapters and membership, effectiveness, and prestige. Perceived by many African Americans as a fearless radical political group, the BPP challenged and called nations attention to police brutality, poverty, socioeconomic inequality, and the Vietnam War. The Party’s success stemmed fundamentally from its ability to inspire African American youth and young adults to work for their people.
Government Repression wasn't the only issues facing the Panthers'. The seeds of internal conflict were being to be planted after Huey Newton’s release from prison in August 1970. Once a free man, Newton began working to strengthen the Party’s community service program and to gain the release of recently imprisoned Bobby Seale (Seale was in prison for 16 counts of contempt during his trial for inciting a riot at the 68 democratic convention). At this same time, Eldridge Cleaver was in exile in Algeria (after been charged with attempted murder during the death of Bobby Hutton) He was heading the International Section of the BPP. Newton and Cleaver, two of the Party’s most prominent members and leaders of the Central Committee, increasingly differed on strategy and tactics. Newton wanted to downplay self-defense and police confrontation and Cleaver want to advocated violent revolution and urban guerrilla warfare. Cleaver failed to recognize. that the emphasis on military action was isolating the Panthers from the community thereby reinforcing its image as a gang of super-revolutionaries. On the other hand, Newton was unprepared and overwhelmed by a national organization built largely in his name. In late 1970, he toured the country speaking at major political events and visiting Panther chapters. As a public speaker, Newton greatly disappointing his followers. As David Hilliard would later state, Newton did not inspire his audiences in the manner of Cleaver, Seale, and other Panther leaders such as Chicago’s Fred Hampton.
Differences between national headquarters and state chapters also began to manifest in to conflicts. Like the friction between Oakland and the New York chapter, The new york chapter was one of the largest in the country with smaller local branches in Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and other parts of the state. The New York State chapter lodged several complaints with the national leadership while Newton was in prison. New York leaders assumed that with the release of Newton their grievances would finally be addressed. but, Newton’s release only exacerbated the tensions between the New York chapter and Oakland. New York leaders tended to agree with Cleaver that the Party should emphasize military action. However, other substantive disagreements were also readily apparent. New York Panthers complained of the lack of chapter representation on the Central Committee hampered their local organizing efforts. New York Panthers resented the national leadership’s deemphasis of local organizing around housing issues and drugs in the Black community. Instead, Oakland placed greater emphasis on the free breakfast, clothing, and health care issues. New York leaders basically felt that their lack of representation on the Central Committee prevented the national leadership from appreciating the importance and distinctiveness of local conditions.
Disagreements over how material resources were distributed also fueled intraparty strife. To operate its programs, the BPP received funds from various sources: lawyers’ groups, church organizations, community organizations, and individuals. Party leadership also raised funds via speaking engagements. The Panthers also received thousands of dollars from wealthy White, and sometimes famous, supporters. Party chapters were required to contribute a certain percentage of paper sales and other income to the national headquarters for the organization. Increasingly, members of the other Panther chapters felt exploited by the national office. Party members became concerned when reports surfaced that Newton and other national leaders were living in penthouse apartments and extravagant homes, and this caused local chapters to resented the fact they felt their funds had been mispresented
These Party disputes combined with government repression finally culminated in the splintering of the Party. Newton, in the Central Committee’s name, confirmed the split by expelling several well-respected Party leaders. In early 1971, Newton expelled Geronimo Pratt, Connie Matthews, Michael Tabor, and Dhoruba Moore, as well as the entire New York chapter then proclaiming them “enemies of the people.” Several attempts to reverse these expulsions were ultimately unsuccessful. Eldridge Cleaver and others argued that as Central Committee members they should have been informed prior to these expulsions and a Cleaver-led faction argued for reinstatements of the purged Panthers. Newton and the national leadership would rejected this view. On February 26, 1971, Newton and Cleaver agreed to discuss Party differences during a local San Francisco television program in which Eldridge Cleaver phoned in from Algeria. They promptly began to argue and expelled each other from the organization. This inter party strife continued throughout the year. The New York leadership as well as various Party members scattered across the nation aligned with Cleaver.
The Panthers Organizational conflict reached a deadly level when Robert Webb, a West Coast Panther originally who sided with the Cleaver and the New York Panthers, was murdered on March 8, 1971. Six weeks later on April 17, 1971, Samuel Napier, Distribution Manager of The Black Panther, was tortured and killed in New York allegedly in retaliation for Robert Webb’s death. Both Napier and Webb were respected and beloved members of the Party. Such destructive warfare created general fear in the Party and prompted many Panthers to abandon the organization. According to Bobby Seale, approximately thirty to forty percent of the BPP left as a result of this internal conflict.
This interparty conflict only assisted governmental officials in dismantling the Panthers. Newton and Cleaver had no idea, the FBI initiated a program to divide the two Panther leaders. The FBI also conspired to permanently divide the New York chapter from national headquarters. Years later, Newton would reflect on the government’s successful attempt to divide the Party. In conducting research for his 1980 doctoral dissertation, Newton discovered: “For three solid weeks a barrage of anonymous letters flowed from FBI Headquarters. The messages became more and more vicious.”
In late 1971 and early 1972, after Newton and Seale regained control of the Party and intensified and expanded its involvement in the Black community. New BPP programs included the Samuel Napier Youth Intercommunal Institute, the Free Busing to Prisons Program, the People’s Free Clothing Program, and the George Jackson People’s Free Medical Research Health Clinics. In the early days, BPP local leaders developed their own contacts and relationships with various institutional and local individual supporters. Consequently, despite the lack of representation on the Central Committee, they still maintained relative autonomy based on their personal contacts and distance from national headquarters. But after 1972, Newton required that all money coming into the Party go directly to him. Then he would distribute it to the BPP’s relevant programs. Newton created several corporate entities to store the Party’s money. He also diverted money from Party programs to support his personal activities. Party members tended to accept this centralization of money and power by Newton because of their worship of him as a leader.
In 1972, the BPP attempted to concentration of power in Newton’s hands. In that year, the Party decided to mount a campaign to capture the Oakland mayoral and other local offices. Toward this goal, the Central Committee agreed to close all chapters outside of Oakland, California in order to support Bobby Seale’s mayoral candidacy. In an attempt to prevent more state chapter rebellions and increase the BPP’s power in Oakland, Newton presented the Central Committee with two bold ideas: (1) the Party should run Bobby Seale, leading a full slate of Panther candidates for local office, for mayor of Oakland and (2) the Party should close all chapters outside of Oakland and redeploy all Panthers and their resources (money, cars, office materials, etc.) to Oakland to work on the campaign and consolidate power in the party's at its birthplace.
Newton’s proposal reflected his evolving thought on the nature of power. At the Party’s founding, He and Seale related power to the use of political violence. Consequently, they adopted Mao’s credo that “political power comes from the barrel of a gun” for the Party. But as a result of his studies in prison, fatal Panther shoot-outs with police, and the recent internal Party warfare, Newton’s ideas of power evolved. In Newton’s new thinking, the Party gave more serious attention to the political and economic dimensions of power and de-emphasized its earlier military focus.
Newton believed that if the Party gained political control of Oakland, it could promote an ambitious economic development plan that included turning the city’s port into a highly profitable state of the art facility, promoting local Black business, and implementing new human and social service programs. The Central Committee enthusiastically supported the idea of acquiring political power in Oakland, but was initially divided on the necessity of dismantling the national organization. Chairman Seale led the opposition to breaking down the chapters on strategic and tactical grounds. Strategically, he saw nó need to take this action because the Party was already strong in Oakland and had excellent local organizers. Tactically, Seale reasoned that the national headquarters lacked the resources necessary (money, houses, apartments, and jobs) to receive over a thousand members from around the country on short notice. More importantly, the-Party had organizational commitments and existing service programs in operation around the country. According to Seale, the Party could not and should not fold its chapters.
Audrea Jones, former Massachusetts chapter leader would state,
It [the closing of all chapters outside California] was a major mistake. I think that it was a major mistake. It was a national organization with viable structures in communities. I think people felt abandoned by that. There was great support for the Party in local chapters and branches. People had put themselves out to be part of that. To just close down clinics and close down breakfast programs. I mean the whole idea was to organize these things to the extent that things could be taken over. But there was a hole left.
A large contingent of Panthers from outside the Bay Area also shared Seale’s opinion. When the membership received the new directive from the Central Committee, many members refused to uproot their lives and move thousands of miles from home. These Panthers simply left the Party. The Panther leaders of the various state chapters expressed misgivings with the Central Committee’s directive to close their respective Party units. In addition to running community programs, they had members in jail and on trial for various charges who required legal assistance.
On the positive side, members were happy to finally get to know and work with all the Party members from around the country. This infusion of new energy reinvigorated many of the Bay Area community service programs. Members also benefited from the ideological and political training provided by the national leadership. On the negative side, some Panthers new to the Bay Area, were disappointed in the intellectual capacity and lack of preparation of various national leaders who-were teaching political education classes. Compounding this issue was the limited contact between most Party members and the Party’s main leader, Huey P. Newton. Party members wanted to interact more with Newton but were constantly told that he was busy writing.
After weeks of debate and individual lobbying of Central Committee members by Newton and Seale, the Committee decided to close all chapters temporarily and to dismantle them gradually over the course of the year (1972). Newton had won the day by accepting Seale’s recommendation of a staggered closing of chapters and arguing finally that Party members would eventually take their new campaign skills and governing experience (obviously anticipating victory) and return to their home cities and replicate the Oakland experience of gaining local power. In the end, Seale accepted this view and threw himself into organizing Oakland and running for mayor.
During 1972 and early 1973, Panthers converged on Oakland from all parts of the country. The BPP concentrated the majority of its resources on Seale’s mayoral bid and Elaine Brown’s campaign for a city council seat. Panthers registered voters, distributed campaign literature, and participated in campaign meetings and rallies throughout 1972–73. Even though both races were competitive, Seale and Brown lost their elections. The impact of the electoral defeat was devastating on the Party because its members had invested so much time and effort in the campaigns.
Shortly after the election, many Panthers resigned from the Party because of disappointment, exhaustion, and disillusionment. Their departure represented the second major excdus from the party. According to Seale, the Party had five hundred members at this point. The 1973 elections proved to be a critical mistake by the Party leadership. From that point on, the Party never recuperated its size, prestige, and effectiveness. The Party’s future efforts remained confined to the Oakland Bay area.
Newton would continue attempts to centralization of power and authority within the Panthers. Whereas Party leaders would discipline members for violations of Party rules in the early days (1966–71), in the subsequent years, Newton began to assault Party members and innocent bystanders on his own personal whim. These outbursts by Newton usually occurred in his penthouse apartment or in one of the Panther-owned or controlled establishments, Two such reported outbursts occurred in August 1974. In the first event, Newton allegedly stepped out of his car on a Monday evening, a little before midnight, and shot Kathleen Smith in the jaw for calling him “baby.” Kathleen Smith, a prostitute, had been working on the Oakland streets that evening with her friend Crystal Gray. The gunshot damaged Smith’s spine and sent her into a coma. She died three months later. Gray was an eyewitness and identified Newton as the murderer.·Less than two weeks later, Newton pistol-whipped Preston Callins in Newton’s apartment, Callins was a tailor that had offered to make Newton some dress suits at a discount price. During their conversation, Callins innocently and unknowingly of the first incide referred to Newton as “baby” and Newton became enraged. He smashed a gun into the back of Callins’ head and continued to brutalize him until Callins finally struck Newton back and attempted to leave the aparbnent. Bleeding profusely, Callins stumbled out of Newton’s apartment only to be caught and forcéd back into the apartment where he was repeatedly tortured. Newton’s behavior was partially the result of a serious alcohol and drug abuse problem. After his release from prison in 1970, Newton’s celebrity status brought him a regular flow of alcohol, drugs, and other substances that he consumed recklessly.
But Newton BPP abuses during this phase were of a more organizational nature. In 1972, the Central Committee created the Party’s security corps. Its original purpose was to provide security for Panther leaders, especially the Party’s candidates for public office. In addition, Newton believed that to consolidate political power in the city of Oakland, the Party would have to gain complete control of both legal and illegal affairs. This meant regulation of the city’s vices or underworld activities. Newton reasoned that Oakland’s criminal class would only understand violence. So, the Party’s security cadre protected the Party’s leaders while trying to force Oakland’s criminal groups to pay the Party money for the right to continue their activities. During 1973–74 only Newton was aware of the full extent of the Party’s growing activities and multiple organizational units, which included political and extra-political wings of the Party. Even Bobby Seale, co-founder of the BPP, did not know the extent of Newton’s substance abuse, extortion of local crime organizations, misappropriation of Party funds, and violence against fellow Party comrades and members of the community. The BPP’ s decline accelerated in 1974 with the departure of several key Panther leaders. Bobby Seale resigned July 31, 1974, after a major argument with Newton and other Panthers left the Party shortly after Seale’s resignation.
Newton would go in to exile in Cuba in August 1974. Newton fled to avoid a series of felony counts related to the Kathleen Smith murder and the assault of Preston Callins. Newton would returned to the United States three years later to face these charges on which he was later acquitted After Callins changed his testimony several times and eventually told the jury that he did not know who assaulted him and Crystal Gray, she declined to testify against Newton after an apparent assassination attempt. In Newton’s absence, Elaine Brown became the Party’s-leader and managed to recuperate some of the Party’s respectability. Brown appointed more women to leadership positions in the Party. Ericka Huggins guided the community school, and Black women such as Phyllis Jackson, Joan Kelley, and Norma Armour handled financial and administrative tasks. At this time, the Party, with less than two hundred members, returned to its roots as a local Oakland organization. Brown also successfully secured government and private financial support for several Panther programs.
In 1975, Elaine Brown ran for Oakland City Council and finished second. However, her campaign was seriously hampered by drug charges and accusations that she was involved in the murder of Betty Van Patter, a White woman who had been hired to put the Panthers financial records in order. During her leadership, the BPP played a key role in the election of the first Black mayor of Oakland, Judge Lionel Wilson, in 1977. At the same time, Brown continued the Black Panthers violent underground operations and tended to rely on corporal punishment to maintain her authority over Party members.
In August 1977, Newton returned to the U.S. and In response Elaine Brown, resigned from the Party. She also claimed to have been beaten by Newton. Following Newton’s return, the security cadre increased its involvement in criminal activities. Under Newton’s guidance, the Party began lose all legitimacy. In October 23, 1977, the security cadre contributed greatly to discrediting the Party’s remaining image when a botched assassination attempt of Crystal Gray (the eyewitness to the murder of Kathleen Smith) resulted in the death of Panther Louis Johnson and the wounding of another. There were revelations of gross financial mismanagement of private and government grants. The Party discontinued several community programs beginning in the late 1970s. By 1980, Panther membership had dwindled to 27 and The last issue of The Black Panther newspaper was published, the Oakland Community School closed in 1982 because of a lack of funding amid a sandal over Newton embezzling funds. This would mark a formal end of the Black Panther Party and they would officially dissolve in 1982, Huey Newton was shot to death in Oakland in the summer of 1989 in a drug-related incident.
Its members confronted politicians, challenged the police, and protected black citizens from brutality. The party’s community service programs - called “survival programs” - provided food, clothing, and transportation. Rather than integrating American society, members wanted to change it fundamentally. For them, black power was a global revolution.
The BPP emerged at a time of great political activity and excitement at the possibility of radical social change in the U.S. In their work, the Panthers contributed significantly to making America a more democratic, egalitarian, and humane society. Party members led the movement to end police brutality and create civilian police- review boards. The BPP’s free breakfast programs became a catalyst for today’s free meals to poor school children. More than most progressive political groups, the Party highlighted, con- I nected, and protested U.S. oppression abroad and U.S. injustice at home. The revolution was not achieved, but important reforms were.
The rise of the Party was rapid and dramatic; its fall, slow and embarrassing. The BPP’s experience provides a guide for a new generation of Black activists. Members of the Black Panther Party were committed activists who read and studied a wide body of revolutionary literature in order to understand and improve the plight of their people. They applied the teachings of European, Asian, African, and Latin American revolutionaries to the African American condition: Party theoreticians also drew on the revolutionary writings of the founding fathers of the United States, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Perhaps their most important influence was Malcolm X. Black Panthers sought Black power and liberation “by any means necessary.” Their genius was to transform their radical analyses into practical programs affecting the daily lives of the masses of Black people. However, like many revolutionaries, the Panthers were young and impatient, and they made mistakes. The confluence of three internal factors (intra-party conflict, strategic organizational errors, and a rise in party authoritarianism) contributed directly to the demise of the BPP. As a result of these forces, the Party dismantled its national organizational apparatus, concentrated its remaining resources in one geographic area, and lodged organizational authority in a single person.
Elite theory asserts that leaders usually have more power and influence in organizations than the rank-and-file membership. Nonetheless, the membership has the responsibility of holding top leaders accountable to an organization’s principles. The BPP’s decline might have been averted if an effective system of intra-party democracy and financial accounting had been instituted. Black America has frequently suffered because “Great Men” have gained too much power within leading organizations and groups. Government repression, intra-organizational conflict, and strategic mistakes are likely to occur in radical social movements. These factors become increasingly detrimental for an organization when combined with an unwarranted concentration of power in one or a few leaders. Such a combination of forces eventually undermined the Black Panther Party.
The influence of the Black Panther Party's campaign for civil rights continues to resonate with current social movements including Black Lives Matter.