The Black Panthers: Black Radicalism and the New Left

By the mid-1960s, powerful elites in the United States were interpreting the social upheavals that disturbed the late-1950s and early-1960s Cold War consensus not as a moment of legitimate dissent and needed reform but as a threat to the American way of life (such as they saw it). For many politicians and pundits, the struggle for civil rights had become a problem of law and order, a deviation from the established pattern of social relations. The shift from a strategy of piecemeal legal challenges undermining segregation to mass protest and direct action demanding social equality had run into a politically ascendant new conservatism—“Middle America” or the “Silent Majority” in political clichés.

White backlash to black progress revealed as national sentiment the obstinacy of racial animosity that had long marked southern attitudes. Even progressive white liberal support for the goals of the civil rights movement flagged, as a majority of citizens reported to pollsters that the pace of civil rights was too quick and the scope of change too far-reaching. The refusal of American mainstream to embrace fundamental change in race relations pushed a segment of the African American community to the political far left. On the front pages of the newspapers and in evening television news broadcasts images of urban rebellions, prison riots, and the presence of National Guard troops replaced images of sit-ins and protest marches and soaring speeches.

No organization epitomized the radicalism associated with this period more than the Black Panther Party, a militant, predominantly African American organization demanding not only equality for black Americas, but calling for the abolition of capitalism.

The core idea amplifying the politics of the radical African American movement was “Black Power,” what civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. characterized as a predictable reaction of black youth to the reluctance of white power to make substantive concessions to the demands of the oppressed. The slogan was first used by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Willie Ricks (Mukasa Dada), leaders in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, as a conscious replacement for the nonviolent civil rights slogan “Freedom Now!” The black power slogan, represented by a clinched fist raised in defiance, was seared into public consciousness when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, standing upon the winners’ podium after receiving their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics, lowered their heads and raised the salute.

In this context, the Black Panthers emerged as the leading symbol of black resistance to the white establishment and capitalist oppression. With their Cuban-revolutionary inspired black berets, black leather jackets, black turtleneck or light blue dress shirts, sunglasses, and conspicuous visual presence, which typically involved open display of weapons, as well as law books in tow, the group provided a readily accessible identity to disaffected black youth in America’s inner-city urban communities.

The Panthers captured the imagination of not only the urban black masses who were dealing with police brutality and poverty on a chronic basis, but also white youth associated with the New Left. In particular, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) came to see the Black Power movement as the revolutionary vanguard of an era marked by rebellion against traditional authority. From the perspective of the white establishment, the Panthers represented the frightening possibility that black Americans, and by extension other disaffected groups, could organize urban communities to meet autonomous and self-determined ends, which proponents and opponents alike believed would undermine white control over property and political power globally.

The fact that the Panthers, in following insurgent movements in Africa and Asia, developed a distinct socialist worldview, and that this worldview was shared by predominantly white youth organizations such as the SDS, made the suppression of the Black Power movement necessary from the point of view of state elites. In turn, the intensification of state repression of the Black Panthers tracked the movement of the party from Black Nationalism through revolutionary nationalism into Marxist-Leninism. Maoism also played a significant role. Less than six months before Nixon made his official visit to China in 1972, Huey Newton visited China in late September 1971. “Everything I saw in China demonstrated that the People’s Republic is a free and liberated territory with a socialist government,” he said. “To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable.” As Chao Ren writes in “Concrete Analysis of Concrete Conditions,” “Huey Newton’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1971 further confirmed and consolidated his acceptance of Maoist revolutionary doctrines.” Ren writes that “Maoist thought, especially Maoist philosophy [became] a guiding principle of the struggles of the Black Panther Party, which empowered the Panthers to pursue freedom and liberation.”

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, along with David Hilliard and others, formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California in the fall of 1966, dropping the term “self-defense” from the name the following year, albeit not the concept from the overall philosophy. Newton and Seale met one another in Donald Warden’s Afro-American Association, but resigned due to it pro-capitalist orientation. Inspired by Malcolm X’s Black Nationalist philosophy, Newton and Seale took up a radical critique of the prevailing social order. Newton viewed himself as Malcolm’s heir and the Black Panther Party as a continuation of the legacy of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), founded in 1964, which pushed for exclusive black control over the community. The party adopted the black panther symbol that Carmichael and SNCC had used for the Loundes County Freedom party in 1966. In 1967, the party would draft Carmichael and name him Field Marshal to the party and, later, Prime Minister.

Huey Newton

Max Stanford (Muhammad Ahmad) of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), founded in Philadelphia in 1963, also impressed Newton and Seale. Allied with Malcolm X, RAM openly called for Marxist revolution. RAM had originated the slogan “by any means necessary,” famously espoused by Malcolm X. Intellectually, the Panthers were captivated by the ethno-Marxist work of Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 Wretched of the Earth concerned the struggle against colonial rule in Algeria. Fanon advocated violence not simply as legitimate action in the struggle for liberation but as a necessary step in overcoming the psychic complex of black inferiority, which was the result of centuries of demeaning white European colonization. Bobby Seale described the Black Panther Party as addressing itself to “the 400 year old crying demands” of African Americans who suffered at the hands of “the greedy, vicious capitalistic ruling class of America.” Following Malcolm X, the party called for a United Nations-supervised plebiscite, comprised of only black colonial subjects, to determine black national destiny. 

Early in its ideological development, the Panther critique of US capitalism did not represent a wholesale rejection of the normative framework of white-dominated society. Party demands appealed to the rights articulated in the country’s founding documents, as well as the legal and moral responsibility of white America to make whole the black community it had exploited and oppressed. The party cited the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution in asserting the rights to keep and bear arms and to face juries of their peers in criminal proceedings. The party’s 10-point program demanded changes in the criminal justice system, including the freeing of all black men from prison, exemption from military service, an end to policy brutality, full employment and other means to provide for an autonomous economic existence. The Panthers understood White America’s obligation in terms of reparations, citing the promise of “forty acres and two mules” as “restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people.” 

The party’s emphasis on collective self-defense most concretely expressed the Panthers’ conception of political sovereignty for the black community. Newton and Seale cited the principle of black self-defense espoused in the book Negroes with Guns by Robert Williams. Williams had been the president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and formed the Black Armed Guard in the late 1950s to defend the black community against the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. In promoting the use of violence in defense of the black community, Williams represented a significant departure from the reformist character of the traditional civil rights movement.

Robert and Mabel Williams

Adapting this principle to their situation of inner city life, where white supremacy was more immediately represented by law enforcement, the Black Panthers organized community members to monitor the actions of the police in black neighborhoods by making sure that the rules of due process were followed and aggressively intervening in cases of official misconduct. Panthers would show up at police actions in their neighborhoods carrying the California Penal Code and firearms. They provocatively referred to this strategy as “patrolling the pigs,” whom they characterized as military forces occupying the ghetto. 

The Panthers became the definitive image of the armed black revolutionary in the minds of Americans when thirty Panthers carrying rifles entered the state capitol in Sacramento in May of 1967 to oppose a bill, the Mulford Act, criminalizing unconcealed weapons.

Order, discipline, organization, and purpose soon made the party the most popular and most notorious of the black militant groups operating in the United States. The party established several dozen chapters in cities across the United States. In addition to suppressing policy brutality, they oversaw the creation and administration of community development projects which providing a variety of social services to the community, including free breakfast programs for school children, alternative education for children that public schools had labeled uneducable, forums to bring residents together around persistent social problems, and free health clinics. 

As the struggle advanced, the party changed its views on the question of Black Nationalism. Newton associated the phenomenon of ethnic nationalism—what he often derided as “pork chop nationalism”—with reactionary politics. Newton identified “two evils” in the struggle for freedom: capitalism and racism. At the same time, Newton continued to believe that the black community, because of its intimate experience with oppression, enjoyed a privileged understanding of the situation; he continued to believe that oppressed blacks constituted the revolutionary vanguard. Nonetheless, the Panthers expanded the concept of Black Power to include blacks and other oppressed groups.

The Panthers signaled the change in philosophy by forging an alliance with the predominantly white California-based Peace and Freedom party. This shift in party philosophy intensified a growing rift between the Panthers and Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, as Carmichael was adamant about pushing a strict all-black policy. In 1969, Carmichael would resign from the party in protest over the coalition.

The evolution of the Panthers towards a Marxist-Leninist/Maoist conception of struggle came in part from the intellectual development of the party cadre, but was also the product of confrontation with the state. Citing evidence that the US government was ignoring the constitution and pursuing what the party described as fascistic tactics in the campaign to suppress them, the Panthers were compelled to abandon their earlier appeal to the Bill of Rights. In a major speech in 1969, David Hilliard argued that the founders never meant for the rights articulated in the founding documents to apply to black people. White capitalists had constructed a slave oligarchy and they had designed the law to maintain that racist classist structure. Within a year of Hilliard’s speech, the Panthers were calling for a constitutional convention. By 1972, the party had removed all references to constitutional guarantees.

The Black Panther Party cultivated several important leaders. Former Malcolm X devotee and prison activist Eldridge Cleaver became the Panthers’ information minister soon after the formation of the party. Cleaver, a writer for Ramparts, a New Left journal, became one of the more important intellectuals of the group, which now coalesced in a political salon known as Black House in San Francisco. Cleaver’s wife, Kathleen, became the first women to assume a leadership role in the Party’s inner circle. Eldridge Cleaver’s role grew after the fall 1967 arrest of Newton on murder charges stemming from incident with Oakland police in which one officer was killed and another wounded (Newton’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment kicked off the iconic “Free Huey” movement). Cleaver was the voice of the party during its high profile feud with Carmichael and SNCC. Cleaver explained that the Panthers adhered to the principle of proletarian internationalism, which implied solidarity with all people struggling against capitalism. Marxist-Leninist principles had successfully liberated oppressed populations and avoided the fate of those motivated by ethnic nationalism, which had rapidly deteriorated into tyrannies. As a demonstration of interracial solidarity, Cleaver became the party’s candidate for President of the United States in the national election of 1968 for the Peace and Freedom Party. That same year, Oakland police wounded Cleaver and killed Panther Bobby Hutton in a gunfight. The Panthers wounded two officers. The state charged Cleaver with attempted murder. Cleaver fled to Cuba, for a while leading the party’s international wing.

Fred Hampton joined the party in 1968. On the strength of his intellect and remarkable organizing prowess, he rapidly rose through the ranks to become leader of the Chicago chapter. Success drew the attention of authorities who were particularly troubled by his efforts to organize a coalition between the party and Chicago’s street gangs. The FBI was concerned that this would swell the numbers of the national revolutionary movement. Hampton’s success in engineering a truce testified to the efficacy of the Panther’s class-based education. When the Panthers and SNCC split, Hampton took over the Illinois state party. Among his other accomplishments was a free breakfast program for schoolchildren. Hampton was set to become a member of the party’s central committee when, on December 4, 1969, he was assassinated, alongside fellow Panther Mark Clark, by Chicago police in an attack coordinated by the FBI and ordered by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan.

Fred Hampton

The criminalization of the Panthers began almost immediately after Newton and Seale formed the party. Initially, Panther interventions in police stops in Oakland caught law enforcement off guard. Over time, however, the police developed a strategy for countering party tactics. The first phase focused on harassment of party members. Officers would follow, detain, and arrest Panthers on a daily basis. The Panthers responded with a more aggressive and public posture. Joined by the federal government, police action moved from harassment to repression, expanding coordinated operations to others cities where the Panthers had established a presence. In 1969, the ACLU condemned what it described as serious civil liberties violations perpetrated by the police, documenting a pattern of punitive harassment and interference with the constitution right of Panther members to make political speeches and distribute political literature. Unable to prove a federal government conspiracy, the ACLU nonetheless accused federal officials for facilitating these actions.

Investigations later exposed a conspiracy, organized at the highest levels of the state bureaucracy, to destroy the Black Panther Party. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program, better known by its acronym COINTELPRO, was comprised of five large-scale programs aimed at neutralizing what the agency perceived as threats to the internal security of the United States. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and information made public during federal government oversight hearings conducted by United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, popularly known as the Church Committee, revealed a particular interest in what the FBI called “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups.” Several groups fell under this label, but the Black Panthers preoccupied COINTELPRO during the years between 1967 and 1971. Tactics of the FBI included disseminating misinformation, deploying agent provocateurs, assisting local police in conducting raids on Panther headquarters, and framing members of the Black Panther Party for unsolved crimes. COINTELPRO activities heighted Panther’s suspicions that those in other black power groups, and some in their own ranks, did not have the best interests of the movement at heart. This served to weaken party solidarity.

The party’s decline was almost as swift as its rise. Government repression proved effective in neutralizing the Black Panther Party as a mass-based revolutionary organization. Charles Carry, defense attorney for Huey Newton, claimed that in the two-year period between 1967 and 1969 twenty-eight Panthers were killed, hundreds arrested, and dozens had spent time in jails and prisons. There were other forces pressing against the party, as well. Many of the issues that fueled the protest movements of the 1960s were dissipating. The Nixon administration was extracting the United States from its aggressive war in Southeast Asia. The Great Society programs were ameliorating the worst conditions of the inner city. Civil rights legislation and policies, such as Affirmative Action, promised upward mobility for members of the black community. 

The party continued in the 1970s, but with declining numbers. Criticizing Cleaver for instilling in the movement premature revolutionary urgency, Newton reorganized the party to focus on the immediate and practical problems of ghetto life. Newton tempered his anticapitalist rhetoric, as well, promoting black business leaders who worked with the community to improve the conditions of the people. From 1974-1977, while Newton was in a fugitive in Cuba, the party was led by Elaine Brown, who increased the role of women in the party and forged relationships with influential figures in Oakland’s political establishment. Newton returned and reassumed leadership, but the party went into sharp decline due to infighting and Newton’s increasingly self-destructive behavior. The party was effectively defunct by the 1980s. One consequence of the demise of the Black Panther Party was the shattering of the truce the Panthers had negotiated among street gangs. With inner city conditions rapidly deteriorating amid the mounting crisis of late capitalism, gang violence escalated over the next two decades.

In 1989, a member of the Black Guerilla Family shot and killed Newton. Eldridge Cleaver underwent an ideological transformation in the 1980s, becoming a conservative Republican and running for various political offices. He died in 1998. Bobby Seale continues his work as a community activist, leading the youth education program R.E.A.C.H. Elaine Brown is involved in numerous progressive causes, more notably prison reform. David Hilliard is active as a lecturer raising awareness of the situation in the black community. Kathleen Cleaver is currently a senior lecturer at Yale University. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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