The Black Panther Party For Self Defense (BPP) was part of the Black Power movement of the ’60’s. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to wane, the Panthers stood as a radical and vocal response to the growing concerns of Black America.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Party on October 15, 1966 in Oakland, Calif. Former Merritt College students Newton and Seale were involved in several Black civil rights organizations in the early ’60’s before launching the Panthers.
The ideals of the BPP were simple; a blend of socialism, Marxism and Black self-determination were its hallmarks. Their motto was “All Power To The People.” Most striking and controversial was the BPP’s monitoring of police activity coupled with armed protection of Black communities.
Newton felt the Black Power movement didn’t do enough to hold authorities accountable, especially after the police shooting death of unarmed man Matthew Johnson. Newton studied California gun laws and Robert F. William’s Negroes With Guns book to defend his call for armed patrols.
Without the cellphones and social media available today, member of the BPP monitored the police by observing their interactions with the community. California was then an open carry state and the Panthers could legally carry weapons.
In October 1967, Newton was charged with killing Oakland police officer John Frey. At the time there were fewer than 100 members but that would change as nationwide protests to “Free Huey” took hold. Li’l Bobby Hutton, just 16 when he joined, was the first BPP recruit. Hutton was shot and killed by police in April 1968. He was just 17 years old and his murder was another rallying moment for the BPP, setting off a series of gun battles between the BPP and police in Los Angeles. Newton would continue to run the party from behind bars until his release in 1970.
In 1969, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to the Bay Area to speak at a Black Power conference. Carmichael was working alongside the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) of Alabama, which used a Black panther as its logo. Newton and Seale borrowed the logo for their organization, thus expanding its scope. The BPP uniform was typically Black pants, Black leather jackets and Black berets. Aside from the patrols, the BPP also organized health clinics, shelters, food programs, self-defense classes, legal education and much more.
In 1970, the BPP was at its peak membership and had already begun attracting nervous attention from the likes of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his COINTELPRO force. The BPP was aware of Hoover’s attempts to infiltrate and disband the party, but the strategy ultimately proved somewhat successful. The Black Panther Party was largely dismantled by COINTELPRO and internal dysfunction by the end of the ’70’s.
Later, the New Black Panther Party would surface with a radically different agenda than of the past. The original Panthers were about self-defense, not violence, and welcomed all races into the organization. The nationalist New Black Panther Party has been officially labeled a hate group.
Newton, who struggled with drugs and finances after the BPP’s heyday, was fatally shot in August 1989 in West Oakland after leaving a crack house. Seale, the author of Seize The Time, the story of the Panther’s creation, remains a community activist and educator.