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Many organizations have made it their mission to expand the rights of Black Americans. The NAACP and the Urban League are examples of influential organizations with long histories. But a long history or extensive membership isn't always necessary to have an impact. Today, we'll learn about the Black Panthers. They were a relatively small, relatively short-lived political party that had an outsized impact on US history.

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Sources and References
Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’ Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, With the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 1992).
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking Press, 2011).
Ilyasah Shabazz, Growing up X: A Memoir by the Mother of Malcolm X (Penguin, 2003).
Robyn Spencer, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Duke University Press, 2016).

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Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

In the history of the fight for Black liberation there have been Black political organizations who have been around doing this work for decades. Organizations, for example, like the NAACP and the National Urban League, who were founded in the early 20th century and still exist today.

And these groups, which have been in existence for over a century, have helped bring about some incredibly important policy changes when it comes to the civil and political rights of Black Americans and have also served as a platform from which Black people could make their concerns known to the wider public.

But sometimes, an organization doesn’t have to have existed for a long time in order to have a huge impact on the history of this country. An example of that is the Black Panther Party.

Founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party reached its peak just four years later in 1970. The organization had an impact on US history and culture that far exceeded its relatively short lifespan and small membership. Let’s take a look to understand why.

(Intro music)

Let’s start with the Black Panther Party’s origin story in the Thought Bubble.

Originally known as the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” the organization started through the campus organizing of Seale and Newton. They met in Oakland California in 1961 while they were both students at Merritt College. In the tense atmosphere following the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Newton, Seale and other student activists organized the “Black History Fact Group.” The group was founded in part as a response to the university failing to acknowledge the role of African Americans in settling the American West in the 1800s. Among their goals was to urge the school to offer courses in Black history and to establish a Black Studies Department.

Newton and Seale also joined the college's Soul Students Advisory Council, whose stated goal was to “develop Black student leadership, advocate for a more inclusive curriculum and to connect the university to the community.” But disputes within the group would lead Newton and Seale to eventually resign. But their struggle to continue the work of radical Black political organizing didn’t end there.

Newton and Seale pivoted their goals. Rather than looking to join another political organization, they decided to form their own. Students of the teachings of Malcolm X, they founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (later known just as the Black Panther Party) in 1966 following the murder of unarmed teenager Matthew Johnson at the hands of San Francisco police.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. 

According to historian Robyn C. Spencer, Newton and Seale framed the tenets of their new organization around the belief that Black Americans were living in an internal colony within the larger “mother country” of the United States.

Borrowing from Black nationalist and post-colonial movements of the time, they posited that the relationship between the Black colony and the “mother country” was, according to Spencer “...one of pure exploitation of labor and resources.” Therefore they sought to liberate the Black colony through self-determination as part of their larger goal to “...transform America and eventually the rest of the world.” This aligned with their larger vision of correcting racial and class inequalities.

Seale and Newton were also interested in how Black liberation struggles worldwide were interconnected to the struggles of Black Americans. They were avid readers of Marxist theory and studied anti-colonial movements from around the world. They believed that guerilla warfare could be an effective strategy for social change and that small groups of armed people could lead that change. Their politics were also informed by struggles for self-determination around the world in places like Vietnam, Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia), South Africa and Mozambique.

After the Black Panthers were founded, Newton and Seale outlined the group’s agenda, philosophical views, and political objectives in their Ten-Point Program.

The Program’s objectives state: 
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities. 
2. We want full employment for our people 
3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities. 
4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings. 
5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society. 
6. We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people. 
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States. 
8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression. 
9. We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in US federal, state, county, city, military prisons and jails. We want trials by jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country. 
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology. 

After creating this ten point platform, they decided on a name, borrowing from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Lowndes County Alabama, a political group that used the image of the Black Panther in their materials and was led by activists including Stokely Carmichael and John Hulett.

In addition to their 10-point program, the Black Panthers were also actively engaged in their community through a number of social programs that looked to pool collective resources and support the Black community. This group of programs served as a rallying cry and human rights manifesto, aiming to correct centuries of harm inflicted on all oppressed people. The Black Panthers’ vision was at once practical, demanding things like healthcare and housing, while simultaneously being revolutionary in its scope.

Among their most popular programs were the establishment of free health clinics in 13 Black communities across the country and the implementation of free breakfast programs for school children in different parts of the US. The free breakfast program that was started by the Black Panthers became an inspiration for the breakfast programs that still exist in schools across the country today. The Black Panthers were also known for carrying unconcealed, loaded weapons and monitoring the activities of local police in Black neighborhoods.

As they continued to engage in political activism and social change, their popularity grew across the country, especially in urban centers with large minority communities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Philadelphia. Additional chapters were established in places like Chicago; Indianapolis; Detroit; Des Moines, Iowa; Paterson, New Jersey; and Wichita, Kansas. By 1968, approximately 2 years after the Panthers were founded, they had roughly 2,000 members across the country.

But the burgeoning political movement that sought to guarantee the rights and freedoms of Black people also attracted a fair amount of controversy, especially as it relates to their interactions with the US government and the police. For example, in October of 1967, Newton allegedly killed Oakland police officer John Frey. This followed a period of armed interactions with police officers since one of the principal tenets of the Black Panthers was the right to self defense in the face of white supremacist violence.

In May of 1967, Newton had sent more than 2 dozen armed Panthers to the California State Capitol in Sacramento to protest the passing of a law that would take away their right to openly bear arms. Ronald Reagan was governor of California at that time and vehemently opposed the Panthers, who he believed served as a threat to his “law-and-order” campaign. The resulting news coverage painted the Panthers as a militant group and the new leaders of the Black Power movement more broadly.

By the morning of October 28th 1967, Newton estimated that Oakland police had pulled him over more than 50 times since 1966. That morning, he was pulled over by police and within minutes Newton was on the ground with a bullet in his stomach, officer John Frey was fatally wounded, and another officer was injured. Newton was named as the shooter and handcuffed while still in the hospital.

During this period in 1967 while Newton awaited trial and Seale was serving a six month sentence as a result of the Black Panthers’ protest in Sacramento, a member named Eldridge Cleaver (who had joined the group in 1966) took over as the new leader of the Panthers. In 1967 he married fellow Black Panther member Kathleen Neal. Cleaver’s critically acclaimed 1968 memoir Soul on Ice, which told the story of his life and time in prison, sold over one million copies within two years.

Cleaver had studied the works of writers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Richard Wright, all while incarcerated. And this influenced his personal philosophies and political writings. However there was criticism of Soul on Ice for its depictions of violence and women. Specifically, Cleaver admits in the text to committing serial rape of women, beginning with Black women in poor communities “for practice” before beginning the serial rape of white women.

Cleaver’s admissions in Soul on Ice point to larger societal and systematic issues of patriarchy and sexism: namely the pervasive disregard of violence towards women. And these issues, which were present within the Black Panther Party, would serve as an ongoing challenge for the organization as a whole. Additionally, troubles with law enforcement continued to plague the Black Panthers.

First, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1968 and sentenced to 2-15 years in prison. However, on May 29th 1970, the California Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and the next few trials ended with deadlocked juries.

The Black Panthers he returned to, even after just a few years, had shifted dramatically in some ways from the organization that he founded with Seale. For example: there was now a growing group of white radicals who had joined the group’s ranks. And under the leadership of Cleaver and others, the rhetoric of self-defense had shifted to include an ideology that embraced revolutionary violence. 

Additionally the group faced inner turmoil. In 1969 Alex Rackley was murdered by other members of the Black Panthers who suspected that he was an informant. Seale and other Panthers faced charges in New Haven Connecticut for that alleged murder. 

But it wasn’t only internal issues plaguing the organization, external forces also impacted the group, like the assassination of Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the FBI and local police in Chicago in 1969.

See, by 1969 the FBI under its first director J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Panthers a communist organization and an enemy of the US government. In 1968, Hoover called the Panthers “One of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.” Because of this, the Panthers became the target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a secret counterintelligence program used to surveil politically progressive groups.

But the organization continued to function, with Elaine Brown serving as chairwoman of the Black Panther Party from 1974-1977. She was the only woman to hold this role and often faced sexism and discrimination for asserting herself and leading the party. Gender roles within the party were often quite restrictive, but women like Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Ericka Huggins held leadership positions within the organization including as editors of the party’s newspaper.

Still, COINTELPRO agents managed to infiltrate events and the personal lives of prominent members of the party. In the 1970s a Senate committee led by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, exposed the FBI and COINTELPRO. As the scholar Penial E. Joseph has described it, the FBI and COINTELPRO had a “...clandestine role in the dismantling of the Black Power, New Left, and antiwar movements” and revealed “...further evidence of the pitfalls of unchecked government power.” 

Under the weight of internal strife and external pressures and surveillance, the organization officially dissolved in 1982. The Black Panther Party helped to bring Black Power to national and international prominence and raised important questions about Black people’s right to fair treatment, equality, and self-defense. 

It’s not an organization that was perfect, and it shouldn’t be overly-romanticized in ways that ignore some of its institutional and interpersonal failings. At the same time it’s legacy shouldn’t be minimized or mischaracterized because of the multiple forms of state-sanctioned interference it experienced from American intelligence agencies. The Black Panther Party's contribution to the Black freedom struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and today was profound. And that means sitting with all of the complexities that come with it.

Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time. 

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