Beyond Radical Chic: The Black Panther Party

Founded in Oakland, California more than half a century ago, the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary image and legacy remain as political and racially divisive as ever. 

Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale addresses a crowd from the podium flanked by bodyguards, Chicago, 1971.More than 50 years on from their founding – and 35 years since they effectively ceased to exist – the Black Panthers still polarise opinion in the United States. When Beyoncé performed during the 2016 Super Bowl half time show, watched by an estimated TV audience of 112 million, she draped herself and her back-up dancers in the symbols of the Black Panther Party. Lined up on the outfield during her song ‘Formation’, Beyoncé’s troupe of 24 female dancers – all sporting natural afro hairstyles under black berets and wearing black leather jackets – shot their clenched fists into the air as one. Taking place in Oakland, the city where the Panthers had formed almost five decades earlier, Beyoncé’s intention was clear, the symbolism unmistakable and the reaction intense. These were Black Panther women for the 21st century, giving ‘Black Power’ salutes to the hundreds of millions watching at home and around the world.

Divided nation

Beyoncé’s performance catapulted the Black Power group out of the 1960s and on to the centre stage of modern America. Reaction to the singer’s Black Panthers reference was immediate and racially and politically divided. As thousands of African Americans took to social media to praise Beyoncé, they were opposed by white conservatives who vented their fury over the artist’s celebration of the 1960s’ radicals. Why would an organisation that formed half a century ago, lasted for less than 15 years and counted (at best) no more than 10,000 party members nationwide, still inspire and infuriate so intensely? The answer lies less in the events of the past than it does in the politics of historical memory.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in October 1966 with the purpose of ending racist and violent police practices in their community. The Panthers saw the urban black ghetto as a kind of internal colony within the United States and police brutality as an extension of imperialist violence. The Oakland Police Department was the white coloniser’s armed force sent to keep local blacks, literally and metaphorically, ‘in their place’. The Panthers were a paramilitary liberation force that aimed to protect people from that oppression. Arming themselves with shotguns, they began conducting regular patrols, observing and recording police conduct in their neighbourhood.

Black Panthers storm the California State Capitol, Sacramento, 2 May 1967.

Oakland’s white power structure did not take kindly to the Panthers’ activities. In Sacramento, on 2 May 1967, a shocked crowd of politicians, reporters and police officers watched in disbelief as a group of 30 Black Panthers assembled in front of the California state legislature. Brandishing their shotguns defiantly, they flanked group chairman Bobby Seale as he prepared to read out ‘Executive Mandate Number 1’. Inside the capitol building, lawmakers were debating a bill, proposed by Don Mulford, a white Republican senator for Oakland, which threatened to make the Panthers’ police patrols illegal by removing the right of private citizens in California to openly carry loaded weapons. This clear attempt to undermine African Americans’ second amendment rights was a step too far for the Panthers. Seale began to speak, shattering the stunned silence outside. He told the bewildered onlookers that Senator Mulford’s so-called ‘Panther Bill’ ‘aimed to keep black people disarmed and powerless while racist agencies throughout the country intensify the terror, brutality, murder and repression’ of African Americans. Black people, he insisted, had ‘to arm themselves against this terror’ before it brought ‘their total destruction’.

Defining the message

From their earliest days, the Black Panthers courted publicity. Indeed, their trip to the state assembly was a publicity stunt. Although the sensationalist white media coverage they attracted ultimately harmed the group, their initial exposure launched them onto the national stage, just as they hoped it would. With the desperate and oppressive conditions of the Oakland ghetto replicated in black urban communities nationwide, the party spread rapidly. From mid-1967 onwards, Black Panther chapters sprang up in dozens of cities across the US. The party’s newspaper, the Black Panther, helped define and promote the group’s message. Its pages decried the oppression and exploitation of blacks at home and the iniquitous march of American imperialism abroad. Through the artwork of Emory Douglas, the party’s minister of culture, the Black Panther also gave radical black protest a distinctive new look in the 1960s. The Panthers’ rhetoric and style resonated not only among African Americans but with other minority liberation movements, too, (the Puerto Rican and Latino liberationist groups the Young Lords and Brown Berets both modelled themselves on the Black Panthers). Beamed across the globe by the media revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panthers had a world stage. They found powerful supporters in communist dictators, such as Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro, and inspired imitators in countries as far afield as Israel, New Zealand, India and the UK. In short order, the Black Panthers transformed from a group of Oakland locals into a national organisation and celebrated symbols of a global anticolonial struggle against white supremacy.

The Panthers’ meteoric rise was never short on controversy. In late 1968 the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labelled the group ‘the greatest internal threat to the security of the United States’. He may not have been wrong. In October 1967 Huey Newton was arrested and charged with the murder of a white Oakland police officer, John Frey. Soon after, Eldridge Cleaver, the group’s minister of information, evaded capture by the authorities on parole violation charges and fled, via Cuba, to Algiers, where he stayed with the FLN, the country’s anticolonial revolutionaries. In 1970 the group was implicated in a botched kidnapping attempt to secure the release of the ‘Soledad Brothers’ (three Black Panther Party members serving time in Soledad prison in California), which resulted in several deaths, including that of a white local court judge. By the early 1970s most of the party’s national leaders were either in prison, awaiting trial or on the run.

Eldridge Cleaver  at a student rally in Washington DC, 1968.

For some Americans, the Panthers’ growing reputation at home and abroad as fearless racial agitators and anti-establishment renegades made them a cause célèbre. Their escapades won them the admiration of many on the predominantly white New Left and the support of prominent celebrities and intellectuals, such as the actor Marlon Brando and the French novelist, political activist and former petty thief Jean Genet. Notoriously, the Black Panthers were celebrated at lavish parties thrown by privileged white radicals and wealthy socialites with a taste for what the author Tom Wolfe termed ‘radical chic’. The majority of Americans, however – especially white middle- and working-class Americans – saw no reason whatsoever to celebrate the Panthers. In their eyes the group was a clear threat to law and order: a dangerous band of gun-wielding macho revolutionaries who sided with America’s Cold War enemies and who seemed to hate the US and everything it stood for. This view of the Panthers dominates mainstream popular memory today.

The Panthers’ history is, however, more complex than their reputation suggests. The acts of criminality and violence resulted in the group’s devastating, state-sponsored repression. From mid-1968 through to the early 1970s, the Panthers were targets of counterintelligence operations – endorsed by President Richard Nixon and orchestrated by Hoover’s FBI – that aimed ultimately at destroying the group. Known as COINTELPRO, this campaign led to the deaths of dozens of party members at the hands of police and FBI officers. Although the Panthers were critical of white America, the party was not fundamentally anti-white. The Black Panther Party often worked with white New Left organisations and advocated cooperation with anyone who shared its broader values and political goals.

The party evolved significantly over time. What started in 1966 as an avowedly Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group was, by late 1972, engaging in formal politics and running candidates for office in Oakland. In 1977 the party worked to elect Oakland’s first black mayor – the centrist Democrat Lionel Wilson – to office. And what began as an all-male organisation with a macho, sexist and homophobic culture, slowly became more progressive. In August 1970, it formally endorsed the women’s and gay liberation movements. In the following years, women – most notably Elaine Brown and Kathleen Cleaver – became prominent figures in the national party leadership. At the same time, rank and file Panther women, whose vital work often sustained local chapters on a day-to-day basis, gradually experienced greater equality and less discrimination within the party.

Community work

Away from the glare of media publicity, there was more to the Panthers than their gun-toting paramilitary style, overblown rhetoric and clashes with police. Over the last decade and a half, some historians have attempted to rehabilitate – even celebrate – the Black Panthers’ reputation. Their work views them as one of the most remarkable radical grassroots community organising groups in US history, whose legacy, it is claimed, is more positive than its popular image allows. Combating police brutality was only one part of a much broader political programme, which aimed at transforming a black urban experience marked by poverty, poor housing conditions, substandard education and political powerlessness. The Panthers’ ‘community survival programmes’, which included, among other things, a free breakfast programme for children, a free legal aid programme and free medical clinics, helped many ease the burdens of everyday life in the urban ghetto. Just as important, the Panthers’ vision for a different kind of America for people of colour and for the poor gave hope and strength to hundreds of thousands of people in the US and across the world.

Kathleen Cleaver signs autographs during a ‘Free Huey’ rally, April 1972.

So why do so many Americans today still see the Black Panthers as villains of America’s past? Why are they still associated far more with guns, crime and violence than with their community programmes and activism? In part, the negative image endures because the Panthers are central to the dominant, ‘master’ narrative of America’s recent racial past. This narrative is taught in America’s classrooms, reinforced through its media and is inscribed in the landscapes of collective memory and public history. It focuses almost exclusively on events in the South between 1954 and 1965 and venerates a progressive chain of now familiar moments: the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs Board of Education, Rosa Parks’ arrest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, Martin Luther King’s nonviolent campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, the March on Washington, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These moments of US history are woven into a story of racial enlightenment: a soothing morality tale in which King’s noble civil rights movement opened white America’s eyes to racial injustice. Their conscience stirred, the white public and its political leaders atoned for their sins by eradicating the stain of racial discrimination from the nation’s law books. Emerging from mid-1966, an ungrateful and dangerous Black Power movement – with the Black Panther Party at its helm – is presented as an abrupt full stop to a decade of racial progress and cast as nothing short of a betrayal of King’s civil rights movement and of the northern white public and political establishment that helped make that progress possible.

Kings and saints

This vision of America’s racial past has been cultivated because it serves powerful political agendas. Since the 1970s, proponents of so-called ‘colourblind’ conservativism have harnessed and finessed the master narrative of the civil rights/Black Power era. In the process, they have claimed Martin Luther King as one of their own. King’s elevation to national sainthood during the 1980s and 1990s was freighted with political purpose. (It is no coincidence that it was the conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan who made 15 January a federal holiday: Martin Luther King Jr Day.) The King America now celebrates is a sanitised version of the man, often reduced to a mere soundbite: frozen in time at the 1963 March on Washington, yearning for a country in which people would be ‘judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’. King’s hope for a colourblind future is understood as his (and by extension the civil rights movement’s) main objective – one apparently achieved thanks to the landmark legislation of the mid-1960s. This popular understanding of King – which is central to the celebratory narrative of civil rights history – has no space for the radical King of later years, who argued that, despite the movement’s legislative victories, the ‘interrelated flaws’ of ‘racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism’ all remained rooted deeply in an American society in desperate need of ‘radical reconstruction’.

A problem for the past

Colourblind conservatives argue that civil and voting rights legislation in the mid-1960s consigned race and racial discrimination to the nation’s past. From then on, they argue, America became a ‘post-racial’ society, free and fair for all, in which African Americans competed on an equal basis with everyone else: in short, that the nation’s lawmakers had made King’s dream of a colourblind future a reality. This argument has been used to support efforts to reverse black gains and scale back the welfare state in the decades since. Outspoken commentators on the right, such as William J. Bennett, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have argued that conservative Republicans’ long-standing opposition to race-conscious public policies, such as affirmative action, bussing and minority contract set-asides, makes them the true protectors of Martin Luther King’s colourblind dream and the civil rights movement’s legacy. Prominent conservative scholars, such as Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza, have insisted that the deepening of racial inequality and the mass incarceration of African Americans since the 1970s cannot be blamed on institutional racism, because in a ‘post-racial’ American society no such thing exists. Instead, African Americans’ problems are the result of black cultural failings exacerbated by the social welfare policies that many on the American Right have long opposed. Some conservatives, then, have appropriated the history and language of the civil rights movement and the image of its most potent symbol, Martin Luther King, to support policies that have resulted in welfare cuts, the incarceration of millions of African Americans and the substantial widening of racial and wealth inequality since the 1980s.

This narrative has been challenged. Over the last two decades academics have tried to reshape the history of the civil rights and Black Power era, countering the notion that America left race behind in the 1960s. Scholars such as Robin Kelley, Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Blair Kelley and Glenda Gilmore have helped produce a history of the African American freedom struggle that begins long before the mid-1950s and stretches well into the late 1970s. Historians such as Thomas Sugrue and Heather Ann Thompson have attempted to show that racism was a problem that plagued every part of the Union, not just the South, the focus of traditional narratives. Rejecting the traditional top-down focus on prominent national leaders such as King, scholars in the mid-1990s, including Charles Payne, helped inspire a shift towards bottom-up history. This helped to illuminate the role played by ordinary African Americans – especially women – in political activism. Other historians, such as Tim Tyson and Peniel Joseph, have argued that the civil rights and Black Power movements did not directly oppose one another, but were connected and overlapping.

Bitter contest

If public debate in the US reveals anything it is that the history of race and racism in America remains bitterly contested. Many African Americans argue that little has changed over the last 50 years. The idea that the nation has made progress on race, they argue, is a false one. With the Panthers long gone, new activists have stepped forward to resist police violence and demand change. Black activism, provoked by the police shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 and his assailant’s acquittal of murder 16 months later, crystallised following the fatal shooting of another black teenager – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in August 2014, resulting in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. BLM’s critique of racial injustice in 21st-century America has revived the spirit of 1960s’ Black Power radicals. But, as BLM activists have become increasingly vocal, so, too, have their opponents. Some have chafed at the movement’s explicit racial focus, countering that ‘All Lives Matter’. Others insist that, above all, ‘Blue Lives Matter’– a pro-police slogan present at many of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign rallies.

Demonstrators mark the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri, 10 August 2015. (Scott Olson / Getty)
Demonstrators mark the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri, 10 August 2015. (Scott Olson / Getty)

The timing of the Black Panthers’ half-centenary, then, has been particularly poignant. As the controversy over Beyoncé’s show revealed, in the light of BLM’s emergence and the issues that dominate contemporary race relations, the Panthers’ identity and history have contemporary relevance. Critics strongly condemned Beyoncé’s homage to the group. The former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani criticised it as an ‘attack on police officers’. His fellow New York Republican, Congressman Pete King, agreed, calling it a ‘shameful’, ‘anti-police’ and pro-Black Lives Matter statement that repeated the ‘big lie of Michael Brown’s innocence’. ‘Cops deserve support’, he insisted, ‘not criminals.’

Challenging powerful, prevailing myths about America’s racial past and present requires difficult conversations between Americans of all backgrounds. Popularising the more balanced and complete view that historians have constructed in recent years of the Black Panthers and of the civil rights-Black Power era more broadly, will be a critical starting point. America’s future as a multiracial democracy may depend upon it.

Tom Adam Davies is Lecturer in American History in the Department of History & Centre for American Studies at Sussex University.

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