Black Panther Party

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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No group better dramatized the anger that fueled the 1960s BLACK POWER MOVEMENT than the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). For five tumultuous years, the Panthers brought a fierce cry for justice and equality to the streets of the largest U.S. cities. Its members flashed across TV screens in black berets and leather coats, shotguns and law books in hand, confronting the police or storming the California Legislature. Political demands issued from the party's newspaper; loudspeakers boomed at rallies for jailed Panther leaders. Behind the scenes, the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) spent millions of dollars in a secret counterintelligence program aimed at destroying the group. By the time a 1976 congressional report revealed the extent of the FBI's efforts, it was too late. Shoot-outs with police officers, conflicts with other groups, murder, prison sentences, and internal dissent had destroyed the Black Panthers. The details surrounding the 1969 shooting deaths of two party leaders by Chicago police remain unclear. The other party leaders split in 1972 and one of them, BOBBY SEALE, ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, losing in a runoff. By 1975, the last of the group, a splinter faction under ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, had disappeared.

Before the advent of the Panthers, the mid-1960s saw gradual progress in the struggle for CIVIL RIGHTS. This progress was too slow for many African Americans. Traditional civil rights groups such as Martin Luther King Jr's SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE (SCLC) were focusing their efforts on ending SEGREGATION in the South, but conditions in urban areas were reaching a boiling point. Younger activists increasingly turned away from these older groups and toward leaders such as STOKELY CARMICHAEL, whose STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC) demanded not merely INTEGRATION but economic and social liberation for African Americans. Black power was Carmichael's message, and in Mississippi, he had organized an all-black political party that took as its symbol a snarling black panther. The ethos of black power spread quickly to urban areas in the North, East, and West, where integration alone had not soothed the problems of racism, poverty, and violence.

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Police violence against African Americans was a common complaint in impoverished Oakland, California. By 1966, two young men had had enough. One was HUEY P. NEWTON, age 23, a first-year law student. With his friend Bobby Seale, age 30, Newton founded the BPP, with the intent of monitoring police officers when they made arrests. This bold tactic?already being employed in Minneapolis by the nascent AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT (AIM)?was entirely legal. Also legal under California state law was the practice of carrying a loaded weapon, as long as it was visible. But legal or not, the sight of Newton and Seale bearing shotguns as they rushed to the scene of an arrest had enormous shock value. To police officers and citizens alike, this represented a huge change from the previously nonviolent demonstrations of civil rights activists. Although they did not use the guns and maintained the legally required eight to ten feet from officers, the Panthers inspired fear. They also quickly won respect from neighbors who saw them as standing up to the predominantly white police force. The law books they carried?and from which they read criminal suspects their rights?appeared to many in the community to give the Panthers a kind of legitimacy.

Attracting new members through their high visibility, the Panthers sprang to national attention in 1967. Antagonism toward the party by law enforcement officials had prompted California lawmakers to consider GUN CONTROL. In May 1967, legislators met in Sacramento, the state capital, to discuss a bill that would criminalize the carrying of loaded weapons within city limits. To Seale and Newton, chairman and minister of defense of the BPP, respectively, the proposed law was unjust. Governor RONALD REAGAN was on the lawn of the state legislature as 30 armed Black Panthers arrived and entered

On May 2, 1967, armed members of the Black Panther Party enter the California state capital to protest a bill restricting the carrying of arms in public.


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