America's most notorious party finally gets a terrible historical summarization
(First six members of the Black Panthers. Top left to right: Elbert Howard, Huey Newton, Sherwin Forte, and Bobby Seale. Bottom: Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton)
They're probably one of the most controversial party in American history. The time they existed was one fraught with turbulence, fear, and change. They've been called many names: Terror group, Hate group, Crime syndicate. They've even been called the black KKK which is odd because last time I checked the Black Panthers never harassed white people and white neighborhood with violence and torches. Simply put the slander against this organization is enormous. It's received such slack because it attempted the impossible, it attempted revolutionary change for the better of Americans. Now of course the party is not free from criticisms, mistakes and bad decisions were made on numerous occasions. However it is a party with a lot of reverence and power behind it. It must be diagnosed and understood if we are to learn from both its mistakes and accomplishments. It should also be better understood in order to properly respect the memories of dead and currently imprisoned revolutionaries.
Part 1: Turbulent Times
Quickly ignoring that atrociously clichéd title, the times of the 60s and 70s were definitely a dangerous time. In the midst of a disastrous war and a growing peace movement the government also had to contend with a growing counter culture. Essentially people saw that there was glaring inequality in the system they lived in and decided that perhaps something should be done in order to fix these problems. Crazy right? But these movements were growing and causing a lot of turbulence for the establishment. Specifically the Civil Rights movement. Starting in the mid 50s it sought to end segregation and promote better freedom and equality to African Americans. It was immediately met with violence and hatred by both the American Government and the population. Killings, lynching, and riots were pervasive during this time along with ever increasing police brutality. Leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated spurring on more discontent and anger. The stage was certainly set with a lot of violence, oppression, and turbulence and this would be the stage upon which a young Merritt college student from Oakland would walk on.
Part 2: Enter Huey Newton
Huey P. Newton was born in Monroe Louisiana in 1942. He was the son of Amelia and Walter Newton. Walter Newton was a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher. The Newtons moved to Oakland California in 1945 as part of the Second Great Migration of African Americans from the south and into northern and western parts of the country. His family was quite poor and moved around frequently in the Bay area of San Francisco. He was arrested numerous times for gun possession and vandalism. He would note in his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide how school never engaged him and in fact he felt as if school had taken away all the enjoyment and wonder of learning. He said that he was never taught anything that involved him and his unique experience and that growing up he was “made to feel ashamed at being black”. He eventually graduated high school in 1959 and some how did this while also not being able to read. He however self taught himself to read and the first book he ever read was The Republic by Plato. He attended Merritt College and pursued an Associates of Arts degree. He continued reading more and more. Various political figures such as Karl Marx , Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. All of the political reading began to make him question his world and the society he lived in. At college he joined the African American Association and then met Bobby Seale.
Part 3: Genesis of the Vanguard
Both Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were part of the aforementioned African American Association but both felt that the organization was doing very little to help the people. They had developed a more revolutionary philosophy and while working at a anti-poverty community center they also formed a revolutionary approach to community service. Huey Newton was mainly dissatisfied with how these organizations failed to address police brutality and the economic inequality of African Americans. The solution for Huey Newton was rather simple if the police are going to patrol black neighborhoods then Huey Newton would patrol the police. They started off rather small. They bought Mao’s Little Red Book in bulk and sold copies back to other leftists radicals at a higher price. Using the money acquired they would buy guns and then patrol with the guns. At this exact same time the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was doing arms organizing and used the symbol of a Black Panther. Huey Newton decided to adopt this as their symbol and named his group the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Their first recruit was sixteen year old Bobby Hutton. This formation set out the basic principles of the organization: community self defense, community service, and community patrolling.
Part 4: Notorious beginnings
The party began to patrol the police around all parts of Oakland while armed with guns. The panthers were clever and unlike police officers studied the law so as not to break it and often actively cited the law to police officers when it was violated. By doing this they had gained a small following of supporters. They're numbers started to rise when in 1967 they provided armed escort for Betty Shabazz the widow of Malcolm X who was a speaker at a conference held in his honor. Although the party had a strict self defense policy the image of young African Americans armed and defending their community wasn't well received by the police or the media. But nonetheless the party was growing.
The party gained even more notoriety when in April of 1967 Denzil Dowell was shot dead by the police in North Richmond California. The family of Dowell called the Black Panthers when county officials refused to investigate. The Black Panthers held rallies and educated the people of their ideals and beliefs. It resonated with the community and the party gained even more supporters.
However this next event would be the most notorious of notorious events in not only Black Panther history but in California history. The power of the Black Panther and their reputation began to spread in California. It frightened the state so much that the California State Assembly Committee on Criminal Procedure schedule to meet in May to discuss the Mulford Act which would make open carrying of public firearms illegal. The Panthers of course protested this and on May 2nd in Sacramento 25 armed Black Panthers protested the capital and some even stormed the assembly itself. However Bobby Seale and 5 other Panthers were arrested and pled guilty to disrupting a legislative session. But now they were widely known. The Panthers had gone from an Oakland centralized California militia to a country wide know Black Power defense group. However the Mulford Act passed anyway. The act passed without any protest from the NRA, which is surprising. You think the NRA a group dedicated to “patriots” and who always want gun rights in order to defend the people from a tyrannical government would go out in force against the Mulford Act. I wonder what made the Black Panthers different, I wonder what Segregated the Black Panthers in some way that made the NRA not want to support them. Even more surprising was that the then Governor of California Ronald Reagan was also in favor of the Act. I also wonder what made such a noted defender of the constitution and rights and human welfare, support such an action. I truly do wonder what made freedom man do such an act, maybe it has something in common with the NRA. But we'll never know. The Panthers were on the prowl gaining members and gaining fame, but such fame would also attract unwanted followers.
Part 5: Early Lessons
This start is probably the most important lesson for leftists. Start out small and start local. For all those worried about organizing and trying to make change its good to start small and with some friends. All it takes is just a group of friends to really start a change and to be known within the community. It is also good to have achievable goals. The Black Panthers didn't start out with a mass assault on the government. They identified problems within the community and planned to solve them while in the system. This is the greatest lesson from the Black Panthers to fellow leftists. If leftists are to grow as an organization they must pace themselves with problems they can solve at a grassroots level that will improve the community as it exists not as it will exist.