The Lesson of the Black Panthers

Original six members of the Black Panther Party (November, 1966) Top left to right: Elbert "Big Man" Howard; Huey P. Newton (Defense Minister), Sherman Forte, Bobby Seale (Chairman). Bottom: Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton (Treasurer) -Wikipedia

The New Black Panther Party has gotten a lot of attention from Fox News. In both 2008 and 2010, Fox ran video clips of black men in berets and sunglasses milling about outside polling stations in a supposed attempt to scare away white voters. It is part of Fox’s not-so-subtle campaign to associate the Obama era with out-of-control, overly-assertive black people. Considering that more than 1/4 of black Americans remain in poverty, and that the most popular black man of 2011 aside from the president was the Koch-shill Herman Cain, it seems that the good white people at Fox have little to worry about. As always, reality is less of a concern to the mainstream media than imagery. While the image of the Panthers might inspire fear in some, this New Black Panther Party is nothing like the old. The old Black Panthers gave some whites a lot to fear not because they were militant, but because they represented an alternative to organizing the inner cities.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started in Oakland in 1966, at a time when “Black Power” was influencing the Civil Rights Movement. West coast cities like Oakland had been growing since World War II. At that time, the government flooded the area with money to build the factories that would supply the soldiers in the Pacific theater. The new manufacturing jobs attracted migration, including blacks migrating from the south. At the same time, many west coast police departments like Los Angeles recruited southern whites and consulted with southern police chiefs who had more experience dealing with the “black” issue. The result was a tense relationship between black communities and local police departments. The mostly white police forces were seen as occupying armies in black communities, ensuring that blacks did not stray from their neighborhoods or assemble in public. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in this environment, prompted by the shooting by San Francisco police of an unarmed black man. The Panthers would enjoy a few years of success joining education, militancy and self-help in a reform program for the inner cities.

The Black Panthers established free breakfast programs for poor children, educated their communities in radical politics and patrolled their neighborhoods with loaded shotguns. They were fond of military imagery and third world revolutionary philosophy. Like Mao’s Long March during the Chinese Revolution, the Panthers hoped to help the poorest people build self-sufficient communities with a heightened revolutionary class-consciousness. After all, if the Panthers could bring coherence, peace and enlightenment to the inner city, the police would no longer be necessary. Inner cities would be small islands of self-sufficiency that could then unofficially opt out of the wider society, especially the police “protection” provided by that society. As the years went on, the Black Panther Party became more inclusive, uniting the struggle for black progress with the struggle of poor people worldwide.

Panther membership reached 10,000 at its height, with a circulation of a quarter of a million for their newsletter, The Black Panther. Young white radicals hung pictures of Huey Newton in their dorm rooms, while many urban black youth looked to the Panthers as role models. They provided a more radical, confrontational black idol that stood in stark contrast to Martin Luther King. Because the Panthers saw themselves as defenders of their communities against the police, the two groups often got into shootouts. The Panthers took full advantage of the loose gun laws in California at the time, which made it legal to carry loaded shotguns as long as they were not concealed or pointed at anyone. By 1969, many Panther leaders had died in shootouts with the police or been jailed. There was no doubt that the testosterone involved in violence and rebellion was a major reason why so many young men were attracted to them. Their violence and popularity led J. Edgar Hoover, still the head of the FBI at the time, to refer to the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

It was not long until Hoover’s FBI went to work on the Panthers. They devoted seemingly limitless resources to infiltrate the organization. Through spying, provocation and out-and-out assassination (including the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, who was killed after being put to sleep by a barbiturate slipped into his drink by a double agent.), the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was destroyed. Some of the remaining leaders went into hiding, while others tried to parlay their fame into show business dollars. The group officially disbanded in the 1980s, which means the New Black Panther Party much maligned by Fox News has no association to the original. The rise and fall of the Black Panther Party is a cautionary tale in the fight against oppression.

One of the reasons why the FBI feared Fred Hampton so much was due to his role in trying to co-opt the street gangs of Chicago’s South Side. His organizing work in Chicago promised to double the size of the Party with more armed and vocal black men. Indeed, Fred Hampton represented what would have been the next stage of Black Panther progress: to divert the efforts of the street gangs towards revolutionary ends. It is no coincidence that the rise of the Crips in Los Angeles took place as the Panthers were fizzling away. There was a power vacuum on the streets of many inner city areas that was quickly filled by powerful street gangs. The FBI knew that the Panthers were role models to millions of urban black youth. An entire generation promised to internalize the Marxist teachings of a growing Panther organization. By ridding the ghettoes of the Panthers, the FBI ensured that the street gangs would be the only local role models left for black youth. The post-Panther 1970s saw a spike in urban violence, much of it due to young black men murdering each other. Hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and, later, crack flooded inner city streets and made the street gangs very wealthy and entrenched. The death of the Black Panther Party meant the birth of inner city urban blight as we know it today.

What scared Hoover the most about the Panthers was the same thing that scared slave owners 100 years prior. Nat Turner’s attempted rebellion in Virginia in 1831 had shown slave owners the danger of educated, radicalized and charismatic black leaders. They read books that put big ideas in their heads, ideas that were bigger than the plantation system under which they lived. It was a lesson that threatened to kindle too many fires in too many bellies. Although Nat Turner’s rebellion was crushed, southern states ensured future Nat Turners would not exist by legislating that slaves could not be educated or assemble. A black man with a gun was scary. A black man with a book was even scarier. Black men with both books and guns were the most terrifying thing to white supremacists. The war against the Panthers was an extension of this fear. It was not just because they shot police. It was because they shot police as part of a larger struggle against oppression. It makes one really wonder, if law enforcement was so effective in destroying the Panthers, why have they been so ineffective in destroying the gangs that replaced them? The history of rap music reflects the same trend. Rap started out as a distinct cultural expression of the urban poor. Early groups like Public Enemy were part of a heightening pro-black consciousness and renewed struggle against oppression. Rap music was maligned by the mainstream as just mere noise. Two decades later, corporate labels got their hands on rap music, sanitized it of all its revolution and left behind a husk of materialistic chanting about money and women. As long as urban youth were too busy sagging their pants and worrying about being “gangsta”, rap music became an acceptable form of mainstream entertainment.

Rather than promoting education and unity in the inner city, the powers-that-be have actively sought to prevent these things. The Black Panthers were a fearsome force because they promised to become strong black role models to a generation of youth who had nothing else. If the worry was really cop-killing or gun-toting, the FBI would have went after the street gangs the same way they attacked the Panthers. It was the fact that Panther gun-toting and cop-killing was part of a struggle that the Panthers saw as wider than their city, or even their country. It was because, just like Nat Turner, the Panthers offered oppressed people something larger than their oppression. They threatened to imbue the next generation with large ideas and grand expectations, the type of expectations that make people impatient with poverty and injustice. Better to leave the ghettoes in the hands of the gangs, or rap music in the hands of the corporations, because these things hold out nothing more than the prospect of being “hood rich” for a limited period of time. They do not broaden the horizons of poor people beyond the urban ghettoes in which they live. Instead, they teach people to think small, local and selfishly.

I suppose one can understand clearly now my distaste for education deformers. It is not that I think their plans will not work. It is because I see them as assailants on the urban poor. Their design to break experienced teachers is an attempt to break some of the only strong educated role models urban youth have left. Bloomberg’s effort to shut down big schools and co-locate charter schools is an attempt to break the only sense of unity left in inner-city areas. Their adoration for technology ensures that education will be mechanical and rote to those that get it, while the poor who do not have the same access to technology will also have less of an education. It is an old war that is now dressing itself up as something new and progressive. There is nothing noble about education deform. From top to bottom it is a regressive and counterrevolutionary phenomenon. The Black Panthers might be gone but their story teaches us everything we need to know about how people in power respond to urban poverty.


1968 by Mark Kurlansky

Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 by James T. Patterson

Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion by Herbert Aptheker

4 responses to “The Lesson of the Black Panthers

  1. Reblogged this on Hello100blog.

  2. Is there any hope that the urban poor in the US can get mobilised again like this? Or are we all too stuck in the mire of materialism and selfishness to see beyond short term rewards?

  3. Pingback: The Fault Lines of Education Activism | assailedteacher

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