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What was the BPP?

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was a militant black political organization originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, California, in October 1966. Newton became the party's defense minister, and Seale its chairman. The BPP advocated black self-defense and restructuring American society to make it more politically, economically, and socially equal.

Newton and Seale articulated their goals in a ten-point platform that demanded, among other items, full employment, exemption of black men from military service, and an end to police brutality. They summarized their demands in the final point: "We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace." They adopted the Black Panther symbol from an independent political party established the previous year by black residents of Lowndes County, Alabama.

Both Newton and Seale were influenced by the Black Muslim leader, Malcolm X, who called on black people to defend themselves. They also supported the Black Power Movement, which stressed racial dignity and self-reliance. The BPP established patrols in black communities in order to monitor police activities and protect the residence from police brutality. The BPP affirmed the right of blacks to use violence to defend themselves and thus became an alternative to more moderate civil rights groups. Their militancy quickly attracted the support of many black residents of Oakland. Newton, who had studied law, objected strongly when police engaged in brutality, conducted illegal searches, and otherwise violated the civil rights of black citizens.

The BPP combined elements of socialism and Black Nationalism, insisting that if businesses and the government did not provide for full employment, the community should take over the means of production. It promoted the development of strong black-controlled institutions, calling for blacks to work together to protect their rights and to improve their economic and social conditions. The BPP also emphasized class unity, criticizing the black middle class for acting against the interests of other, less fortunate blacks. The BPP welcomed alliances with white activists, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later the Weather Underground, because they believed that all revolutionaries that wanted to change U.S. society should unite across racial lines. This position differed from those taken by many black organizations of the late 1960s, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which excluded white members after 1966.

The party first attracted attention in May 1967 when it protested a bill to outlaw carrying loaded weapons in public. Reporters quickly gathered around the contingent of protesters, who had marched on the California state capital in Sacramento armed with weapons and wearing the party's distinctive black leather jackets and black berets. After Seale read a statement, police arrested him and 30 others. News coverage of the incident attracted new recruits and led to the formation of chapters outside the San Francisco Bay Area. The BPP grew throughout the late 1960s, and eventually had chapters all around the country.

Among those arrested in Sacramento was Eldridge Cleaver, a former convict who had recently published a book of essays called Soul on Ice (1967). Cleaver's influence in the party increased when Newton was arrested in October 1967 and charged with murder in the death of an Oakland police officer. Cleaver was a powerful speaker who took the lead in building a "Free Huey" movement to defend Newton.

As part of this effort, Cleaver and Seale contacted Stokely Carmichael, the former chairman of SNCC and a nationally known proponent of Black Power. Carmichael agreed to become prime minister of the party and speak at "Free Huey" rallies during February 1968. The "Free Huey" movement allowed the BPP to expand its following nationally, particularly after it recruited well-known figures such as Carmichael and other SNCC members. The campaign on behalf of Newton saved him from the death penalty, but in September 1968 he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison. This conviction was appealed and was overturned in 1970 due to procedural errors.

The SNCC-Panther alliance began to disintegrate in the summer of 1968 for a variety of reasons. Carmichael and other representatives of SNCC had hoped to guide the less experienced Panthers but soon found that Cleaver and Seale were forceful leaders who were not easily dominated. In addition, Carmichael wanted to end all ties with white activists because he believed that they stood in the way of black self-reliance and equality. He eventually broke with Panther leaders over the issue of white support. The BPP also had differences with followers of southern California black nationalist Maulana Karenga, leader of a group called US. Panther leaders saw themselves as revolutionary nationalists, who wanted all revolutionaries, regardless of race, to unite. They disparaged Karenga as a cultural nationalist who placed too much emphasis on racial unity. The escalating verbal battles between the two groups culminated in a gun battle in January 1969 at the University of California at Los Angeles that left two Panthers dead.

As racial tension increased around the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) blamed the Black Panthers for riots and other incidents of violence. The bureau launched a program called COINTELPRO (short for counterintelligence program) designed to disrupt efforts to unify black militant groups such as SNCC, BPP, and US. FBI agents sent anonymous threatening letters to Panthers, infiltrated the group with informers, and worked with local police to weaken the party. In December 1969 two Chicago leaders of the party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were killed in a police raid. By the end of the decade, according to the party's attorney, 28 Panthers had been killed and many other members were either in jail or had been forced to leave the United States in order to avoid arrest. In 1970 Connecticut authorities began an unsuccessful effort to convict Seale and other Panthers of the murder of a Panther who was believed to be a police informant. In New York, 21 Panthers were charged with plotting to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings. Chief of Staff David Hilliard awaited trial on charges of threatening the life of President Richard Nixon. Cleaver left the United States for exile in Cuba to avoid returning to prison for parole violations.

After Newton's conviction was reversed, he sought to revive the party and reestablish his control by discouraging further police confrontations. Instead, he called for developing survival programs in black communities to build support for the BPP. These programs provided free breakfasts for children, established free medical clinics, helped the homeless find housing, and gave away free clothing and food. In 1973 Seale also tried to build popular support for the party by running for mayor of Oakland. He was defeated but received over 40 percent of the vote.

This attempt to shift the direction of the party did not prevent further external attacks and internal conflicts, and the party continued to decline as a political force. Newton and Seale broke with Cleaver, who continued to support black revolution instead of community programs. Newton became debilitated by his increasing use of cocaine and other drugs, and in 1974 he fled to Cuba to avoid new criminal charges of drug use. The same year, Seale resigned from the party.

After the departure of Newton and Seale, the party's new leader, Elaine Brown, continued to emphasize community service programs. These programs were frequently organized and run by black women, who were a majority in the party by the mid-1970s. By then most of the party's original leaders had left or had been expelled from the group. The BPP lost even more support after newspaper reports appeared describing the illicit activities of party leaders, including extortion schemes directed against Oakland merchants. By the end of the 1970s, weakened by external attacks, legal problems, and internal divisions, the BPP was no longer a political force. By the 1980's, the group became officially disbanded, thus ending the movement started by 2 individuals 20 years ago-- 2 men that wanted to make a statement and ended up leaving a legacy of social change.



The Positive Aspects of the BPP's Contributions

  1. Self-Defense: This is one of the fundamental areas in which the BPP contributed to the BLM. It's also one of the fundamental things that set the BPP apart from most previous Black organizations and which attracted members (particularly the youth), mass support, and a mass following. The concept is not only sound, it's also common sense. But it must be implemented correctly, otherwise it can prove more detrimental than beneficial. The self-defense policies of the BPP need to be analyzed in this light by present day African organizations. All history has shown that this government will bring its police and military powers to bear on any group which truly seeks to free African people. Any Black "freedom" organization which ignores self-defense does so at its own peril.
  2. Revolutionary Nationalist Ideology: The BPP was a nationalist organization. Its main goal was the national liberation of African people in the U.S., and it restricted its membership to Blacks only. It was also revolutionary. The BPP theories and practices were based on socialist principles. It was anti-capitalist and struggled for a socialist revolution of U.S. society.
  3. Mass Organizing Techniques: Another fundamental thing that attracted members and mass support to the BPP was its policy of "serving the people". This was a policy of going to the masses, living among them, sharing their burdens, and organizing the masses to implement their own solutions to the day to day problems that were of great concern to them.
  4. Practice of Women's Equality: Another positive contribution of the BPP was its advocation and practice of equality for women throughout all levels of the organization and in society itself. This occurred at a time when most Black Nationalist organizations were demanding that the woman's role be in the home and/or one step behind the Black man, and at a time when the whole country was going through a great debate on the woman's liberation issue.
  5. Propaganda Techniques: The BPP made significant contributions to the art of propaganda. It was very adept at spreading its message and ideas through its newspaper The Black Panther, mass rallies, speaking tours, slogans, posters, leaflets, cartoons, buttons, symbols (i.e., the clenched fist), graffiti, political trials, and even funerals. The BPP also spread its ideas through very skillful use of the establishment's TV, radio, and print media.

The Negative Aspects of the BPP Contributions

  1. Leadership Corrupted: COINTELPRO eventually intimidated and corrupted all three of the BPP's top leaders: Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. Each, in their own way, caved in to the pressures and began acting in a manner that was deliberately designed to destroy the BPP, and to disillusion not only Party members but African people in America for years to come. COINTELPRO's hopes were that Africans in America would be so disillusioned that never again would they trust or follow any African leader or organization which advocated real solutions to Black oppression.
  2. Combined Above and Underground: This was the most serious structural flaw in the BPP. Party members who functioned openly in the BPP offices, or organized openly in the community, by day might very well have been the same people who carried out armed operations at night. This provided the police with a convenient excuse to make raids on any and all BPP offices, or members homes, under the pretext that they were looking for suspects, fugitives, weapons, and or explosives. It also sucked the BPP into taking the un-winnable position of making stationary defenses of BPP offices. There should have been a clear separation between the above ground Party and the underground armed apparatus. Also small military forces should never adopt, as a general tactic, the position of making stationary defenses of offices, homes, buildings, etc.
  3. Rhetoric Outstripped Capabilities: Although the BPP was adept at the art of propaganda and made very good use of its own and the establishment's media, still too many Panthers fell into the habit of making boisterous claims in the public media, or selling "wolf tickets" that they couldn't back up. Eventually, they weren't taken seriously anymore. The press, some of whom were police agents, often had only to stick a microphone under a Panther's nose to make him or her begin spouting rhetoric. This often played into the hands of those who were simply looking for slanderous material to air or to provide possible intelligence information to the police.
  4. Lumpen Tendencies: It can be safely said that the largest segment of the New York City BPP membership (and probably nationwide) were workers who held everyday jobs. Other segments of the membership were semi-proletariat, students, youths, and lumpen-proletariat. The lumpen tendencies within some members were what the establishment's media (and some party members) played-up the most. Lumpen tendencies are associated with lack of discipline, liberal use of alcohol, marijuana, and curse-words; loose sexual morals, a criminal mentality, and rash actions. These tendencies in some Party members provided the media with better opportunities than they would otherwise have had to play up this aspect, and to slander the Party, which diverted public attention from much of the positive work done by the BPP.
  5. Dogmatism: Early successes made some Panthers feel that they were the only possessors of absolute truths. Some became arrogant and dogmatic in their dealings with Party members, other organizations, and even the community. This turned people off.
  6. Failure to Organize Economic Foundations in Community: The BPP preached socialist politics. They were anti-capitalist and this skewered their concept of building economic foundations in the community. They often gave the impression that to engage in any business enterprise was to engage in capitalism and they too frequently looked with disdain upon the small-business people in the community. As a result the BPP built few businesses which generated income other than the Black Panther newspaper, or which could provide self-employment to its membership and to people in the community. The BPP failed to encourage the Black community to set up its own businesses as a means of building an independent economic foundation which could help break "outsiders" control of the Black community's economics, and move it toward economic self-reliance.
  7. TV Mentality: The 60's were times of great flux. A significant segment of the U.S. population engaged in mass struggle. The Black Liberation, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian, Chicano, Anti-War, White Revolutionary, and Woman's Liberation, Movements were all occurring more or less simultaneously during this era. It appears that this sizable flux caused some Panthers to think that a seizure of state power was imminent or that a revolutionary struggle is like a quick paced TV program. That is, it comes on at 9 p.m., builds to a crescendo by 9:45, and by 9:55 -- Victory!; all in time to make the 10 O'Clock News. When it didn't happen after a few years, that is, Africans in the U.S. still were not free, no revolution occurred, and worse, the BPP was everywhere on the defensive, taking losses and riddled with dissension, many members became demoralized, disillusioned, and walked away or went back to old lifestyles. They were not psychologically prepared for a long struggle. In hindsight it appears that the BPP didn't do enough to root out this TV mentality in some members, but did in others, which is an aspect to ponder on.