In October 1966, Huey P. Newton turned his Oakland, California street gang into the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. His co-founders in this endeavor were Elbert Howard, Reggie Forte, Sherman Forte, Bobby Seale, and Little Bobby Hutton. The following year, Newton shortened the group's name to, simply, the Black Panther Party (BPP).
To define BPP's mission, Newton wrote a ten-point program consisting of the following items:
1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community. 2. We Want Full Employment For Our People. 3. We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community. 4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings. 5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society. 6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service. 7. We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People. 8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails. 9. We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States. 10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,Clothing, Justice And Peace.
Among the key elements contained in the foregoing ten points are the following:
“The federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income.”
“This racist government has robbed us [blacks], and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules.”
“If the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.”
Education should “expos[e] the true nature of this decadent American society.”
“Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us.”
“All Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.”
“All Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”
In December 1966, seven black militant groups, including BPP's New York contingent, met at the headquarters of the Institute For Policy Studies. There, Panther “minister of culture” Emory Douglas stated:
“The only way to make this racist U.S. government administer justice to the people it is oppressing, is ... by taking up arms against this government, killing the officials, until the reactionary forces ... are dead, and those that are left turn their weapons on their superiors ... thereby passing revolutionary judgment against the number one enemy of all mankind, the racist U.S. government.’”
In a similarly impassioned, late-1960s speech, BPP member David Hilliard described the Panthers' ideology as an outgrowth of “the historical experiences of Black people” in “racist, fascist America,” a country “run by a slave oligarchy and brigandish criminals” whose “primary interest is capitalism.” “Translated through Marxism-Leninism,” Hilliard explained, the knowledge born of those historical experiences could serve to animate a justified rebellion against “400 years” of being “victims of the oppressive machinery that gags, binds and chains Black men who speak out in defense of their alleged constitutional rights.” Further, Hilliard denounced contemporary white people and their forebears (collectively) as “genocidal murderers of the Red Man”; “users of the atomic bomb upon the Japanese people”; aggressors in “the genocidal and imperialist war against the Vietnamese people”; perpetrators of “the burning of Blacks on the sacred cross of Christianity”; and “the enslavers and exploiters of Blacks in this country right up until this very day.” Moreover, he derided “the whole damn” Constitution as a document that was “invalid in regards to Blacks in particular.”
A chief BPP priority was to harass police officers under the mask of a “political” program. The “self defense” part of that program involved Panther members appearing in public places heavily armed, as a means of standing up defiantly to “police brutality” and America’s allegedly racist power structure. This—coupled with the Party's anti-police (“pig”) rhetoric—caught the political fancy of Sixties radicals who considered themselves to be at war with the United States and were beginning to flirt with “revolutionary violence.”
To be sure, BPP was engaged in veritable warfare against the police, not merely “defending the people” against them. As BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver told Reason magazine years later (in 1986): "We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence."
Whenever possible, BPP actively sought out opportunities to spark confrontations with police. On February 21, 1967, for instance, Huey Newton provided an armed escort for Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, during a Bay Area speaking engagement. When newsmen tried to get closer to Shabazz than the Panthers wished to allow, police tried to enforce order with their nightsticks. In response, Newton and his fellow Panthers promptly loaded shells into their shotguns. After a tense standoff of several minutes, both sides backed off. Newton, however, boasted that the Panthers had “won” as a result of their “superior firepower.” The incident propelled Newton and the Panthers to national prominence.
On May 2, 1967, some thirty Party members, armed with rifles and shotguns, marched into the California State Assembly in Sacramento to protest an arms-control law that was under consideration for Oakland. This stunning incident brought BPP still more publicity.
By now the Panthers had become a national phenomenon of a magnitude exceeding that of Martin Luther King and other traditional civil-rights leaders. Militant, action-oriented, and above all ideological, BPP offered something that the rest of the civil rights movement, just then descending into separatism and negritude, did not.
But while they were radical icons by day, by night the Panthers grew into a criminal organization that engaged widely in drug dealing, pimping, extortion, theft, assault, and homicide. Indeed, BPP members were arrested 348 times for murder, armed robbery, rape, and burglary in 1969 alone, as Edward J. Epstein has documented.
Embracing the notion of international working-class unity that transcended barriers of color and gender, the Panthers allied themselves with various minority and white revolutionary groups. Throughout this process, BPP viewed itself as the vanguard of America's radical revolution.
Eldrige Cleaver counseled his fellow Panthers to model their tactics on those of the communist revolutions that had already taken place elsewhere. "If you look around the world," he wrote, "you will see that the only countries which have liberated themselves and managed to withstand the tide of counter-revolution are precisely those countries that have strongly Marxist-Leninist parties."
BPP leaders also studied the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh for guidance on how to establish revolutionary socialism in the U.S. through mass organizing and community-based programs. But no tract influenced the Panthers more profoundly than did Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1965), which condemned colonialism’s legacy and advocated a peasant-led revolution of "absolute violence" as a means of liberating African people. John Patrick Diggins, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Left, writes that BPP “adopted a 'Marxist-Leninist' amalgam that succeeded in combining nationalism with socialism, preaching self-determination along with class struggle.”
Legislative or political reform were of little interest to the Panthers. The “Political Education Kit” for BPP members stated plainly that the organization was an “armed body” whose primary objective was to “establish Revolutionary Political Power for Black People.”
In August 1967, the FBI instructed its counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, to “neutralize” such “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” as BPP. The FBI had only five agents available to monitor BPP activities in the entire Bay Area where the Panthers were based. In these circumstances, the Bureau accused some Panthers of being informers and planted letters containing insults purportedly written by one Panther leader to another. The purpose was to divide the group and decrease the level of violence its members could commit against others. But when one Panther had his life threatened for being a suspected informer, the FBI instructed its agents to cease the practice.
In October 1967 Huey Newton shot and killed Oakland police officer John Frey. The evidence against Newton was beyond dispute. But his attorney, Charles Garry, alleged that because the American justice system, from the police through the courts, was thoroughly infested with racism, it would be impossible for a young black like Newton to get a fair trial anywhere in the country. “The system,” Garry claimed, was responsible for putting so many innocent black males in jeopardy.
During his trial for Frey’s killing, Newton became a national hero to New Leftists everywhere. In December 1967 BPP formed a coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was composed mostly of young whites who opposed the Vietnam War. Out of this coalition, the “Free Huey” movement was created by leftists sympathetic to Newton’s effort to fight back against a satanic United States. "Free Huey!" became as characteristic a slogan of the Movement as "Bring the Troops Home." In September 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the Frey killing and was sentenced to a prison term of fifteen years.
During the two-plus years that Newton was incarcerated, hundreds of new recruits joined the Black Panther Party, many responding to no deeper political message than the Panthers' most famous slogan, "Off the Pig." New BPP chapters were established all over the United States; many—like those in Chicago and Los Angeles—were the result of ghetto street gangs enrolling en bloc.
BPP's leader in Newton's absence was Eldridge Cleaver, who viewed the Panthers as something akin to the Algerian FLN, an organization capable of sparking and spearheading an armed revolution. It was no longer enough to merely display weapons; under Cleaver's militarism, it was vital to use them.
Also in April 1968, thirteen Panthers ambushed an Oakland police car with a spray of gunfire, hitting it with 157 shots and badly wounding one officer.
Five months later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described BPP as the single “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
In May 1969, BPP member Warren Kimbro, on orders most likely given by Bobby Seale, murdered fellow Panther Alex Rackley, whom the group's members wrongly suspected of being a police informer. Historian Ronald Radosh describes what happened: "Before killing 24-year-old Rackley, the New Haven, Connecticut branch of the Panthers held him in an apartment for three days, during which time they tortured him brutally. Finally, they drove him to a nearby swamp, where Kimbro shot him through the head. It was a typical gangland killing, justified in their minds as a political act against a would-be informer." Kimbro subsequently served prison time for Rackley's murder. But because he served as a witness for the prosecution, he was eventually released on parole from his sentence of twenty years to life.
By the summer of 1969, the alliance between the Panthers and SNCC began to unravel, in large measure because of the dispute over the inclusion of whites in the movement.
Nevertheless, BPP was positioned solidly at the epicenter of the the Sixties radical movement. The Students for a Demoocratic Society—the leading New Left organization of its day—declared the Panthers to be nothing less than "the vanguard of the black revolution." Tom Hayden, the New Left's Everyman, proclaimed them "America's Vietcong"—likening them to the Communist guerrillas who were killing U.S. forces in Southeast Asia—in what he believed was the coming civil war that would engulf the nation. Newton’s (and the Panthers’) contention that blacks constituted an “internal colony” in America and could only be liberated by armed revolution, became standard rhetoric for the Left.
Encouraged by the passionate support of white New Leftists, the Panthers stepped up their pursuit of grim urban warfare against police forces across the country. As Newton lamented to intimates later, the results were all too predictable, as the element of "superior firepower" now belonged wholly to the other side.
But radical mythmakers tried to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. They portrayed the Panthers killed in the conflict as not merely dead, but as victims of "genocide." Thus, in 1969, Newton attorney Charles Garry claimed that 31 (or 29 or 28, depending on what day he was being interviewed) Panthers had been "assassinated" by law-enforcement authorities in the preceding two years. While it was true that approximately that many Panthers had indeed been killed since the group's inception, almost all of them had died in the course of criminal activities or in conflicts with other black militants. Of those Panthers who did die at the hands of police, all had provoked the shootouts.
The tenuousness of Panther martyrdom was seen even in the most celebrated claim of innocent victimhood—the death of Chicago Panther Fred Hampton. According to Garry and other Panther supporters, Hampton had been wantonly murdered in his sleep as part of a police-FBI conspiracy. While it was true that Hampton was killed in a crossfire of bullets while sleeping off a drug binge, it was also true that when the police knocked on the door of the apartment, which served as a storage facility for all manner of BPP weaponry, they were greeted by a blast from Panther Mark Clark's shotgun, which initiated the shootout.
Notwithstanding these facts, Garry's assertions were given credibility by the establishment press, which by this time had ceased to maintain a critical distance from the radical worldview. The appeal of Newton and the Panthers spread from the New Left into the pop culture itself as they gained the support of personalities as various as Marlon Brando, Jean Genet, and Yale president Kingman Brewster, and were invited to fundraisers such as the famous get-together at Leonard Bernstein's Manhattan townhouse.
In May 1970 the California Appellate Court reversed Newton’s conviction and ordered a new trial, on grounds that the judge had erred by not giving jurors the option of convicting Newton of involuntary manslaughter. After two more trials that ended with hung juries, the State of California dropped its case against Newton and permitted him to rejoin his BPP comrades in Oakland. By this time, the Party consisted of approximately 2,000 members spread across the United States.
In Oakland, Newton, much to his dismay, found Panther leadership decimated. Cleaver, for one, had fled to Cuba and then to Algeria in 1968 to avoid a trial on charges stemming from a shootout with Oakland police. And Bobby Seale was under indictment in New Haven, Connecticut for the May 1969 torture-murder of a Panther named Alex Rackley, who was falsely believed to be an informer.
In 1970, a young Yale law student named Hillary Rodham (who would eventually become Hillary Rodham Clinton) was introduced by one of her professors, Thomas Emerson (known as “Tommy the Commie”), to Panther defense attorney Charles Garry. Garry helped Miss Rodham get personally involved in the legal defense of several Black Panthers facing trial for the Rackley murder.
In 1971 Newton went to China and met Chou En-lai. He then came home and, sensing that that the Movement was definitely on the downward part of its arc, ordered all BPP chapters nationwide to close their offices and consolidate their efforts by relocating to Oakland. Further, he revamped the organization, saying it was time to “put away the gun” and, quoting Mao, “serve the people.”
Before long, the Panthers initiated a “Free Breakfasts for Children” program which they claimed was responsible for serving 1,000 meals each day to students in San Francisco schools. When one journalist checked the veracity of this figure, however, he found that the actual number of meals served was no more than 50. Moreover, the food was usually extorted from local businessmen. It should also be noted that the Panthers’ “free breakfasts” were political, not charitable, endeavors. The serving of meals was accompanied by question-and-answer recitation drills for the young recipients, drills that characterized the police as “pigs,” and described “the capitalists” as “the pigs who control the country” and “steal from the poor.”
BPP also ran such "service" entities as the George Jackson Free Medical Clinic and the Oakland Community Learning Center, which was the centerpiece of the new BPP strategy. A $150,000 former church complex situated in the East Oakland ghetto, this Learning Center featured a six-grade elementary school replete with a black headmistress and little black children in uniforms. "Each One Teach One" became the new Panther slogan. Some observers were bothered by the regimentation and propaganda that was incorporated into the lessons, but in the eyes of most the school was a worthy model of black self-help. Aided by radical educational theorists such as Herbert Kohl, the Learning Center credentialed instructors through the UC-affiliated "University Without Walls." The Center also had a jazz band and an orchestra funded by the United Air Lines Foundation, and an assortment of community-service programs.
BPP no longer seemed to believe that power grew out of the barrel of a gun, but rather, that it stemmed from community organizing, which had been an emphasis of white radicals before an apocalyptic note entered the New Left (at least partly because of BPP itself) in the mid-Sixties. An indication of what the new Panthers were all about was Bobby Seale's run for mayor of Oakland in 1973. Seale lost, but he gave the city’s white power structure an electoral scare and seemed to point the way to a new black politics that might remake the city.
It is estimated that from 1969-74, the Panthers raised over $7 million for their Learning Center from white liberals and leftists. The Oakland political power structure was likewise ready to deal with the Panthers after Bobby Seale's campaign for mayor, and to make large city grants to the school. The state was ready as well.
But Newton, descending into a full-blown gangster life, sabotaged any chance the Party may have had for long-term success. Indeed, even as he launched the Panthers' new school and its other "survival programs," he was quietly laying the groundwork for the next phase of his ongoing criminal enterprises. Toward that end, he recruited a taciturn six-foot-eight-inch, four-hundred-pound former criminal named Robert Heard, who accompanied Newton everywhere, and a black gunslinger named Larry Henson.
Their criminal activity began with a boycott of black-owned liquor stores, which Newton accused of having "exploited the people." The boycott had to be enforced, often by brute force, and it was only a short step from this to extorting protection money. And once that money flowed, it was but another short step to strong-arming after-hours clubs, the pimps with their stables of prostitutes, and the dope dealers who worked the ghetto. During the space of a few months, there were several unsolved murders that Newton was said to be involved in. The two most notable victims were the Ward brothers, reputed to be the most powerful pimps in the Bay Area. Afterward, BPP took over the operation of Jimmy Ward's Lamppost, an Oakland bar and hangout that was owned by a family survivor.
In August 1974 Newton had a violent falling out with Bobby Seale. He expelled Seale from the Party in a most brutal manner, whipping him mercilessly and then sodomizing him with such force that Seale had to have his anus surgically repaired. As a Party member would later recall, “You have to understand, it had nothing to do with sex. It was about power.”
On August 6, 1974, Newton shot and killed a 17-year-old Bay Area prostitute named Kathleen Smith. Soon afterward, he pistol whipped his tailor, Preston Callins, during a dispute, inflicting four skull fractures on the victim.
Pimps throughout the Bay Area, angry at Newton for having killed one of their breadwinners, put a bounty on Newton’s head, prompting him to disappear from public sight. When Newton failed to show up for his arraignment for the Kathleen Smith murder charges, he was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
It was eventually learned that Newton was in Fidel Castro's Cuba, where he would remain for about three years. During that period, young Elaine Brown, whom Newton had groomed (by means of instruction and violent beatings) to be one of his closest lieutenants, assumed control of BPP's day-to-day activities. It was Newton, however, who maintained ultimate authority from his base in Cuba, relaying his orders to Brown via daily telephone calls.
One of those orders, transmitted in 1974, instructed Brown to end the life of a 42-year-old white woman named Betty Van Patter, who had recently been hired by Brown to keep the financial books for the Panthers' Learning Center in Oakland. Van Patter was unaware that the Panthers were in fact using the Learning Center as a vehicle by which to embezzle millions of dollars in California education funds. Nor did she know that the Center also served as the pretext for a Panther shakedown operation of “after hours” clubs whose owners were required to “donate” weekly sums, on pain of death if they refused. Thus, when she told Elaine Brown about certain irregularities she had found in the Learning Center's financial records, she had no idea that she was treading on forbidden (and deadly) ground. Brown promptly told Newton about Van Patter's findings, and Newton, in turn, demanded Van Patter's execution. The loyal Brown dutifully oversaw the Panthers’ kidnap (on December 13, 1974), rape, and murder of Mrs. Van Patter. On January 13, 1975, the victim’s corpse, with the head caved in, would be found floating in San Francisco Bay.
With Newton in continued exile, BPP’s social and political significance declined and ended by 1976.
It is estimated that during their radical heyday, the Panthers killed more than a dozen people. As Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver acknowledged in a June 15, 1997 Sixty Minutes interview: “If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country.”
Historian Ronald Radosh describes the Panthers as "a group of Stalinist thugs who murdered and killed both police and their own internal dissenters."
 Steven Powell, Covert Cadre: Inside The Institute For Policy Studies (Green Hill Publishers, 1987), p. 30.  "Communism and the New Left," US News And World Report, 1970, p. 32.  Maurice Isserman, and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 176-177.  John Diggins, The American Left in the Twentieth Century (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973), p. 174.  "Communism and the New Left," US News And World Report, 1970, p. 197  David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams (Hill and Wang, 1994), p. 207.  David Horowitz, The Art of Political War: and Other Radical Pursuits (Spence, 2000), 170.
Portions of this profile are excerpted and adapted from “Baddest: The Life and Times of Huey P. Newton” (Chapter 5 of Destructive Generation, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, 1989.)
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