The Black Panthers, heroes of those America oppressed

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A Black Panther Party member stands at a protest in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The organization fought for empowering the oprressed and supporting black power. (Courtsey of the Library of Congress)
A Black Panther Party member stands at a protest in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The organization fought for empowering the oprressed and supporting black power. (Courtsey of the Library of Congress)

By the 1960s, many African Americans worried that the nonviolent direct action of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would fail to bring equality for the black community in the United States. For years, African Americans and the nation watched in horror as much of the South brutality beat and intimidated civil rights activists. The hate they saw filled many with anger. This anger transformed into new radical factions of the movement.

Robert Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, wrote a book in the 1960s which detailed the depth of the hate and violence of the racism he encountered in the South. Along with exploring racism, Williams criticized the pacifist nonviolent arm of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams wrote, “Monroe students took the non-violent oath, promising to adhere to the non-violent discipline, which, along with other principles, prohibited self-defense. I also stated that if they could show me any gains won from the racists by non-violent methods, I too would become a pacifist.”

He argued nonviolence could almost never be successful because it would always be met with violence. He stated, “We must meet violence with violence.” This was the underlying theme of his book, “Negroes with Guns.”

This book inspired a young Huey Newton to form his own civil rights organization: The Black Panther Party.

Founded in 1966 by Newton and Bobby Seale, the primary goal of the organization was to protect the black community from racial charged violence and crimes.

The two men, in the same year they founded the party, published the Black Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Program.” The document called for the freedom of the black community to form their own destiny, full and equal employment, better housing and education, an end to police brutality and the end of black oppression. This document became the governing rules of the party.

The party, which formed in California, targeted the racial problems of the north more than the issues of segregation in the south. One of these issues was police brutality towards blacks.

The party took advantage California’s open-carry gun laws to police the police of Oakland. The members of the party patrolled the community and watched, with loaded guns, while police officers confronted African Americans. They stood guard to maintain the proper law and order of the state and protect African Americans from the rampant police brutality.

As more African Americans in the community learned of their right to self-defense, the size of the Black Panther Party grew. This growing support and usage of self-defense against police brutality scared many white lawmakers in California. In direct response to the Black Panther Party, California passed the Mulford Act of 1967, which repealed a law permitting the carrying of loaded weapons in public. The Black Panthers vehemently protested the bill and then Governor Ronald Reagan commented, “No reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He later commented guns were a ridiculous solution to the problems at hand, but failed to address the obvious police brutality African Americans suffered. What fueled much of the success and growth of the Black Panthers was the realization that the governments of the states and the nation did very little to protect the black community. Newton stated, “the task is to transform a society; only the people can do that – not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.” The protests at the state capital over the Mulford Act brought the party international attention and fame.

As they grew, the party evolved. The party sought to directly help those in poverty and those most oppressed through Survival Programs, education, tuberculosis testing, legal aid, transportation, free meal programs for children, and far more services for those in need. Soon, the party fought for all the oppressed groups, not just African Americans.

The more they empowered the oppressed, the more state and federal governments targeted them. Reagan, along with implementing some of the strictest gun control laws in California history, fought to remove Angela Davis, a radical black revolutionary, from her lecturer position at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The party also came under attack by the FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover. He declared the Panthers an enemy to the state. The federal government used spies, raids, and violence to attack the party. The tactics of the FBI resulted in the slaughter of Fred Hampton, a major leader of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Many years later, the FBI apologized for their “wrongful use of power.”

This wrongful use of power created a skewed image of the party. Many saw them as terrorists and many today believe they operate similar to the Ku Klux Klan. This misidentification arose from white leaders who feared the growing popularity of an organization who actively fought for their civil rights. They feared the “black power” the Panthers created. It has not been until this past decade that the image of the party began to become more clear and true to the efforts and noble actions taken by the party.

Hampton declared, “We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Solidarity is what the party stood for and what scared those in power. They feared it so much they attempted to hide and skew it. The Panthers were not terrorists, but rather agents of empowerment for the people America chocked.

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