The History and Continuing Relevance of the Black Panther Party

December 2023

If, in the current era of tense political division, normalized racism, and record hate crime frequency, you feel you’re living in a cataclysmic déjà vu reality, you’re not alone. The past decade has been marked by strong parallels with the tumultuous landscape of 1960s America, and it’s more important than ever to revisit the events, lessons, and impacts of the civil rights movement. 

For many Americans, doing so most often evokes the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other famous figures. However, it’s impossible to take in the whole picture of the movement without understanding the key role of the Black Panther Party within it, especially given how little many Americans know about this group or its efforts to drive racial justice in concrete ways.

As we journey through the Panthers’ history, we uncover a story of resilience and revolution, of confrontation and community service. The Black Panther Party’s impact extended far beyond the streets of Oakland where it was founded, igniting a nationwide movement that confronted the very foundations of American society. Their legacy, often misunderstood and misrepresented, is a testament to their profound influence on the civil rights movement and beyond.

Here’s what you need to know about the Black Panther Party, its radical approaches to combating racial inequality, and the enduring legacy that continues to resonate so clearly in today’s social justice movements.

What Was the Black Panther Party?

The Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, emerged as a defining force in the Black Power movement of the era. Amid the growing dissent against systemic racial injustice and unsatisfactory progress in stopping it, a revolutionary organization emerged, destined to leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history. 

The party’s foundation was primarily a response to the perceived failures of the civil rights movement as shaped by the nonviolent, integrationist approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in improving conditions for African Americans. The Black Panther Party believed that in order to combat continuing police brutality and state oppression, new tactics were needed — including armed self-defense, Black nationalism, and socialism.

The BPP’s philosophy diverged sharply from the pacifist Christian influence of Dr. King, and was instead influenced by the diverse yet interconnected ideologies of the following:

  • The speeches of Malcolm X and his book Nation of Islam
  • Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialist book The Wretched of the Earth
  • African American activist Robert Williams and his book Negroes with Guns
  • The teachings of Mao Tse-Tung of the Communist Party of China
  • Global liberation movements, particularly as seen in Africa and Southeast Asia

Newton and Seale, after gathering information from their communities about the issues they were most concerned about, developed the Ten Point Platform and Program, which formed the operational basis for the BPP.

What Did the Black Panther Party Do?

At its core, the BPP sought to protect, uplift, liberate, and empower Black Americans, especially those with the fewest resources for building a better life. A hallmark of the Black Panthers was their community-focused “survival programs.” Local chapters, often led by women, focused on providing essential services to low-income communities. These programs worked to provide the following and more:

  • Free breakfast for children
  • Food giveaways
  • Free health clinic services, including sickle-cell testing
  • Legal aid
  • Educational initiatives
  • Safe senior transportation services

The survival programs not only provided tangible aid to communities that most needed it, but also garnered significant support for the Panthers​​​​.

The Panthers’ activities weren’t confined to community services, however. They also campaigned for broader social reforms, including prison reform, voter registration drives, and challenging systemic racial inequalities. Their Ten Point Platform outlined the party’s demands for freedom, employment, fair housing, education, and an end to police brutality, among other basic civil rights. The BPP also supported women’s rights and freedoms; women made up about half of the party and frequently held leadership roles.

Despite their constructive and community-focused initiatives, the BPP faced significant opposition, notably from the US government. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program targeted the Panthers, employing tactics such as misinformation and sabotage to undermine the party. Incidents like the 1969 police raid in Chicago, during which party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered as they slept, exemplified the extreme measures taken against the party. 

Yet these actions also often backfired, fueling the Panthers’ growth and drawing wider support from various allies, including those who were disillusioned with mainstream politics​​​​​​​​.

When Did the Black Panther Party End?

The BPP officially dissolved in 1982, in part due to the FBI’s role in declaring it an enemy of the US government and in exploiting rivalries between Black nationalist groups in order to weaken it. In addition, the BPP has long been widely underrecognized, mislabeled, and vilified as being a primarily militant group rather than one that offered valuable ideas and social programs. Nonetheless, the Panthers and the Black Power movement continue to be influential forces in how we think about social justice and equality today.

The Black Panther Party Legacy and Continuing Relevance

The Black Panthers continue to influence contemporary social movements, including Black Lives Matter. The party’s emphasis on critical analysis, dialogue, self-defense, community empowerment, and resistance to systemic oppression continues to resonate in modern struggles for racial justice and equality​​​​.

It is important to note that the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), founded in 1989, is distinct and separate from the original Black Panther Party. The NBPP, categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, espouses racist and antisemitic views, which are starkly different from the original BPP’s ideology. Founding members of the BPP have criticized the NBPP, emphasizing that there is no connection between the two groups​​​​ and protesting the appropriation and misuse of the Black Panther name.

The Black Panther Party stands as a significant chapter in American history, emblematic of a period marked by intense and unapologetic struggle for racial equality and social justice. Its legacy, controversial yet impactful, continues to influence and inspire movements for change and equality in the United States and beyond.

Explore Black Panther History and Relevance With ARCC

The Anti-Racism Commitment Coalition (ARCC) is an inclusive coalition of dedicated people committed to eradicating racism and spreading anti-racism throughout our communities, countries, and the world. We work to help and educate people on their transformative journey to anti-racism by providing access to related support and resources. Join us for our podcast on the Black Panther Party. 

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