Fifty years ago, in October of 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobbly Seale had a brilliant idea.
Initially conceived as a way to protect the black community against the oppressive presence and indiscriminate violence of the police in Oakland, Calif., the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense evolved into a organization that advocated for revolutionary black love, mass organizing and community programs in an effort to combat the institutional racism rampant in America and around the world.
The legacy of the Panthers has been deeply impacted by the federal government’s attempts to destabilize the organization. They were portrayed as violent radicals intent on overthrowing the government, but the very animal chosen as a symbol for the group sheds light on what the organizers had in mind.
“The symbol of the black panther was chosen because of its nature,” said Huey P. Newton in an interview. “If you strike it, it will rear back. But if the aggressor continues, the panther will strike with deadly efficiency.”
This was an organization founded with an eye for self-defense.
When most people think of racist violence in the 1960s, they think of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee or Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala. What is often overlooked is the way in which the police visited violence upon black, working-class communities in the North.
“They did not call you a [n–ger],” said former Black Panther Sherwin Forte. “But they treated you just the same as in the South.”
The Black Panther Party was not an organization led and populated by upper-middle-class, black, religious elites committed to nonviolence like the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was an organization full of people from the communities that were hardest hit by poverty, educational inequality and economic marginalization. These were members of the community taking it upon themselves to participate in their liberation—and the way the group engaged in resistance sometimes troubled civil rights leaders who were given access to political power in the 1960s. They were confrontational and unapologetic in their critiques of white supremacy. Many dressed in a way that signified black cool and displayed the beauty of African identity—and they married a Marxist critique of class to a critique of race.
White progressives often offered a critique of class that marginalized its intersection with race for people of color. This prompted W.E.B. Du Bois to write Socialism and the Negro Problem in which he argues that one can actualize progressive economic policies and leave racism intact. Addressing economic concerns, he argues, will not address the racism experienced by African Americans. Enacting progressive economic policies will not automatically fix unfair hiring practices due to implicit and explicit bias.
However, many in the civil rights movement emphasized race and did not say much about class. Martin Luther King Jr. later moved into a critique of what he deemed the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism, but many black activists working at that time emphasized race without addressing how capitalistic exploitation contributed to a unique form of oppression affecting people of color.
The Panthers addressed both. They taught Marx in their meetings and offered free meals to those who otherwise would have gone without eating. They were receptive to revolutionary ideas if those holding those ideas were willing to include race in their program. The party’s willingness to self-identify as radical makes it noteworthy; yet it is the impact of black women on the party that I find most remarkable.
“The irony of the Black Panthers is that the image is one of a black man and a gun,” says Clayborne Carson, historian at Stanford University. “But the reality is that the majority of the rank and file at the end of the ’60s were women.”
Indeed, many of the men in the party were patriarchal and held traditional, oppressive views of gender roles; however, many women in the movement were intentional about ensuring that their voices were heard and making room for the ideas of black women to be considered alongside their male counterparts. Former party Chairwoman Elaine Brown’s famous saying was, “We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”
Despite the U.S. government’s infiltration of the movement with spies, assassination of key leaders and depiction of the party as an organization to be feared for its radicalism, the Panthers continue to inspire. They refused to apologize for loving black people and were profound in how they centered a black aesthetic and conceptual frame. Their influence can be seen in areas as diverse as free-lunch programs, African-American-studies departments and movements like the Black Lives Matter Network.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was not perfect, but its members loved us—and that’s enough.