The Rise And Fall Of The Black Panther Party

Published November 1, 2016
Updated May 1, 2019

In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black socialist movement that would take America by storm.

The Historical Context Of The Black Panther Party

Race Riots In Harlem
At the onset of the civil rights movement, African-Americans were subjected to consistent acts of police brutality — brutality which, thanks to the advent of TV, helped shine a national spotlight on an all-too common event for African-Americans.

Pictured, a moment from the 1964 Harlem race riot.
Wikimedia Commons

A response to police brutality

In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) in Oakland, California to challenge and confront police brutality against African-Americans.Vimeo/The New York Times

Malcolm X and the BPP

Guns Up
The practices of Malcolm X help lay the philosophical groundwork for the BPP. Indeed, Malcolm X held an "any means necessary" approach to the fight for equality, a tenet he famously underscored in his "it’s either the ballot or the bullet" 1964 speech on African-American voting rights.Wikimedia Commons

Arms for peace?

Black Panther Party In California
As Seale explained, "Malcolm X had advocated armed self-defense against the racist power structure." Thus, the BPP armed itself as a way to "police the police" and ensure that police interactions with African-Americans did not culminate in violence.

The NRA doesn't want to see armed black people

Not everyone liked the idea of black activists wielding guns in their quest for political and economic change. One such opponent was California assemblyman Don Mulford (R), who introduced a bill soon after the BPP's inception to strip Californians of the right to openly carry firearms. The bill became known as the "Panther Bill," and it held the support of the NRA.

On May 2, 1967, 30 armed BPP members entered the California Capitol Building in an attempt to prevent the bill's passage and draw attention to their cause.

While then-governor Ronald Reagan would sign the bill into law, the BPP succeeded in garnering media coverage for their movement.

Pictured is a scene from the May 2 proceedings: Police Lt. Ernest Holloway informs BPP members that they will be allowed to keep their weapons as long as do not disturb the peace.
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The movement grows

Black Panthers Group
Following the May 2 event, BPP membership soared. By 1969, the Bay Area organization had expanded to hold 49 chapters and as many as 5,000 members.Vimeo/The New York Times

Its mission expands

Free Breakfast for Children
Around this time, the BPP expanded its vision and began offering a Free Breakfast for Children program while also promoting food, housing and healthcare rights in black communities.

Left, BPP members distribute free hot dogs to the public in New Haven, Connecticut.
David Fenton/Getty Images

The "greatest threat" to U.S. security?

Arrest Of A Black Panther
Given their radical politics and growing prominence, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the Black Panthers the "greatest threat to America’s security." Hoover described them as a "black nationalist, hate-type organization" and made it his goal to neutralize them and other radical groups by spying on, arresting and in some cases, assassinating members via a covert FBI operation called COINTELPRO.

Later declassified documents show that of the 290 actions COINTELPRO took against black nationalist groups, 245 were directed at the Black Panthers.
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Black Panther Party Aesthetics

Beyond politics and grassroots mobilization, BPP gained notoriety for the physical image it projected. The beret, leather jackets, and prominent afros comprised the quintessential Black Panther "look," one which had kids sending BPP members letters asking if they could join.

Pictured, BPP members demonstrate outside the Criminal Courts Building in New York City.
Jack Manning/New York Times Co./Getty Images

"Black is beautiful"

Child Black Beautiful
While the Panthers' aesthetic embrace of blackness made for a powerful visual trope, members say in doing so it didn't exactly invent the wheel.

"The panthers didn’t invent the idea that black is beautiful,” former member Jamal Joseph said in a documentary on the group. “One of the things that Panthers did was [prove] that urban black is beautiful.”
Vimeo/The New York Times

Hands Up
A line of BPP members demonstrate with fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, April 11, 1969.David Fenton/Getty Images

Revolutionary reading

The Black Panther's founders drew much inspiration from revolutionary and liberation movements around the world, specifically the writings of Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China. In 1968, the BPP made Mao's "little red book" required reading.

Another required read was Frantz Fanon's The Wretched Earth, which the Algerian author and psychiatrist wrote during the Algerian war for independence. Founders Seale and Newton believed, as Malcolm X suggested, that the plight of colonized Algerians bore striking similarities to the "internally colonized" lives of African-Americans in the United States and could thus prove useful in wielding its own war of independence in the U.S.
Vimeo/The New York Times

Women in the BPP

Black Panther Women
The role of women in the BPP was — as is so often the case in 20th century activist circles — a complicated one.

By 1970, over two-thirds of BPP members were women, and the party advocated for women's reproductive rights and against sexism. Likewise, many women played important leadership roles in the organization, and from 1968 to 1982, the head editors of the BPP newspaper were all women.
Vimeo/The New York Times

Kathleen Cleaver
Kathleen Cleaver, left, served as the BPP's press secretary and played a prominent role in disseminating the organization's message to the masses — and following Martin Luther King's 1968 assassination, called on members to attack police.Vimeo/The New York Times

Women In Color
Still, former members say that outward-facing platforms did not necessarily reflect interior reality.

"The Black Panther Party certainly had a chauvinist tone so we tried to change some of the clear gender roles so that women had guns and men cooked breakfast for children,” former BPP leader Elaine Brown said. “Did we overcome it? Of course we didn’t. As I like to say we didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”
Vimeo/The New York Times

Angela Davis Black Panther Party
Brown expounded on one event wherein she heard of BPP males beating up member Regina Davis for criticizing a male colleague. When Brown voiced her concern to BPP co-founder Huey Newton, Brown said that Newton refused to respond and instead challenged Brown to a debate. This prompted Brown to leave the BPP.

"A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant," Brown later wrote. "A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people...I knew I had to muster something mighty to manage the Black Panther Party."
Wikimedia Commons

Huey Newton jailed — and Panthers erupt

Huey Newton
Mass demonstrations came quickly following BPP co-founder Huey Lewis's conviction for killing 23-year-old Oakland police officer John Frey during a traffic stop. The jury sentenced him to 2 to 15 years in prison.

In the photo, Huey Newton puffs on a cigarette in a holding cell while a jury deliberated his fate.

"Free Huey!"

Free Huey
Supporters of Newton took to the streets to protest the verdict. Accounts varied as to who shot whom first and under what circumstances, and definitive evidence was hard to come by. Panthers pointed to a photo of Newton, shot in the stomach during the altercation and handcuffed to a gurney next to a police officer as proof that their concern over police brutality was warranted.

While in jail, Newton became an international icon of resistance. “There will be no prison which can hold our movement down,” Newton wrote. “The walls, the bars, the guns and the guards can never encircle or hold down the idea of the people.”

Two years later in 1970, Newton would be released from jail after two subsequent trials culminated in hung juries and the district attorney dismissed charges.
David Fenton/Getty Images

Changing goals

Huey Interview
Following his release, Newton endeavored to focus the efforts of the Black Panthers on community development projects such as the Free Breakfast Program.

Not everyone was on board, however. These critics didn't “see [BPP] as a vehicle for social service,” former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver said. “They saw it as a platform for radical political change.”

Pictured: Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton reclines on the grass as he answers questions from a Liberation News Service reporter on the campus of Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut in April 1970.
David Fenton/Getty Images

Black Panthers at the Democratic National Convention

In 1967, thousands gathered in Chicago for protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Demonstrating largely against the Vietnam War, federal authorities initially charged BPP co-founder Seale with conspiracy and inciting a riot alongside activists Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dillinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner.Getty Images

Another arrest

1969 saw several climactic arrests and convictions of BPP members, one of which included BPP cofounder Bobby Seale. Following the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, police charged Seale with conspiracy to riot.

Evidence was scant, though Judge Julius Hoffman sentenced Seale to four years in prison, which came due to Seale's 16 counts of contempt (Hoffman ordered Seale to be bound and gagged due to his in-court outbursts). While serving his sentence, Seale was tried again for the death of Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old BPP member who confessed under torture to being a police informant.
Shia/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Black Panther Party Press Conference
Black Panther Deputy Minister of Information Elbert "Big Man" Howard, center, and Black Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard, right, hold a press conference to discuss the imprisonment of Erica Huggins and Bobby Seale, New Haven, CT, April 30, 1970.David Fenton/Getty Images

A riot ahead?

Large Protests
During the trial of Seale and fellow BPP leader Ericka Huggins, students and activists planned a demonstration at Yale to protest what they viewed as a baseless attempt to discredit the BPP and its revolutionary aims.

Left, young people crowd the New Haven Town Green to start the weekend rally staged to support Bobby Seale.
Getty Images

Yale accommodates

Whites Demonstrating
The event had all the makings of a riot. Just days before, riots broke out at Harvard, and on that day students at Kent State would burn the ROTC building.

Riots didn't break out at Yale, largely due to the way the university treated demonstrators. Indeed, the university allowed the approximately 15,000 demonstrators to sleep on campus. Likewise, dining halls fed them three meals a day and permitted them to hold teach-ins in classrooms.

As longtime university administrator Sam Chauncey said, "The key [to avoid riots] was Yale’s decision, made in conjunction with police, to welcome the visiting radicals onto campus. Everyone else had tried to prevent radicals to keep them from getting onto the building, and it failed.”

Pictured: Demonstrators dance at a rally in support of the Black Panther Party in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 1, 1970. The rally coincided with the start of the trial of the New Haven Nine.
David Fenton/Getty Images

The BPP Reaches Its Peak

1970 marked the BPP's apex, and the organization boasted 68 offices throughout the United States and tens of thousands of members. Vimeo/The New York Times

Black Panthers abroad?

In 1971, BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver traveled to Algeria to establish an international Black Panther chapter. At the time, Cleaver was on the run as his 1968 ambush of a police officer left him charged with attempted murder.

Algeria was a natural destination for Cleaver. At the time, president Houari Boumediene welcomed armed groups who dedicated themselves to hauling out “colonial masters,” and would provide them generous monthly stipends and board upon their visit to Algiers. Cleaver used the stipend he received to establish the International Section of the Black Panther Party.

Internal rifts

Black Party Convention
In the early 1970s, party leadership would come into conflict with one another, signaling the beginning of the end of the BPP.

Cleaver advocated for urban guerrilla warfare to achieve party goals, whereas Newton wanted to take a more pragmatic approach to change by focusing on nonviolent community development.
Library of Congress

COINTELPRO succeeds?

White Women Panthers
Some former members say that the internal division came from the FBI's infiltration. “This is part of what the COINTELPRO operations were all about,” historian Beverly Cage said.

History bears this thinking out: In Southern California, the FBI's covert effort explicitly intended to “create further dissension in the ranks of the BPP.”

Regarding the rift between Cleaver and Newton, records show that the FBI sent a series of anonymous letters to various BPP offices suggesting that exiled Cleaver was falling out of favor, that Cleaver was going crazy and needed to be removed from his position, and that Newton was an ineffective leader.
Vimeo/The New York Times

The role of the media

Media Coverage
While the BPP succeeded in utilizing national media as a tool to spread its message, it worked both ways: Media, too, could craft its own vision of the Black Panthers — and one that would hopefully sell papers and increase ratings.

Prominent outlets often portrayed the BPP as singularly violent and dangerous, neglecting to mention the party's ten-point plan which emphasized equality for all, or its community development projects such as its free breakfast program.

The image of the "black thug" resonated with many Americans, who would largely view the BPP as a serious threat to American stability.

The threat of a revolution

Still Leaders
As Bobby Seale noted in a 1996 interview, the desire to shut down the Panthers also had to do with the view that they could indeed stir a revolution that extended beyond race.

"They came down on us because we had a grass-roots, real people's revolution, complete with the programs, complete with the unity, complete with the working coalitions, we were crossing racial lines," Seale said. "That synergetic statement of 'All power to all the people,' 'Down with the racist pig power structure' — we were not talking about the average white person: we were talking about the corporate money rich and the racist jive politicians and the lackeys, as we used to call them, for the government who perpetuates all this exploitation and racism."
National Archives

New Leadership Of The Black Panther Party

Elaine Brown
By 1974, Newton appointed Elaine Brown (left) to serve as the first BPP Chairwoman. Under Brown’s watch, the BPP focused primarily on electoral politics and community service, and she succeeded in getting Lionel Wilson elected as Oakland’s first black mayor. She also developed the Panthers Liberation School, an extension of the Free Breakfast Program which would teach students about class struggle and black history.

Brown would eventually leave the party in 1977, as she viewed Newton’s reaction to the beating of BPP member Regina Davis — and the party’s attitude toward women in general — unconscionable.

Newton's return — and the party's demise

Newton Death
In 1977, Newton — previously exiled in Cuba — returned to the United States.

Organization membership fell between then and 1982, when the Panthers school closed as authorities discovered Newton was using funds for the school to support his drug addiction. The party then dissolved.

Seven years later in 1989, an Oakland drug dealer shot and killed the 47-year-old Newton.

Pictured: Mourners comfort each other as they view the body of slain Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton before the start of funeral services.
Getty Images

The BPP's legacy

Panther Legacy
Experts hold differing views on the imprint the Black Panthers left on American politics and culture.

On the one hand, as author Jama Lazerow writes, the Panthers offered a life-affirming alternative to black roles and possibilities in public life. "The Panthers became national heroes in black communities by infusing abstract nationalism with street toughness—by joining the rhythms of black working-class youth culture to the interracial élan and effervescence of Bay Area New Left politics."

Others, such as biographer Hugh Pearson, say that the organization’s reliance on weapons and “gang mentality” yielded an increase in violent crime in subsequent decades.

Eldridge Cleaver, who later became a Reagan Republican, said that the group explicitly promoted violence, so much so that Hoover “wasn’t inaccurate” in his assessment of the BPP.

Pictured: Black Panther members demonstrate outside a New York City courthouse on April 11, 1969.
David Fenton/Getty Images

A "New" Black Panther Party?

Police Brutality
1989 marked the founding of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which describes itself as a "black nationalist organization" dedicated to establishing an "independently governed black nation."

Over the years, the organization's remarks have prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center to define it as a racist and anti-Semitic organization.

Members of the original BPP have distanced themselves from this new party, saying that the new organization has co-opted the BPP's name and exploited its history.

In this image, members of the New Black Panther Party march through the streets of Washington to demonstrate against the inauguration of George W. Bush.

Today's Black Panther Party
Still, some NBPP leaders say that former BPP members attend NBPP meetings — and thus, that the space between the parties is not as vast as former BPP leaders say.

“Some of these old guys who don’t support us, it’s because they are really elite now. They get big money to speak to white colleges, and they have left the revolution behind,” NBPP leader Hashim Nzinga told the L.A. Times.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

From Jack London's residence as an early 20th-century union activist to the 2011 Occupy Oakland Movement, the city of Oakland, California has historically been a hotbed for radicals -- and there is perhaps no better example of Oakland-born radicalism than the Black Panther Party.

Like so many cities at the time, post-World War II Oakland presided over a booming economy, one which lured many southern African-Americans and whites into the 350,000 person-plus town. By the 1960s, African-Americans constituted approximately half of the city population, while the police force — many of them recently-arrived Southerners — was all white. This dynamic, Oakland historian Steven Lavoie says, laid the groundwork for racial discord and police brutalization of African-Americans.

“The tension that resulted had a lot to do with who was hired, because a lot of the people from the South brought attitudes with them,” Lavoie said. “Blacks, but also whites not willing to be as tolerant as Oakland historically had been.”

Along with many other cities at the time, discrimination and violence against African Americans coursed through Oakland. Fed up with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. calling for nonviolent resistance to brutalization and in search of a transformation of existing economic and racial power relations that they believed stood at the source of this violence, two Oakland residents — Bobby Seale and Huey Newton — decided to take matters into their own hands.

In 1966, they created the Black Panther Party, a radical political organization whose influence would soon extend far beyond the Bay Area.

Below, watch footage of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver describe the purpose of the BPP in the mid-1960s:

Learn more about civil rights and African-American resistance with these posts on the Harlem Renaissance and how Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech almost didn't happen.