The Black Panther Party: Power To The People

The Black Panther Party: Power To The People

By Vanessa Pohley
Contributing Writer
College English Paper
(College) Nov. 2015


The Black Panther Party [BPP] has been commonly looked at as just another militant group, however their philosophy and goals focus on the betterment of the people. Revolution and change has not happened with only peaceful protests and asking nicely. Sometimes drastic changes call for drastic measures.

The Black Panther Party was founded Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, two broke college students in Oakland, California. This party was originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966 and the name was later changed to the Black Panther Party (Abu-Jamal 2). This was a very important time in history for a group like this to emerge. During the ’60’s the movement towards civil rights was spreading throughout the country and the people were ready to rebel against the injustice. Bobby and Huey seemed to be looking for an organization that would be the voice for Black Americans (Abu-Jamal 3). Although the BPP and the civil rights movement seemed to be fighting for the same thing, Abu-Jamal Describes the BPP as “the antithesis of Dr. King” (7). The BPP did not repress the anger of their ancestors that were field slaves. The BPP would not overlook the injustice and inequalities. “[The] radical, rebellious spirit constituted a powerful social force that would attract tens of thousands of alienated ghetto folks to either join or support the Black Panther Party” Abu-Jamal explains (32). The Black Panther Party became a platform for the black community to have a collective voice and essentially make a real change.

In the book, The Black Panthers Speak, Philip S. Foner explains that the Black Panther Party expressed their wants and beliefs in a ten-point party platform and program (1). The ten points can be categorized into basic freedoms and the acknowledgment of oppression. The Black Panther Party wanted full employment, decent housing and education that represented their culture and history (Foner 2). They believed that Black people would not be free until they were given the freedoms to determine their own destiny. The Black Panther Party expected the justice system to recognize the systematic oppression (Foner 3). This would be done through allowing Black men to be exempt from military service, set free from jail and prison due to unjust trials and for the police brutality and murdering of Black people to end immediately (Foner 3). The Black Panther Party believed that Black people should not be forced to fight for a government that does not protect them. They believed that Black people should have fair trials with a jury of their peers from the Black community (Foner 3).

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In order for the Black Panther Party to achieve these freedoms, they used a more direct approach. This type of approach was necessary during these time of segregation; hate and injustice. In his book, “We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party,” Mumia Abu-Jamal states that the Black Panther Party was not a civil rights group because they refused to look the other way; they chose to fight the inequality (7). Their approach stemmed from the need of self-defense in response to police brutality. The Black Panthers chose to promote self-defense instead of non-violence. The Black Panthers stressed that [they] do not claim the right to indiscriminate violence. [They] seek no bloodbath. [They] are not out to kill up white people.” Foner continued, “On the contrary, it is the cops who claim the right to indiscriminate violence and practice it everyday. It is the cops who have been bathing Black people in blood and who seem bent on killing off Black people. (19).

The BBP decided that they would not accept the violence towards them from the law enforcement, instead they said, if the cops shoot, they will shoot back (Foner 13). Ricky J. Pope and Shawn T. Flanigan explain that this approach was necessary because “the civil rights movement had failed miserably in persuading the police that beating Blacks was a bad idea” (452). The BPP had strict rules designed around carrying weapons. Party members were not permitted to carry a weapon when under the influence of alcohol, narcotics or weed and no party member was permitted to use, fire or point a weapon in unnecessary circumstances. Party members could not cause harm to any Black people and could not take anything from the poor and oppressed (Foner, 5). If any of the BPP rules were broken members would be suspended and any other necessary disciplinary action would be put into place.

The Black Panther Party was very strategic with their approach when carrying weapons and practicing their rights. Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther party, had studied the law very carefully. The party’s goal was to exercise and understand their rights enough to articulate these statements to the law enforcement when necessary. The Black Panther Party developed the first police monitoring patrols. Mumia Abu-Jamal explained, “Party members would be armed, loaded with weapons, cameras, tape recorders and law books. When approaching a traffic stop, they would loudly announce state law allowed citizens to observe the police stops and arrests,”(67). Pope and Flanigan explain that to prepare its members an important part of the orientation process included, “weapon training classes, close combat drills, guerrilla warfare propaganda and armed confrontations with police officers throughout the nation,” (453). The Panthers were well prepared and well educated to confront the unjust actions of the police force.

The BPP organization was much more complex than their response to police brutality. They ran over twenty service programs that were designed to provide the freedoms that were lacking in the oppressed communities. The BPP believed that ideas and theories were great, but ideas and theories with no action mean nothing (Foner 139). The Panthers wanted to feed children for free and they started the first service program called Free Breakfast For School Children Program. In his book “The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs,” David Hillard clearly goes through all the service programs that were provided by the BPP. Hillard tells that this program provided “free, hot and nutritionally balanced breakfast for any child who attended the program.” This program grew so large, even the government could not deny that the BPP were feeding more children than they were (Hillard 30). In addition to the free breakfast program, the BPP also created a free food program. This program provided free food to oppressed people in need to supplement groceries that they could not afford. The BPP saw a need for their free food program because of the increases in prices, making it hard to afford healthy and balanced meals for their families (Hillard 35).

The BPP were dedicated to providing the services and freedoms they felt were not being given to the black and oppressed people. They created free shoes and clothes programs, education programs, employment programs and housing programs. The free shoes program benefited families the most because provided shoes for a family of four got quite expensive (Hillard 62). The BPP worked with factories as a nonprofit organization allowing their donations to be a write-off so that the program can get shoes (Hillard 62). The free clothing program provided new, quality clothing to black and poor people.

This program, like the breakfast program, provided mainly to the children especially during the winter with warm clothing. However, this particular program was helpful to adults in search of employment because free quality interview clothes were available to those in need (Hillard 66). Their efforts to get their people employed did not stop there. The BPP created The People’s Free Employment Program, where they provided all the resources needed to find a job in one convenient place. It was essentially the same as a modern day career center. People were able to learn that jobs that were available without the need to take a shuttle from office to office (Hillard 45). Another important survival program provided was the People’s Cooperative Housing Program. This program was dedicated to providing safe and quality housing for families that could not afford this basic need (Hillard 54). The Panthers took the freedoms that they were fighting for in their own hands and created ways to provide them to other Black individuals.

In addition, the BPP had a variety of medical and maintenance services available to the Black and oppressed communities. They created the People’s Free Medical Research Health Clinic, a Peoples Free Ambulance Service, and a Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation. The BPP’s free clinic provided free medical treatment and health care to the community. With the hospitals and doctors prices skyrocketing and the public clinic overcrowded, Black and oppressed community did not have access to low cost, comprehensive medical services (Hillard 21). The people’s free medical research clinic gave the people an opportunity to get quality medical care for free (Hillard, 21). The free ambulance service was created in response to hospitals refusing to send ambulances to Black communities or the extreme prices that were charged when it did make its way into these communities. This program provided a fast, no questions asked ambulance service for the Black and oppressed communities. (Hillard, 27) The Panthers identified the inequalities, brainstormed ideas and acted on them. Their drive to change the reality of their people saved countless lives and gave children a better opportunity to becoming successful adults in the biased world they lived in.

The BPP did not only preach equality, they lived it. The women in the Black Panther Party were not treated like inferiors but had just as much role in the party as the men did. However, it was not always that way, women in the Black Panther Party had to fight within the movement for their place. Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, originally made the membership exclusive to males (Ezra 128). In the book “Civil Rights Movement: People and Perspectives,” Michael Ezra explained, “male BPP members came to realize that the law enforcement made little distinction between Black men and Black women” (128). This caused the party to rethink their policies and views on gender politics.

Once male chauvinism within the party was eliminated, women began to hold important roles. Women ran most of the service programs that were provided by the party, they spoke at rallies and were interviewed by the press (Foner 145). Mumia Abu-Jamal quotes Frankye Malika Adams, a female member of the Black Panther Party, “‘Woman ran the BPP pretty much. I don’t know how it got to be a male’s party, or thought of as being a male’s party.’” (159). The Panthers realized that equality is not only about race, it is about humanity.

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In comparison with other militant groups and even hate groups, the Black Panther Party has proved to care about their community through their work. There is very little evidence about the Black Panther Party being violent other than in self-defense, I believe that the idea comes from an understanding of Klu Klux Klan and classifying the two groups together. When bringing up the BPP in conversation, I have received responses saying, “Weren’t they a gang that killed people?” or “Oh, the Black Panthers were bad news.” When in reality, these statements can be better related to the Klan’s philosophy in comparison with the Black Panther Party. In the book The Ku Klux Klan: A Guide to an American Subculture, Martin Gitlin expresses that the Ku Klux Klan’s philosophy was simply whites supremacy (46). The Klan responded to the civil rights movement with violent tactics including lynching and bombing black people and their communities (Gitlin 46). The Klan’s violence did not stop with black people. In the book The Klan Patsy Sims claims that “the Klan’s victims, white as often as Black in those days, included anyone, anything, the Klan didn’t like,” Sims continues “…and its dislikes were many: Negroes, Jews, Catholics, Orientals, Mormons, immigrants…” (3) and the list goes on. These acts of violence were out of hatred and rage, not self-defense. It is not a surprise that the police brutalized Black and oppressed people while the system looked the other way; many Klan members were in high positions in the government such as U.S. senators and congressmen (Sims 3). Unlike the Klan, the Black Panther Party stood for justice. They stood for equality. They stood for bettering the lives of all the people. It is important to know the difference between these two groups and to avoid thinking of them collectively.

The Black Panther Party did not stand with the civil rights movement. They realized that the non-violence movement was doing little to help the cause. They wanted to stop the violence. They wanted the oppressor to acknowledge the injustice. Pope and Flanigan express that the “BPP’s use of violence was not irrational. Rather, it was intentional…” (453) The party became one of the biggest threats to the U.S. because they were not afraid to defend themselves but also because they challenged the state’s use of violence. Mumia Abu-Jamal explains, “The Black Panther Party made (white) Americans feel many things but safe was not one of them.” (7). Simon Wendt brought up that “Prior to the legal victories of the civil rights movement, violence was an important means of racial control” (545). Many Panther members were put in jail and prison under circumstances that were unjust. These political prisoners stood up for what they believed in. These political prisoners posed a threat to the system because they were willing to speak up. There are still political prisoners from the BPP incarcerated today. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been incarcerated since ’82, for the murder of a police officer. People have claimed that he was framed for the murder and did not commit the crimes he has been imprisoned for.

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The #blacklivesmatter is a movement that was created in ’12 in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. #Blacklivesmatter does not mean that other lives do not matter however it is calling attention to the lack of compassion to Black people that are being killed by law enforcement. This modern day movement is similar to the Black Panthers in their motives and objectives. The #blacklivesmatter movement was inspired by the continuing violence that is projected onto Black people. Their objective is to bring attention to Black people that are being killed and to call attention to the inequalities. Similar to the BPP, their ultimate goal is equality, specifically systematic equality. However, the #blacklivesmatter movement is not as well organized as the BPP was and their goals are not clearly stated. Unfortunately, this movement lacks the action behind their words. The BPP created the reality they were fighting for; they focused on community building while they were fighting for equality. The BPP members were highly educated in regards to the law and their rights according to the constitution; they used their knowledge as a weapon. That is what makes the Black Panther Party such a monumental group in history. Their movement was true to equality. Talking about the need was not enough, they needed to provide the lacking services to the black and oppressed communities. The #blacklivesmatter movement has created dialogue, they are getting people talking and they have added the fight for the LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) community. However, talking will never be enough to evoke change.

In January ’09, Oscar Grant was detained by police in Oakland, California at the Fruitvale Bart Station. He was eventually cuffed and put face first on the ground. While he was cuffed, an officer took out his gun and shot him in the back. The cop claimed he thought he had grabbed his Taser and his sentence was reduced to two years. There is absolutely no reason for a cop to use a Taser on a cuffed man’s who is faced down on the ground. This is only one of many Black and oppressed people that have been brutally attacked or killed by the police.

The fact that opportunities the Black Panther Party founded are still needed today is disappointing. The fact that the Black Panther Party is looked at as a violent group in history to this day is disappointing. The Black Panthers were dedicated to their people and the community. Their hard work provided free food, clothing, medical care and education to those who did not have the resources to provide for themselves. The Black Panther party refused to be knocked down by society. They did not let the oppression, oppress them. They fought for their freedom. They fought for all the oppressed people in the United States of America.

Unfortunately, the need for this battle is alive and well today. Right now in ;15, I am hoping strong-minded people like the members of the Black Panther Party emerge today. I hope they emerge with the same fire in their eyes and the same passion, making a difference in our society. Non-violence and violence both have their place in a revolution. In order to be heard, noise must be made. However, once they are listening, peace will be the answer.

***

Works Cited

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom : A Life In The Black Panther Party. Cambridge 2004. Print.

Ezra, Michael. Civil Rights Movement: People And Perspectives. Santa Barbara 2009. Print.

Foner, Philip S. and Clayborne Carson. The Black Panthers Speak. New York 2002. Print.

Gitlin, Martin. The Ku Klux Klan: A Guide To An American Subculture. Santa Barbara 2009. Print.

Hilliard, David, and Foundation Dr. Huey P. Newton. The Black Panther Party : Service To The People Programs. Albuquerque 2008. Ebook.

Pope, Ricky J., and Shawn T. Flanigan. “Revolution For Breakfast: Intersections Of Activism, Service, And Violence In The Black Panther Party’S Community Service Programs.” Social Justice Research 26.4 (2013): 445-470. Web

Sims, Patsy. The Klan. Lexington 1996. Print.

Wendt, Simon. “‘They Finally Found Out That We Really Are Men’: Violence, Non-Violence  And Black Manhood In The Civil Rights Era.” Gender & History 19.3 (2007): 543-564. Web.

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