The rise of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the late 1960s signified a monumental step toward the development of self-determination in the United States. In a nation that has long suffered a schizophrenic existence, characterized by a grand facade of “freedom, liberty and democracy” hiding what Alexis de Tocqueville once aptly described as “old aristocratic colours breaking through,”1 the BPP model provided hope to not only Black Americans who had experienced centuries of inhumane treatment, but also to the nation’s exploited and oppressed working class majority that had been inherently disregarded by both the founding fathers’ framework and the predatory nature of capitalism.As we grind our way through the tail-end of a neoliberal storm, it has become clear that in an age of extreme inequality, unabated corporate power, and overwhelming government corruption at all levels; we have a war on our hands. Not a war in the traditional international sense, but a domestic class war; one that has decimated our communities, our hopes for a better future, our children’s educations, and our collective physical and mental well-being. The aggressors in this war are powerful – so much so that resistance often seems futile, and the opposition insurmountable. Multi-trillion dollar financial institutions and multi-billion dollar corporations pulling the strings of the most powerful politicians – Presidents, Senators, Congress members, and Governors alike – all of whom have at their disposal the abilities to print money at will, control markets through fiscal and monetary policy, deploy powerful militaries anywhere in the world, and unleash militarized police forces to terrorize our neighborhoods.
Despite this juggernaut of an enemy, working-class resistance has not subsided. And although it took a proclaimed “economic crisis” to wake many from their slumber, developments within activist and direct action circles have been positive over the past half-decade. The Occupy movement sparked much-needed discourse on income inequality and corporate/government corruption while setting up the fight for a $15 minimum wage, which has caught on like wildfire throughout the country, and especially among the most vulnerable of the working class – low-wage service sector workers. Anti-war protestors who made their presence felt during the Bush administration – only to disappear after Obama’s election – have begun to trickle back with the gradual realization that nothing has changed. And anti-capitalist political parties throughout the Left, though still small and splintered, have gained momentum and membership while successfully plugging into some mainstream working-class consciousness (Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative‘s rise in Seattle; the Black Autonomy Federation‘s regrouping of grassroots, anti-authoritarian struggle; the International Socialist Organization‘s ongoing solidarity with folks like Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Ali Abunimah and Amy Goodman; the Socialist Party USA‘s growing relevance; and the Party for Socialism and Liberation‘s relentless battle in the trenches of anti-war, anti-police brutality, and anti-racist activism).
These developments, while positive in many respects, have ultimately been limited. Some of these limitations are due to external factors that continue to plague the American public: a general deficit in education and knowledge, a lack of class-conscious analysis, and the inundation of corporate media and propaganda, to name a few – all of which pose elements that are difficult, if not impossible, to control. Other limitations are due to internal factors which are largely controllable, such as organizational structures and approaches. It is regarding these internal shortcomings where the original Black Panther Party model becomes invaluable and should be held as a standard blueprint for all organizations and parties seeking revolutionary change.
The following is a list of attributes, both tangible and conceptual, that made the BPP an effective model for true liberty and self-determination; and, consequently, a substantial threat to the status quo of ever-strangling corporate and governmental power. Organizations and parties of today, whether through piecemeal or wholesale consideration, would do well to take this ideal mix into account.
Theoretical Foundation and Internationalism
Despite constant grumblings regarding the “inundation” and “worthlessness” of theory from within the modern Left, a glance at the operational effectiveness of the original BPP lends credence to its usefulness.
The BPP was firmly rooted in revolutionary political philosophy, most notably that of Marxism – a tool that is needed to understand and properly critique the very system which dominates us – capitalism. “Capitalist exploitation is one of the basic causes of our problem,” explained one of the party’s founders, Huey P. Newton, and “it is the goal of the BPP to negate capitalism in our communities and in the oppressed communities around the world.”2
The BPP’s ongoing exploration of theory allowed for the development of a crucial class component that perfectly balanced their fight against institutional racism. This helped create the notion that the fight for racial justice could not be won outside the confines of economic justice and class division, something revolutionary counterparts like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X would also eventually realize.
Stemming from Marxism was the method of and adherence to “dialectical materialism,” which “precluded a static, mechanical application” of theory and allowed the party to adapt to the constantly developing environment while maintaining a mission based in class and racial oppression. “If we are using the method of dialectical materialism,” argued Newton, “we don’t expect to find anything the same even one minute later because one minute later is history.”3 Regarding the party’s embrace of this method, Eldridge Cleaver noted, “we have studied and understand the classical principles of scientific socialism (and) have adapted these principles to our own situation for ourselves. However, we do not move with a closed mind to new ideas or information (and) know that we must rely upon our own brains in solving ideological problems as they relate to us.”4
The Party’s belief in “international working class unity across the spectrum of color and gender” led them to form bonds with various minority and white revolutionary groups. “From the tenets of Maoism they set the role of their Party as the vanguard of the revolution and worked to establish a united front, while from Marxism they addressed the capitalist economic system, embraced the theory of dialectical materialism, and represented the need for all workers to forcefully take over the means of production.” This approach was echoed by Fred Hampton, who urged all to resist fighting racism with racism, but rather with (working class) solidarity; and to resist fighting capitalism with “Black capitalism,” but rather with socialism.
Through this theoretical base, “Newton and the BPP leadership organized with the intent of empowering the Black community through collective work,” Danny Haiphong tells us. “Each concrete medical clinic, free breakfast program, and Panther school were organized to move community to confront the racist, capitalist power structure and embrace revolutionary socialism and communalism.”
The Party’s Ten-Point Program and platform, which evolved slightly over the course of several years, rested on demands that focused not only on historical roots to the daily injustices faced by Black Americans and oppressed communities, but also took on an international scope that allowed for understanding macro-systemic causes, and particularly those associated with capitalism. As Cornel West explains, “The revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party linked the catastrophic conditions of local Black communities (with the disgraceful school systems, unavailable health and child care, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, escalating rates of imprisonment, and pervasive forms of self-hatred and self-destruction) to economic inequality in America and colonial or neocolonial realities in the capitalist world-system.”5
“It was the politics of international radical solidarity … Because of the tremendous hostility that the Vietnam War was generating, youth organizations in Germany, France and Sweden created solidarity committees for the BPP. We would travel back and forth; and they raised money for us. There were liberation movements in Africa who read our paper and contacted us,” says Kathleen Cleaver. The Party even established its own embassy in Algeria, a nation that had no diplomatic ties with the United States at the time. With a firm understanding of political economy and geopolitics, the party possessed a “big picture approach” that has become a necessity, especially in today’s world of globalization, neoliberalism, and multinational corporate power.
Praxis and Direct Action
“They (the people) can do anything they desire to do,” Newton professed, “but they will only take those actions which are consistent with their level of consciousness and their understanding of the situation. When we raise their consciousness (through education), they will understand even more fully what they in fact can do, and they will move on the situation in a courageous manner. This is merging your theory with your practices.”6
The BPP didn’t just talk about change, they actively pursued it. Their presence was felt in the neighborhoods for which they lived and worked. They walked the streets, talked with folks, broke bread with neighbors, and cultivated a sense of community. Their numerous outreach efforts were well-planned, beautifully strategic, and always multi-pronged – combining basic and pleasant human interaction with education and revolutionary politics. They were the perfect embodiment of solidarity, often times rejecting notions of leadership and superiority to create a radical landscape where all were on equal footing. The sense of empowerment felt by all who came in contact with them was unmistakable.
In an effort to curb police brutality and the indiscriminate murders of black youth at the hands of racist police tactics, the party regularly deployed armed citizen patrols designed to evaluate the behaviors of police officers. They coordinated neighborhood watch programs, performed military-style marching drills, and studied basic protective manuevers to ensure measures of safety and self-preservation for citizens living in oppressed communities.
In January of 1969, in response to the malnutrition that plagued their communities, the party launched a “Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren” program, which was introduced at St. Augustine’s church in Oakland, California. In a matter of a few months, the program had spread to other cities across the country. In April, the Black Panther newspaper reported on its progress and effectiveness:
The Free Breakfast for School Children is about to cover the country and be initiated in every chapter and branch of the Black Panther Party… It is a beautiful sight to see our children eat in the mornings after remembering the times when our stomachs were not full, and even the teachers in the schools say that there is a great improvement in the academic skills of the children that do get the breakfast. At one time there were children that passed out in class from hunger, or had to be sent home for something to eat. But our children shall be fed, and the Black Panther Party will not let the malady of hunger keep our children down any longer.
By year’s end, the program had blanketed the country, feeding over 10,000 children every day before they went to school. To compliment this, the Party “launched more than 35 Survival Programs and provided community help such as education, tuberculosis testing, legal aid, transportation assistance, ambulance service, and the manufacture and distribution of free shoes to poor people.” This type of tangible solidarity and assistance is needed today. Food drives, safety programs, neighborhood watch, and basic accessibility and assistance should not represent things that are beneath revolutionary politicking.
Due to their solid theoretical framework, the Party was able to deploy a proto-intersectionality that allowed them to go beyond issues of racial oppression and police brutality in order to address broad roots and common causes. In doing so, they were able to redirect the emotional rage brought on by targeted racism and channel it into a far-reaching indictment of the system. This created the potential for broad coalitions and opened up avenues for unity and solidarity with revolutionary counterparts, especially with regards to Black women.
Despite stifling elements of misogyny and sexism, the emergence of women as key figures in the Black Power movement was ironically made possible through the BPP. One of the party’s early leaders, Elaine Brown, pointed to a conscious effort on the part of female members to overcome patriarchy from within party lines. “A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant,” explains Brown. “A woman asserting herself was a pariah… It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was left undefined. If a Black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding Black manhood.” 7
Leaders like Brown, despite carrying this heavy burden of being drawn into a fight within THE fight, were incredibly important to the party’s mission and became highly influential members, local leaders, fierce orators, and public representatives for the party-at-large. Brown made impressive runs for Oakland City Council in 1973 and 1975, receiving 30% and 44% of the vote respectively. In 1977, she managed Lionel Wilson’s Oakland mayoral campaign which resulted in Wilson becoming the city’s first Black mayor.
Regarding the dynamics of sexuality and gender in the party, journalist and activist Annie Brown tells us:
The BPP had an open mind towards sexual expression as well as the roles women could play in social change organizations. The embrace of female empowerment and varied sexual identities within the party allowed for women like Angela Davis, to rise to prominent positions of power within the party while other radical organizations of the time such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) saved leadership roles for men, and forced women to remain in the background.
After addressing these early pockets of misogyny and hyper-masculinity, the party was shaped heavily by women, to the point where it “transformed gender roles in the Black Power movement,” and paved the way for similar developments in other grassroots movements in the U.S. In researching for her forthcoming book, “What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power,” Historian Ashley Farmer found the Party’s newspaper regularly “defied gender roles by depicting women as strong, gun-toting revolutionaries,” while female party members were heavily involved in setting “a community-focused revolutionary agenda that supported programs for daycare, groceries, and housing.”
In addition to celebrating women as “tough revolutionaries,” the newspaper included an “explicit focus on women’s issues” throughout its publication. For years, Women Panthers assumed leadership roles and ” turned toward local-level activism, providing food, housing, and health care in local black communities.” The inclusion of women as active participants in the struggle was eventually, if not initially, embraced by founding members. As Historian Robyn Spencer writes, “Seale and Newton didn’t exclude African-American women in their rhetoric or in their involvement. The message became: Black brothers and sisters unite for real social action.8 This development within the party’s evolution led to a membership that was majority (roughly two-thirds) female by the early-1970s, a desirable goal for a modern Left that still possesses a troublesome androcratic identity.
Despite constant meddling from the FBI and its COINTELPRO program, which sought to “disrupt, confuse and create tension within the organization,” the BPP’s organizational structure was solidly built, baring a slight resemblance to that of the Nation of Islam. Some BPP chapters operated with military-like discipline, a quality that tends to be lacking on a loose and often times hyper-sensitive Left (even amongst Leninist organizations). This was accomplished with a good mix of horizontal leadership and chapter autonomy, which allowed for creativity, initiatives and actions throughout the organization, while also maintaining the discipline necessary for taking broad action and staying focused on the big picture.
The party recognized the severity of the situation for oppressed and working-class communities within a racist and capitalist system. The system’s inherently predatory nature regarding social and economic issues provided a glimpse of a society based in class division, and the daily brutalization of communities of color at the hands of the police confirmed the presence of an all-out class war. In this sense, the party organized for this purpose – equipping themselves with ideological ammo, building poor and working-class armies through community outreach and education, arming themselves for self-defense, and operating their mission with a high degree of strategy and discipline.
Mao Zedong’s revolutionary military doctrine, “Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention,” was highly influential in the party’s daily operations. These “rules of engagement” emphasized obedience to the needs of oppressed peoples as well as conducting actions in a respectable and honorable manner (Be polite when speaking; Be honest when buying and selling; Return all borrowed articles; Pay compensation for everything damaged; Do not hit or swear at others; Do not damage crops; Do not harass females; and Do not mistreat prisoners). “There were some aspects of Chairman Mao’s thought that had helpful and sensitive application for the life of the Panthers in the ghetto,” explained Cleaver.9
In addition to Mao’s “little red book,” the party made Che Guevara’s “Guerilla Warfare” required reading in all of its political education classes. Recognizing the similarities between the Black struggle in America and the struggle of the colonized in many parts of the world, party members studied anti-colonial resistance and Regis Debray’s foco theory of revolution, which posited the idea that “vanguardism by cadres of small, fast-moving paramilitary groups can provide a focus (in Spanish, foco) for popular discontent against a sitting regime, and thereby lead a general insurrection.” While the BPP didn’t apply this in the same manner as a revolutionary peasantry would in taking up arms against an imperial force, they were able to use many points as a foundation for unity and self-defense, if not merely for inspiration in battling forces of oppression. Said Newton:
… all the guerilla bands that have been operating in Mozambique and Angola, and the Palestinian guerillas who are fighting for a socialist world. I think they all have been great inspirations for the Black Panther Party… they are examples of guerilla bands. The guerillas who are operating in South Africa (against Apartheid) and numerous other countries all have had great influence on us. We study and follow their example.
This disciplined approach allowed the party to establish clear targets for opposition, while also dissuading reactionary behaviors that were dangerously counterproductive and counter-revolutionary. An example of this came in a message released to members through the organizational newspaper in 1968. The message was in response to news of frequent quarrels with hippies:
Black brothers stop vamping on the hippies. They are not your enemy. Your enemy, right now, is the white racist pigs who support this corrupt system. Your enemy is the Tom nigger who reports to his white slavemaster every day. Your enemy is the fat capitalist who exploits your people daily. Your enemy is the politician who uses pretty words to deceive you. Your enemy is the racist pigs who use Nazi-type tactics and force to intimidate black expressionism. Your enemy is not the hippies. Your blind reactionary acts endanger THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY members and its revolutionary movements. WE HAVE NO QUARREL WITH THE HIPPIES. LEAVE THEM ALONE. Or – THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY will deal with you.
Such focus is crucial and should be a primary goal for a modern Left that is often intensely and frustratingly sectarian.
An All-Inclusive, Working-Class Orientation
Perhaps the most valuable of the BPP’s attributes was its common acceptance and inclusion of the most disenfranchised and oppressed of the working classes – the unemployed, the poor, and those alienated by the criminal justice system through racist and classist laws and law enforcement practices. This approach stood in contrast to the overly-Eurocentric package that housed orthodox Marxism, and openly defied the highly romanticized, lily white version of working-class identity espoused by many Leftist organizations throughout history – often symbolized by the white, chiseled, “blue-collar” man wielding a hammer.
Over the years, Marx’s assessment and discarding of the “lumpenproletariat” – a population that he described as “members of the working-class outside of the wage-labor system who gain their livelihoods through crime and other aspects of the underground economy such as prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, and gamblers” – had been accepted by many on the Left. However, the BPP’s familiarity with Zedong and Guevara led them away from this commonly accepted notion, and their philosophy paralleled that of Frantz Fanon, who in his ongoing analysis of neocolonialism, deemed the lumpen to be “one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.”
The BPP recognized similar dynamics within the United States – particularly the relationship between Black, poor, and disenfranchised populations and the power structure – and viewed this as a microcosm of international colonialism. In their eyes, the American “peasantry” wasn’t tilling fields and cultivating crops – it was the homeless lying in the streets, the unemployed standing on the corners, the racially disenfranchised left with no options in life, and the unlawfully imprisoned masses behind bars. They saw potential in society’s castaways and embraced the idea of a revolutionary class made up of displaced workers who were never given a chance to participate in the labor market.
Newton, particularly, was a firm believer in the revolutionary potential of the ‘Black lumpenproletariat’ in the United States, and viewed this notion as an important challenge to the “bourgeois nature” of the Southern Civil Rights movement, which he believed had become completely reliant on a reformist-minded, Black middle-class leadership that was too concessionary and did not properly represent a revolutionary working-class orientation.
Today, at a time when over 20 million able-bodied Americans have been forced into the “underground economy,” and another 2.5 million are incarcerated, the idea of drawing society’s castaways toward class-conscious political movements is ripe. Narratives that focus on the erosion of the “middle class” are not only insufficient, they’re irresponsible. Our true struggle lies with the multi-generational poor, the unemployed, and the imprisoned victims of the draconian “Drug War” and prison industrial complex.
A Winning Formula
The BPP model could be summed up with the following formula: (THEORY + INTERSECTIONALITY) + (PRAXIS + EDUCATION) = CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS = REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE. Like no other, the party successfully blended a heavy academic foundation with a non-academic approach, using community outreach programs to serve basic needs while also educating and promoting class consciousness. Their crucial “Survival Programs” sought to satisfy immediate Maslovian needs without losing sight of the ultimate goal of uprooting and transforming society from below.
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems,” explained Newton. “That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”10
The party also wasn’t afraid to display physical prowess and utilize the art of intimidation in their struggle. In fact, they saw this as a crucial component necessary to counter reactionary and senseless violence from racist citizens and police officers. They provided security escorts for Betty Shabazz following Malcolm’s death, and sent thirty armed members to the California State capitol to protest the Mulford Act. This approach, coupled with similar tactics of self-defense used by the Nation of Islam, proved to be a vital compliment to the non-violent wing of the Civil Rights movement, ultimately allowing its “more palatable elements” to secure legislative victories. Furthermore, it challenged the notion that reactionary and racist conservatives had a monopoly on intimidation and violence – a notion that has gained an increasingly strong foothold over time, and should be challenged again.
The BPP’s model is needed today. A firm foundation of knowledge, history, internationalism, and political economy is needed. A concerted effort to bond with and assist our working-class communities and disenfranchised sisters and brothers is needed. An infusion of authentic, working-class politics which shifts the focus from ‘middle-class erosion’ to ‘multi-generational disenfranchisement’ is needed. The blueprint is there. Let’s use it.
• This article was first published at the Hampton Institute
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Penguin Books edition, 2004: p. 58 [↩]
- The Huey P. Newton Reader, Seven Stories Press, 2002. p 229 [↩]
- Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas. Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy. Routledge, 2001, p. 30. [↩]
- The Huey P. Newton Reader, p 230 [↩]
- The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. Edited and with an afterword by David Hilliard. University of New Mexico Press, 2008 [↩]
- The Huey P. Newton Reader, pp. 228-229. [↩]
- Johnnetta B. Cole, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities. Random House, NY: 2003. p 92 [↩]
- Robyn C. Spencer, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California,” Journal of Women’s History, 20 no. 1 (2008), 3. [↩]
- Cleaver and Katsiaficas, p. 30. [↩]
- To Die for the People: The writings of Huey P. Newton, City Lights Books, 2009. [↩]