Revised History of the Black Panther Party

For me, the Black Panther Party meant leather car coats, black turtlenecks and black berets. It meant violence and guns. It inspired fear. But like the many black men and women who joined the Black Panther Party with ideas of power and revenge, I was fully disillusioned. Because for many years my understanding of the Black Panther Party, their history and their purpose, was shaped by media and movies. And I believed that what I saw and knew was fully true. 

But the Black Panther party was not, as J. Edger Hoover argued (and I loosely believed), “the single greatest threat to the United States.” They were not, as I have unfairly thought, a racist terrorist group that wanted to spread fear by violence in hopes of bringing down the system. Rather, they were smart and educated and extremely giving. And they were inclusive to all color. Something I never knew. 

I recently listened to a podcast appropriately entitled, The Black Panther Party, hosted by Stuff You Should Know. The following is a brief summary of their 67 minute overview of the incredibly misunderstood Black Panther Party.

From Crow:

To grasp the why of the Black Panthers, historical context is important. They were created at the tail end of the Jim Crow Era, which, when simply put, means that life for a black American was very hostile. They were generally poor, were constantly harassed, and often beaten by police. The racial tension was intense, and it was everywhere.

And Black communities were tired of waiting for things to get better.

To Arms:

Photo by Stephen Shames

Photo by Stephen Shames

Robert Williams an American Civil Rights leader codified the idea of needing to defend self against an oppressive society. He might also be responsible for the (unfair) images we have today of the Black Panther Party - of black men with ammunition around their necks - because he was an early advocate for fighting back against the oppression and mistreatment of the white government. In 1962, he wrote Negroes with Guns (1962) which details “his experience with violent racism and his disagreement with the non-violent wing of the Civil Rights Movement and the text was widely influential; Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton cited it as a major inspiration (via).

However, The Black Panther Party, armed and ready for violence, was not aggressive or offensive and in search of a fight. Instead, they were passive. Violence would only be used as a last resort. Just like a black panther.

Black Panthers (the animal):

Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party (originally called The Black Panther Party of Self Defense) and chose the black panther because “the nature of a panther is, if you push it into a corner, that panther is going to try and move left or right, to get you to get out of the way. But if you keep pushing {the black panther} back into that corner, sooner or later, that panther is going to come out of that corner and try and wipe out who keeps oppressing it into that corner” (via).

Black Panthers (the party):

The initial purpose of arms for the Black Panther Party was to defend themselves until a black man or woman could walk the streets without harassment, until equal opportunity. 

But carrying guns and intimidating law enforcement was not all they did. In fact, especially in the early stages, the Black Panther Party spent most of their time and energy serving and educating.

Members of the Black Panther Party were avowed Marxists and wanted to get rid of Capitalists; they were socialists, and they were willing to join hands (often literally) with anyone who shared the same sentiments or struggles. No matter the race.

Legal Arms:

Huey Newton, the other co-founder of the Black Panther Party, found in the California Law Book that citizens were allowed to carry a gun in public as long they were not concealed. (Ronald Reagan would soon sign a gun control act that stopped the open carrying of guns . . . and then in the late 70’s, he would team up with NRA and fight for the right to bear arms, but only after the Black Panther Party had lost its prominence).

Huey Newton, Bobby Seal, and other members of the Black Panther Party then legally patrolled the city of Oakland, looking for black men and women who were pulled over, and they would stand at a reasonable distance and protect the black citizen. Because they wanted to make sure their brothers and sisters where not mistreated or abused, as they so often were. And it worked! The cops responded as the Black Panther Party wanted, with much more care in how they treated the black citizen, and the black citizen responded as the Black Panther Party wanted - without violence. 

Arming the Party:

Photo by Stephen Shames

Photo by Stephen Shames

This show of strength, along with the leather car coats, black turtlenecks and black berets, create an image that attracted many new converts. But the men who quickly joined the party with ideas of guns and power and revenge in mind were fully disillusioned and quickly educated. Literally.

Kathleen Cleaver a then Black Panther Party leader and now professor at Emory University School of Law, told a story on CNN, of a young black man who joined the party to get a gun and join the patrol. When they gave him a stack of books he said, “I thought you were going to arm me."

"We just did," the Party responded.

For the Black Panther Party, violence was not the answer or solution.  Education and serving the community was.

Black Panther Service:

Photo by Stephen Shames (Like the men toting guns, these men and women are also members of the Black Panther Party. The contrast is striking. I love it).

Photo by Stephen Shames (Like the men toting guns, these men and women are also members of the Black Panther Party. The contrast is striking. I love it).

Huey Newton recognized that they could make a greater difference in the community if the underprivileged boys and girls ate breakfast before their long day of schooling. So they did. Five days a week, the Black Panther Party served over 20,000 free breakfasts around the country. For free. They also offered free medical clinics where people could get vaccines, be tested for diseases, and treated for basic illnesses. And under the direction and inspiration of Elaine Brown, the Black Panther Party opened the Oakland Community School, which was free, and where students could learn poetry, foreign languages, current events, yoga, and black history. They also open and operated 65 survival programs and ran “The Black Panther” newspaper which was read by men and women of all color, not just black community and had a circulation of over 250,000. Emory Douglas designed and published much of his artwork in “The Black Panther” and became a potent symbol of the movement. 

Take Away:

Photo by Stephen Shames

Photo by Stephen Shames

My understanding of the Black Panther Party was, and still is, largely incomplete, and it probably will forever be because people and cultures and humanity are not easily explained or defined. 

And I love that and think it appropriate because the unknown leads to wonder and begs for curiosity. Look at the faces above, especially the woman at left-center holding the poster, and Humanity is there. Pain, sorrow, fear, and pride. A longing for a better life and a hope that it can come. But in these faces, there is also doubt.  Doubt in the system and doubt in mankind.  

They lived in a world that allowed the incomplete and simple to be the whole story, and in doing so, failed to understand and to humanize.

They believed in a single story. Much like today.

Ten-Point Program:

Photo by Stephen Shames

Photo by Stephen Shames

In every publication of "The Black Panther" ran the party's Ten-Point Program, which really, is not all that different than the letter sent across the sea by our nation's founding fathers.

It's only appropriate that it's posted here.


We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine
The Destiny Of Our Black Community.

We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.



We Want Full Employment For Our People.

We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.



We Want An End To The Robbery
By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.

We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.



We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.

We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.



We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History
And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.

We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.



We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.

We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.



We Want An Immediate End To
Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.

We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.



We Want Freedom For All Black Men
Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.

We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.



We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In
Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.

We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the "average reasoning man" of the Black community.



We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,
Clothing, Justice And Peace.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.


For more on . . .

Stephen Thames photograph

The revolutionary art of Emory Douglas

The Black Panther's Vanguard of the Revolution film and page