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WHAT WAS THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY?

The Black Panther Party was a progressive political organization that stood in the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America since the Revolution of 1776 and the Civil War: that dynamic episode generally referred to as The Sixties. It is the sole black organization in the entire history of black struggle against slavery and oppression in the United States that was armed and promoted a revolutionary agenda, and it represents the last great thrust by the mass of black people for equality, justice and freedom.

The Party's ideals and activities were so radical, it was at one time assailed by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." And, despite the demise of the Party, its history and lessons remain so challenging and controversial that established texts and media would erase all reference to the Party from American history.

The Black Panther Party was the manifestation of the vision of Huey P. Newton, the seventh son of a Louisiana family transplanted to Oakland, California. In October of 1966, in the wake of the assassination of black leader Malcolm X and on the heels of the massive black, urban uprising in Watts, California and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Newton gathered a few of his longtime friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and developed a skeletal outline for this organization. It was named, originally, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The black panther was used as the symbol because it was a powerful image, one that had been used effectively by the short­lived voting rights group the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization. The term "self defense" was employed to distinguish the Party's philosophy from the dominant non­violent theme of the civil rights movement, and in homage to the civil rights group the Louisiana based Deacons for Defense. These two, symbolic references were, however, where all similarity between the Black Panther Party and other black organizations of the time, the civil rights groups and black power groups, ended.

Immediately, the leadership of the embryonic Party outlined a Ten Point Platform and Program (see the end of this article for full text). This Platform & Program articulated the fundamental wants and needs, and called for a redress of the long­standing grievances, of the black masses in America, still alienated from society and oppressed despite the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War. Moreover, this Platform & Program was a manifesto that demanded the express needs be met and oppression of blacks be ended immediately, a demand for the right to self defense, by a revolutionary ideology and by the commitment of the membership of the Black Panther Party to promote its agenda for fundamental change in America.



HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE FOUNDING OF THE PARTY



There was no question that the end of the several centuries of the institution of slavery of blacks had not resulted in the assimilation of blacks into American society. Indeed, there was a violent, post­emancipation white backlash, manifested in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed by the benign neglect of the President and the Congress, codified in the so called Black Codes. The rampant Iynching of blacks became a way of life in America, along with the de facto denial to blacks of every civil right, including the rights to vote, to worship, to use public facilities.

From that time forward, then, blacks were obliged to wage fierce survival struggles in America, creating at once the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to promote integration of blacks into society as full, first­class citizens and the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) of Marcus Garvey to promote independence of blacks and eventually a return to Africa. At the same time, there were the effective efforts of former slave Booker T. Washington to establish a separate socioeconomic scheme for blacks. America's response to all such efforts was violent and repressive and unyielding. Thus, despite the mass uprisings by blacks in resistance to the unrelenting violence and the law's delay, despite tacit urgings by blacks to be afforded some means to survive, despite the bold endeavors by blacks to live separate lives in America or leave America, for the next half century, blacks, in the main, found themselves denied of every possible avenue to either establish their own socioeconomic independence or participate fully in the larger society.

Not until nearly 60 years after Plessy was there even the most minimal relief, in the Supreme Court's holding in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown, the Supreme Court stated that "separate" was "not equal" for blacks in America (at least with respect to public education). It is noteworthy that Dr. Kenneth Clark (the black psychologist on whose study the Brown court based its findings as to the negative impact on black children of the separate but equal doctrine) noted in 1994 that American schools were more segregated at that time than in 1954, when Brown was decided.

Even after Brown, blacks struggled to integrate and become full partisans in American society, to no avail. From the famous 1955, Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott to the subsequent voter rights efforts to the dangerous sit ins in all white public facilities led by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers, the civil rights movement challenged America. Under the spiritual guidance and the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. millions, blacks and whites, protested and marched for freedom and justice for America's black minority, as so many were murdered or maimed for life along the way. Finally, in 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a civil rights act that outlawed racial segregation in public facilities.

It was too little too late. As the images of nonviolent blacks and other civil rights workers and demonstrators being beaten and water hosed by police, spat on and jailed, merely for protesting social injustices shot across America's television screens (a new and compelling phenomenon in American life and popular culture), young urban blacks rejected non­violence. The full expression of this was the violent protest to the brutal police beating of a black man in Watts (Los Angeles), California in the 1965 rebellion that shocked America and set off other such responses to oppression. By 1967, there had been more than 100 major black, urban rebellions in cities across the country. In the same time frame of the same year, 1965, the Vietnam war erupted. As television reports revealed the horrible realities of the war, good American soldiers killing Vietnamese children, America's white youth called the question, and rallied against the war. America's youth, black and white, had become openly hostile to the established order.

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