Op-Ed: Remembering the Black Panther Party

Posted Nov 1, 2013 by Michael Terron
Despite its revolutionary pronouncements, the Black Panther Party began very much under the influence of the mainstream patriarchal culture. In 1968, the Party newspaper stated that the role of female members was to be "subordinate" to the males.
Original six members of the Black Panther Party (November 1966)
Original six members of the Black Panther Party (November 1966)
The following year, however, Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton, of the Illinois chapter, publicly condemned sexism in the party as counterrevolutionary. Adapting 'feminism' to the unique experiences of African American women, the Party advocated a womanist philosophy. Drawing on the writings of Angela Davis and others, it was posited that the "brutal equality" of oppression of Black males and females, based on chattel slavery, necessitated a creative approach to gender roles in the African American community. Unlike in European American society, African American men and women had to work together for the preservation and reconstruction of a 'revolutionary' culture and community.
From this point forward the Black Panther Party newspaper portrayed women as revolutionaries, using the example of Party members, such as Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins, all political, intelligent and attractive women. The BPP newspaper often showed women as active participants in the armed self-defense movement, picturing them with children and guns as protectors of the home, family and community. From 1968 to the end of its publication in 1982, the head editors of the newspaper were all women. In 1970, approximately 40% to 70% of Party members were women, and several chapters, such as the Des Moines, Iowa and New Haven, Connecticut, were headed by women. During the 1970s, the Party officially supported women's reproductive rights, including abortion, and 'reprimanded' men who violated the rules of gender equality.
One of the most significant projects of the BPP occurred on the weekend of September 5, 1970 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was there, after months of planning, a Revolutionary Constitutional Convention convened. A multicultural gathering of 15,000 people assembled to draft a new U.S. Constitution, providing "authentic liberty and justice for all Americans." In the week before the convention Philadelphia police assaulted the three Panther offices in the city. In the confrontation three officers were wounded, along with dozens of Panthers, who were also arrested. The latter were forced to walk naked through the streets while being photographed by the press.
Some of the proposals formulated during the Constitutional Convention were:
- an international Bill of Rights
- community control of schools
- free decentralized medical care
- the right to be gay
- the confiscation of billions of dollars of organized crime wealth
- the reorganization of police forces in the U.S. into rotating, volunteer, non-professional bodies, coordinated by a police review board, drawn from a weekly list of volunteers from each community
- redistribution of the world's wealth
The BPP had organized an armed 'underground' wing of the organization from its earliest days. Anticipating that its political activities would eventually be suppressed, they envisioned a 'secret' guerrilla army able to defend the group. However, by 1968, Newton, Minister of Defense and later Supreme Servant of the People, and the Chief-of-Staff, David Hilliard, began to emphasize the expansion of the survival programs, instead of the armed clandestine 'vanguard'. That same year, the national leadership initiated a policy to 'expel' those members involved in 'unauthorized' armed activity.
In the early 1970s Newton introduced his theory of intercommunalism, and changed the name of the national paper from The Black Panther to the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service.. Instead of the initial philosophy of 'revolutionary' black nationalism, Newton argued that "the world was a collection of communities, mostly exploited by a small community of corporations based in the U.S." Several chapters, mostly on the East coast, and leading national officers, including Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, were expelled for "emphasizing the gun" and moving the organization into "military action" without the support of the people. Subsequently, Cleaver, in self-exile abroad, formed a separate group in Algeria. The Newton-led faction consolidated the remaining members into the one city where it all began: Oakland, California. . .
Fueled in part by COINTELPRO, the strength of the Party declined precipitously in the mid-1970s. Members who had joined the organization for less-than-revolutionary reasons, unreformed 'gangsters', continuing vestiges of male chauvinism, in addition to Newton's drug abuse, became major internal problems.
"By 1974, it was obvious that Huey was moving in a direction that Bobby (Seale) did not fully support. Huey, flanked by the thirty-man strong security squad, had started to shake down the criminal elements in Oakland. Pimps, drug dealers and managers of after-hours spots were now obliged to kickback some money or face consequences. This was not a counterrevolutionary tactic. In fact, many revolutionary movements throughout the world had operated in a similar fashion; taxing the 'illegal' capitalists who had profited off the community, but did not pay into the 'system'. But, things began to get out of hand. In 1974, a warrant was put out for Huey's arrest in the murder of a prostitute. The pimps and hustlers had also put out a $25,000 contract on our leader's head, and with many of the members of the security squad leaving the Party, he had no protection. Huey and his wife 'disappeared'. They eventually resurfaced in Cuba."
My People Are Rising, Aaron Dixon
Before Newton's departure, Seale was expelled from the Party and Elaine Brown, a member of the central committee, became chairwoman. Under her leadership the BPP aligned with several political power brokers in the Bay Area and Sacramento. A major victory occurred with the election of John George, the Party's longtime lawyer, as the first Black member of the Oakland/Alameda County Board of Supervisors. In 1975, another political ally, Lionel Wilson, became the first Black mayor of Oakland.
The Panther-created Intercommunal Youth School, begun in 1971, gained a reputation as one of the best community-based schools in the country. Directed by Brown, Ericka Huggins and Donna Howell, the institution developed a novel approach to education by not having grade levels and offering free busing; breakfast, lunch and dinner; books and school supplies; clothes and medical examinations.
The Black Panthers have become an inspiration, in name and tactics, for various groups and movements since its existence:
- Gray Panthers, often used to refer to advocates for the rights of seniors (Gray Panthers in the United States; The Grays - Gray Panthers in Germany)
- Polynesian Panthers, an advocacy group for Maori people in New Zealand
- Black Panthers, protest movement for the rights and social justice of Mizrahi Jews in Israel
- White Panthers, used refer to both the White Panther Party, a far-left, anti-racist, White American political party of the 1970s, as well as the White Panthers UK, an unaffiliated group started by Mick Farren
- The Pink Panthers, used to refer to two LGBT rights organizations
- Pantrarna, a grassroots organization in Gothenburg, Sweden, mainly consisting of migrant youth, has been named after the Black Panthers . . .