The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California.
They were enraged by the racism they saw – particularly police brutality – and inspired by Malcolm X and the anti-colonial liberation movements of the time.
At its launch in 1966 the Black Panther Party for Self Defence issued a ten-point revolutionary programme. Members had a striking visual image – with black leather jackets and black berets.
Their first activity was “patrolling the pigs”. Members would follow police patrols around Oakland and observe as any black people were stopped. The Panthers were careful to be polite and obey the law – but they carried both law books and shotguns.
The FBI could not tolerate the Panthers’ revolutionary challenge, and declared them the “top domestic threat”. They were relentlessly persecuted.
Many of their leading members were either arrested or killed in gun battles.
The party never developed stable internal structures or ways or organising democratically.
It relied on the unemployed “brothers on the block” as its base, rejecting the organised working class as bought off by the system.
Unfortunately this meant they lacked a collective core that would have been more able to withstand repression.
The level of state repression pushed the Panthers into decline, creating internal tensions.
“We had government infiltration, as we know now,” Emory explains. “There is documentation from former FBI agents like M Wesley Swearingen, who actually testified on behalf of leading Panther ‘Geronimo’ Pratt.”
The persecution never ended. Some Panthers are imprisoned to this day.
Emory says, “Mumia Abu Jamal is still in prison. Then you’ve got the Angola Three. One of them, Albert Woodfox, is out now and another will hopefully be out soon.
“Then there’s the San Francisco Eight who were tortured back in the day. Then the case was thrown out because of the torture, but now they are trying to charge them again.”
The establishment has never managed to soften the legacy of the Panthers in the way that has been tried with Martin Luther King or even Malcolm X.
Emory laughs, “Well, we had a lot of articulate people. Our social programmes showed up the government’s failure to do anything for black people.
“Then of course there were the shoot outs with the police.”