The Black Panther Party took a revolutionary stand against the racism and imperialism of the US state in the 1960s. The party emerged with an image of armed, proud black people who were not prepared to turn the other cheek any more. They inspired a generation to fight back.
The most frequent images of the party are of black men in berets and leather jackets holding rifles. But as leading Panther Kathleen Cleaver pointed out, “According to a survey Bobby Seale did in 1969, two-thirds of the members of the Black Panther Party were women.” She put the discrepancy down to the media and a policy of disinformation by the FBI.
FBI boss J Edgar Hoover demanded propaganda “to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it.” The right has tried to show the organisation as little more than a macho, gun-toting street gang. A new history of the Panthers, Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr, challenges this view.
In the short period of its existence it also changed the lives of its members, debating how to challenge other inequalities including gender, class, LGBT as well as racism.
An offensive, macho comment from Stokely Carmichael is often taken to represent views in the Black Power movement on women. He said, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conference, November 1964.
It is a particularly absurd statement as women had been key since the movement started—after all, it was Rosa Parks who ignited it. But it reflected attitudes to women in wider society, and the fact that links to a political tradition committed to women’s equality, including the Communist Party (CP), had been lost.
At the same conference a paper on women complained, “The woman in SNCC is often in the same position as that token Negro hired in a corporation. The management thinks that it has done its bit. Yet every day the Negro bears an atmosphere, attitudes and actions which are tinged with condescension and paternalism.”
Kathleen saw challenging this as part of the wider struggle. She joined SNCC to eliminate “the legal, social, psychological, economic, and political limitations still being imposed on our human rights, and on our rights as citizens.
“That was the context in which we fought to remove limitations imposed by gender, clearly aware that it could not be fought as a stand-alone issue.”
She took this experience into the Panthers. Interviewed in 1998, she said the central question Panthers in the 1960s faced was “How do you empower an oppressed and impoverished people who are struggling against racism, militarism, terrorism, and sexism too?”
Panther Roberta Alexander argued that dealing with sexism in the Black Panthers was something women had to do alongside men. “When we struggle against male supremacy we struggle with the brothers in the party and the brothers struggle too. Cause it ain’t sisters that are doing all the struggle.”
The Panthers also raised issues of gay liberation. In a 1970 speech the party’s co-founder Huey Newton argued for uniting with “the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women.”
He continued in a way that seems shocking now, that “sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet.” But he was arguing to win a position, not talking people who already shared his views. He went on to argue that gays “might be the most oppressed people in the society.”
He concluded, “The terms ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.”
The Panthers identified themselves as Marxists, so they talked about class oppression. But inspired by guerrilla resistance groups like that in Vietnam, they looked to Maoism, which tends to see revolution in terms of armed uprising. This was why they looked to the unemployed “Brothers on the block” rather than organised workers.
Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale argued “Working class people of all colours must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class—let me emphasise again we believe our fight is a class struggle and not a race struggle.”
But in practice, the party saw the working class as another oppressed group—rather than a class that creates the wealth under capitalism and therefore has the power to change society.
In a statement on revolutionary trade unionism the party said, “The students cannot free the workers, the workers cannot free the students. Blacks folks cannot free white folks, white folks cannot free black folks.”
The statement concluded that the “Purpose of the working class as a whole can best be served by each going into his own community.”
This is a very different line from that of the CP in the 1930s, which managed to show in practice that black and white workers had an interest in working together to challenge capitalism.
Parts of the movement did put working class power at the centre of their activity, most significantly the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit. It is easier to understand the movement as a flowing river rather than a series of unmoving objects.
Within it some currents pull one way then another. The radicalism that made community politics a way into revolutionary politics in 1969 was pulling members away just a few short years later.
The readiness to confront the state led to massive reprisals. Panthers are still in prison to this day. A group of Panthers formed an underground Black Liberation Army to better fight this. They killed cops and attacked police stations, but had no real links to black communities and became marginal.
The last leader of the Black Panther Party, appointed in 1974, was Elaine Brown. She made the party an effective machine for aiding black people in the Oakland area, but its revolutionary politics were abandoned for deals with the Democrats and it ceased to function as a separate organisation.
But their legacy is the idea that it is possible to replace all aspects of capitalist society and end all forms of exploitation and oppression.
The state couldn’t stand the struggle
The Black Panther Party was the most important revolutionary challenge to the US state to appear in America in the 1960s. It first emerged in Oakland, California, in 1966. Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale founded it based on a ten-point programme for black liberation.
But what made them famous was their policy of “Policing the pigs”. Armed groups of Panthers with law books would follow police patrolling black neighbourhoods and watch whenever black people were stopped to check they were dealt with reasonably.
This was a response to the number of young black people who were shot by the police supposedly resisting arrest. This activity showed they were serious about taking on the state. By 1968 they had a national organisation, but were also seen by the FBI as its top priority.
The US state embarked on a campaign of arrests, harassment and assassinations that dogged the organisation for the rest of its existence. The Panthers emerged out of the radical end of the Civil Rights movement—particularly linked to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which for a while merged with the organisation.
The Panthers expanded into welfare programmes to help poor black people, although this sometimes clashed with their armed revolutionary activity. The organisation declined rapidly in early 1970s.
At first, inspired by Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, they called for revolutionary violence. They were wary of political theory, suspicious of an existing left that seemed to them to talk a lot and do very little.
And they saw the emerging black movement as based on lifestyle rather than challenging the system. Of the latter Panther Linda Harrison said, “Cultural nationalism ignores the political and concrete and concentrates on a myth and fantasy.”
Black Against Empire: the history and politics of the Black Panther Party
by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr
Available at Bookmarks bookshop 020 7637 1848
Women, Power, and Revolution (1998)
by Kathleen Neal Cleaver