In a packed hall in downtown Chicago in 1969 Black Panther founder Bobby Seale stood alongside local leader Fred Hampton. He was making a speech to a newly established district of the party—the mixed crowd of black and white radicals hung on every word.
“I’m so thirsty for revolution,” said Bobby. “We’re going to have a black army, a Mexican American army, an alliance with progressive whites. All of us. And we’re going to march on this pig power structure. And we’re going to say, ‘Stick ‘em up motherfucker. We’ve come for what’s ours’.”
Seale was channelling the spirit of rebellion that had been sweeping American cities for the past two years. The movement against the Vietnam War had fused with liberation struggles, and the urban uprisings that set alight scores of black ghettos.
From 1964 to 1968 black people rose up in almost every city in the north east, the Midwest and California. When the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles exploded in rage in 1965, the authorities deployed 14,000 National Guard troops.
In the repression that followed 34 people died and around 4,000 were arrested. In each, police racism was usually the trigger.
California College students Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale wanted working class black people to get organised. They formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence in 1966 and began by addressing the terrible conditions in which most people around them lived.
Their party said no more black people should be sent to fight in Vietnam. It wanted decent jobs for black people, houses that were fit to live in and schools that taught black history. And, most famously, it wanted racist police out of black communities.
Fed up with official politics, the Black Panther Party insisted only revolution could bring real change.
Inspired by black nationalist leader Malcolm X, the Panthers fought for freedom “by any means necessary”. But they also embraced elements of Maoism—the ideas developed by China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong.
Mao was increasingly popular with US radicals looking for left wing ideas that appeared as an alternative to Russian Stalinism.
His often elitist conceptions stressed the need for a committed “revolutionary vanguard” to lead the struggle against capitalism. But this vanguard must also “serve the people”.
Newton had studied law and knew that all US citizens had the right to bear arms. He and Seale decided that one of the first objectives of the Panthers would be to end police harassment in their community. They recruited and armed young men and women to “patrol the pigs”—following police patrols through the ghettos.
Unsurprisingly the state did not accept the right of the Panthers to patrol the police. In the spring of 1967 authorities sought to outlaw the carrying of weapons. The Panthers responded by organising an armed march on California’s state capital.
Bobby Seale recalled the day in his memoirs, “We went across the bridge to Sacramento with a caravan of cars. There were 30 brothers and sisters—20 of the brothers were armed… A lot of people were looking. A lot of white people were shocked, just looking at us. I know what they were saying, ‘Who in the hell are those niggers with guns’.”
“I’m so thirsty for revolution. We’re going to have a black army, a Mexican American army, an alliance with progressive whites. All of us.”Bobby Seale
News of the protest spread like wildfire and within months the party grew from about 50 members to over 5,000. Young black people wore the group’s uniform of black leather jacket, black trousers, powder blue shirt and black beret—and raised a clenched fist salute.
Soon Panthers were “patrolling the pigs” in cities across the US.
Fulfilling Mao’s demand to “serve the people” the Panthers also organised a social programme. They set up centres that provided breakfasts for up to 250,000 children a week. They also launched medical clinics and community-controlled schools.
A nationwide poll conducted for Time magazine in 1970 revealed that 9 percent of the black population—about two million people—considered themselves to be “revolutionaries”.
The community initiatives proved extremely popular. But they increasingly represented a split in the organisation about whether to continue “revolutionary” armed operations against the state or move towards a form of grassroots “reformism”.
The establishment was now targeting the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. FBI chief J Edgar Hoover was obsessed with the idea of a “black messiah” who’d rise to lead the oppressed in a revolution.
What worried him particularly about the Panthers was the way they deliberately appealed to both black and white radicals.
Informers were planted throughout the organisation. Their job was to inform the FBI about the Panthers’ plans and engineer conflict between different parts of the organisation.
The cops would aim to draw the group into shootouts. Inevitably, revolutionaries would suffer the most casualties. Those that escaped bullets were then hunted down and either jailed or forced to go on the run.
Bobby Seale was fitted up as part of the Chicago Eight trial after an anti-war demonstration in the city in 1968. Upon release he was rearrested for another crime he had not committed.
Newton was shot in the stomach by police during a confrontation in which a police officer was killed. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Fellow leader Eldridge Cleaver was forced into exile in Algeria, and David Hilliard was on trial for threatening to kill president Richard Nixon.
For a small revolutionary organisation the loss of so many leading activists was a crushing blow.
To many members a retreat into the party’s community programmes seemed to be the only way to survive. But “serving the people” pulled towards engaging with the state.
To fund the breakfast clubs and clinics party activists applied for charitable grants, and to win them they had to make friends with local politicians.
This arrangement soon took a turn towards standing in local elections on a radical ticket.
The state was using a combination of repression and incorporation to fragment the organisation. In the years that followed many Panther activists either drifted towards mainstream politics or fell away from activity all together.
By the mid-1970s all that remained of the fire of the late sixties was embers, and with it went the hopes of millions of people.
But capitalism is built on oppression and exploitation, and therefore is always prone to explosions.
The rage of the poorest would be felt many more times before the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
The fact that today the history of the Black Panthers is once again relevant to many newly radicalised people—black and white—is surely the revolution’s revenge.
Fred Hampton–‘We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity’
Fred Hampton was a natural Black Panther leader. Brought up in the church he had oratory skills that matched the best of his generation. As a teenager he organised against racism in his school in a black working class Chicago suburb.
When white pupils raged violently against his campaign Hampton organised self-defence.
With his reputation as a fighter it was only natural that in 1968 people trying to start a branch of the Black Panthers in Illinois sought him out.
Hampton, who was just 20 years old, was already impressed with the Panthers and joined readily. He immediately set about trying to win over the two big youth gangs that dominated the city.
As well as being involved in all manner of petty crime, the gangs were also trying to run social programmes for unemployed young people. And crucially they were trying to keep the police out of their communities.
It was then that Hampton came to the attention of the FBI.
The Chicago Panthers carried guns for self-defence against the cops. But they were also keen to take up the party’s social programmes, starting a breakfast club and making plans for a medical clinic.
Soon the party had several hundred recruits, a Chicago office and were selling up to 8,000 copies of The Black Panther newspaper every week.
Hampton wanted to ensure those who joined knew the party was not like the black nationalist groups that flourished at the time. The Panthers were black Marxists.
“We got to face some facts,” he told them. “That the masses are poor. That the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too.
“We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism—you fight capitalism with socialism.”
As far as the FBI were concerned Hampton now embodied their long-feared “black messiah”.
Cops raided the Panthers Chicago headquarters on three occasions in 1969. On each they shot revolutionaries without themselves sustaining casualties.
But Hampton was their prime target and it wasn’t long before they had a plan to trap him.
The FBI had a trump card in its pocket—the Chicago Panthers’ head of security William O’Neal was a paid informant.
“We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism—you fight capitalism with socialism.”Fred Hampton
His job was to provoke the organisation into deadly confrontations with police. Later he gave the FBI details on Hampton home, where he slept and how many comrades there were to protect him.
On the night of 4 December 1969 the FBI came to Hampton’s address armed with machine guns. Using a plan of the house O’Neal had given them they found Hampton and killed him, and fellow leader Mark Clark.
Three doctors found that Hampton had been killed by bullets shot from an angle slightly above and behind his head as he was lying down. They found no powder burns on his hands, contradicting police claims that Hampton had fired at them.
Days after the murder over 3,000 people packed into a Chicago Panther rally.
The mood was one of angry defiance as one Panther leader reported that yet another well-known comrade was now fighting for his life. He had been after gunned down by the police in the days since Hampton’s murder.
When the speaker urged the audience “get you some guns and defend yourselves against the pigs,” the crowd spontaneously broke into foot stomping and hand clapping chant.
“All Power to the People! Right on!
“All Power to the People! Right on!”