The Black Panther Party may be one of the most misunderstood organizations in American History. Often thought of as a militant and violent separatist organization, few people understood the true origins or goals of the Black Panther Party. Part of this is due to the fact that people intentionally distorted the role that the Black Panther's sought to play in American society. Rather than a group that advocated violence, the Black Panthers were actually an anti-violence organization. At the time that the Black Panthers was founded, police brutality against African-Americans was not only widespread, but also went unpunished in many instances. The Black Panthers was an answer to that brutality. Unlike the more moderate civil rights organizations of its time period, the Black Panther Party did not advocate passive resistance or the peaceful acceptance of police brutality; instead, it advocated that African-Americans defend themselves. However, it would be reductionist to suggest that the Black Panthers were either criminals or anti-society. The Black Panther Party advocated the use of self-defense against unlawful police brutality, not against legal police actions.
In addition, while the Black Panther Party had a popular reputation as a group of criminals, this reputation was due to misinformation rather than an overt concentration of criminals. Furthermore, the Black Panther Party actively sought to advance social concerns for Africans over the world. Because the Black Panther Party was so different than its reputation suggests, it should not be considered a revolutionary counter-culture movement, but an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Many people think of the 1960s as a time that promoted racial harmony. While there was a tremendous amount of racism, the lingering influence of the decade is that it is the one where passive demonstrators helped usher in an era of integration. However, those thought belie the images that were broadcast into American homes of African-Americans, being brutalized by police officers, who might use fire hoses on them or turn police dogs loose on children.
It also belies the idea fact that most instances of brutality never received any press. African-Americans were frequently subjected to systemic brutalization by the police, and, frequently, their complaints were dismissed by others because the men were considered criminals.
Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton understood this scenario all-too well. Newton was a criminal, having spent the latter part of his childhood involved in petty crimes and supporting himself as a young adult through burglary. However, he was also an intelligent man who recognized that police brutality was a rampant problem. When Newton was released from jail in 1966, he and his friend Bobby Seale joined the Revolutionary Action Movement, a black power group. Newton and Seale worked at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, where they encountered numerous examples of police brutality. Their early efforts to end that brutality were very bureaucratic; they sought the establishment of a police review board to look at brutality complaints. However, they became disgruntled with the progress made on behalf of African-Americans, and began to look at black separatism as a viable political goal.
Once Newton and Seale decided that separatism was the appropriate way for them to fight the racism they felt was inherent in the American criminal justice system, they wrote a platform statement. Their initial platform statement was known as the Ten-Point Plan. Though it may have sounded radical at the time, the reality is that any assertion of civil rights by African-Americans during that time period was considered radical. The language in the Ten-Point Plan was not specifically radical; it actually borrowed heavily from existing urban activists, though it departed significantly in tone from the passive acceptance that was literally preached by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his civil rights followers.
The Ten-Point Plan stated that:
1. WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
2. WE WANT FULL EMPLOYMENT FOR OUR PEOPLE.
3. WE WANT AN END TO THE ROBBERY BY THE CAPITALISTS OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
4. WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS.
5. WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES U.S. OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY.
6. WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR All BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE.
7. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, All OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES.
8. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO ALL WARS OF AGGRESSION.
9. WE WANT FREEDOM FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE NOW HELD IN U.S. FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY, CITY AND MILITARY PRISONS AND JAILS. WE WANT TRIALS BY A JURY OF PEERS FOR All PERSONS CHARGED WITH SO-CALLED CRIMES UNDER THE LAWS OF THIS COUNTRY.
10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE'S COMMUNITY CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.
At first blush, many of these demands seem unreasonable, but that is because they are being viewed through a modern lens. The idea of separatism was not one that was unique to the Black Panthers. Many whites strongly advocated for segregation, but the segregatory system for which they advocated was one that would keep blacks in a subservient position. Instead, the Black Panthers suggested that African-Americans remain separate, and that they have some reparations for the injustices that they had suffered. Each demand had explanatory language, which probably seemed inflammatory at the time, but the facts in that language were indisputable.
Despite the fact that the Black Panthers discussed with factual accuracy the historical and social conditions facing blacks in the 1960s United States, they were seen as a dangerous and even seditious organization. At the time, the idea that black Americans felt that they had the right to jobs, health care, food, shelter, education, and freedom from brutality really was a revolutionary concept. Never in American history had African-Americans had those guarantees. Obviously, under slavery, blacks were kept as property and had not even the basic guarantee of life, much less the guarantee of liberty. For a brief time during Reconstruction, some blacks in the United States sampled freedom, but this was short-lived. The South responded to Reconstruction with Jim Crow laws, and racism in the post-Reconstruction South was, in many ways, oftentimes more virulent and dangerous than racism under slavery. Therefore, for the Black Panthers to suggest that blacks should refuse to tolerate that type of treatment anymore, and to use the Founding Fathers' own language as a reason to violently resist illegal actions by the government, made them appear very radical. In fact, during the 1960s, "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.'"
This statement was made despite the fact that the Black Panthers did not engage in terrorist actions, advocate unprovoked violence against police, military or civilian forces, or suggest engaging criminal actions; in fact, it expelled a leader who suggested a terrorist agenda over one of social change.
There was never a threat that the Black Panthers would act as terrorist; but the threat seemed real to many Americans because of how the group threatened the status quo. The American way of life was threatened because blacks, particularly black men, were refusing to continue to be abused.
If the Black Panthers did not advocate unprovoked violence or criminality, many people wonder how it came to have the reputation as a criminal organization. The answer to that question is both startling simple and amazingly complex. First, look at the Civil Rights Movement's most prominent leader: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was famous for his non-violent, non-aggressive stance. He and his followers were arrested, under laws deemed valid at that time, on numerous occasions. They were criminals. In fact, that is how society worked at that time; the laws were structured in such a manner that an African-American seeking to assert basic civil rights could almost certainly be arrested for, and probably convicted of, at least one crime.
However, the answer is more complicated than the fact that the written law was racist. Looking at the autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King, it becomes clear that many blacks may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. King was convicted of several crimes. He acknowledges criminal behavior in his past, but served time for those convictions. He was wrongfully convicted of robbery charges based on the testimony of a co-defendant who was tortured by police. He escaped from police custody, but was recaptured and imprisoned for those burglary charges. While in prison, he was charged with murdering another prisoner, and was convicted at trial of that murder, despite the fact that he was bound and gagged at trial, and obviously not free to participate in his…