Radical Group Profile: Black Panthers

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Abstract

Radical movements are one of the most common types of activism that can appear in the society. The Black Panthers is a distinctive example of radical activist grouping in the USA that advocated the protection of African Americans rights with the help of violence. The aim of this research is to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the Black Panthers party. In particular, the general history of the organization is analyzed; its ideology and most prominent members were investigated. Moreover, the core methods of organization and activism as well as major accomplishment and setbacks are determined. In general, the study proves that the Black Panthers movement was radical in its nature using armed struggle as its main method. At the same time, most of activists who actively participated in the movement and were imprisoned have died or still remain in jail while only the minority was able to be released on parole and reunite with their families.

Keywords: Black Panthers, radical movement, activism.

Radical Group Profile: Black Panthers

Introduction

During different periods of world’s history various types of activism movements have evolved. Radical movement is one of them and is well-known for its violent approaches and methods of reaching the grouping’s aims. In the history of the US civil right movement called the Black Panthers is the most prominent example of radical activism. In particular, the evaluation of general history, ideology, prominent members, methods of organization and activism, as well as major accomplishment and setbacks can provide the clear depiction of the Black Panthers party as the radical movement.

General History

The Black Panthers movement has over 50 years of its history. In October 1966, the party was officially founded in Oakland, California. The next year an armed protest occurred because of a new legislation adoption that banned the open carrying of guns and the police watch patrols organized by the Panthers’ activists. The same year FBI started a counter-intelligence operation as a part of Cointelpro program to undermine the movement. After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the Black Panthers called for armed responses that caused numerous riots. At the height of its power, the party numbered about two thousand active members. In 1969, a court hearing was held for the twenty-one members of the Black Panther who had been accused of planning bomb attacks in New York. However, a group was acquitted after an eight-months trial. The same year in Chicago, two leaders of party’s branch, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, were killed by the police. In 1971, the split in the movement happened after several killings of police officers by the Black Panthers. In 1982, the formal dissolvent of the party was proclaimed. Since then, numerous members of the party were imprisoned. From the period between 2012 till 2018 some Black Panthers activists died, or were released on parole (Albert Woodfox, Herman Bell, and Debbie Africa among others) (Reed, 2018). Generally, the Black Panther movement initiated a number of social programs to protect African Americans and attained popularity in the communities; however, their activity eventually has waned due to internal fragmentation and violent methods used to achieve its goals.

Black Panthers’ Ideology

The Black Panthers party had a strong ideological background. Contrary to nonviolence principles of Martin Luther King Jr., the Panthers aligned themselves with more radical movements in countries like Vietnam, Mozambique, or Angola. Interestingly enough, newly recruited members of the organization during their initial in house training were studying Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (Pilkington, 2018b). As a result, the idea of “black men armed and prepared to fight for the rights of black people” was exciting and intriguing and caught attention of African American youth who wanted to bring in justice and real actions (Pilkington, 2018b). In addition, the group aligned itself with liberation movements in Asia and Africa as well as the civil rights and women’s movement in the USA (Bassett, 2016). Hence, the party had an extensive ideological foundation.

The most important postulates of the movement were covered in its program. Notably, a Ten Point Program published in October 1966 became a document that gathered all main ideas of the party. In particular, activists called for the provision of good education, decent housing, and full employment for African Americans. The next demand stood for the end of police brutality with criminal justice reform that would guarantee equality and the absence of racial biased decisions. Moreover, the movement requested the fulfillment of promises made during the Civil War by Gen William Sherman in terms of reparations for two mules and 40 acres of land (Pilkington, 2018b). Altogether, the party’s program aimed to defend the rights of African American community in the USA.

Prominent Members of the Black Panthers

For the better understanding of the Black Panthers movement several outstanding members should be mentioned such as Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver (Bassett, 2016). Both of these men were the leaders and held high position in the party. Eldridge Cleaver held the position of minister of information within the Black Panthers party. He became well-known for broader population after King’s murder for organizing an ambush of police in West Oakland. In the aftermath of this event he was arrested and wounded. However, Cleaver managed to escape from the USA, settled in Cuba and later moved to Algeria (Reed, 2018). In his turn, Huey P. Newton was the head of the movement. In 1980, Newton received Ph.D. in social philosophy for his study on the governmental oppression to the Black Panther party (Bassett, 2016). In fact, the split of the movement happened because of the quarrel between Newton and Cleaver. In 1998, Cleaver, who returned to America, became a Republican and Christian, and eventually died in California. On the contrary, Newton was killed in 1989 in West Oakland (Reed, 2018). Therefore, Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were the most prominent members of the Black Panther party.

Methods of Organization and Activism

One of the central ideas in the organizational structure of the Black Panthers movement was its militarism combined with armed struggle. The common activity that was practiced by the party was police watch. In particular, activists in Oakland watched local police officers and their attitude towards African Americans. For instance, in case a white officer stopped and searched black youth, members of the party would approach them and act as observes holding handguns on their belts (Pilkington, 2018b). As a response to such actions, California state legislation introduced prohibition for an open carrying of a gun. Moreover, the FBI launched a surveillance program called Cointelpro against the Black Panthers. Only between 1968 and 1970, 28 armed clashed between the Panthers’ activists and FBI agents or police officers occurred (Pilkington, 2018b). The most vivid example of practical actions committed by the Black Panthers activists was the murder of two police officers in New York. Later, in 1973, another officer was shot by female activist Assata Shakur (Reed, 2018). At last, the party positioned itself as a state within a state. For instance, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black Panthers member stated that “The Black Panther party performed in the role of a shadow state – with its Ministries, its uniformed personnel, and its soldiers in sharp opposition to the US government” (Pilkington, 2018b). All in all, the party used all possible violent and non-violent methods to achieve its goals.

Major Accomplishments and Setbacks in Black Panthers Activity

The Black Panthers group managed to achieve several accomplishments. In particular, its activists participated as representatives of the community in local elections. For instance, in 1973, Bobby Seale took the third place in Oakland’s mayor elections (Reed, 2018). Moreover, the party founded and operated community health centers. For example, first clinics were opened in 1965 in Boston and Mound Bayou (Bassett, 2016). This initiative helped to render a message that a proper healthcare is not a privilege, but an equal right to all the US citizens (Bassett, 2016). Thus, the group demonstrated various achievements in the social sphere.

At the same time most Panthers’ activists’ were imprisoned for the violent methods they used. Therefore, the main setback of their activity was violence and murderers they committed. Most former members of the Black Panthers were sentenced to 25 and more years in prison. Despite some of them were eligible for parole, official boards rarely made a decision of rehabilitation. For instance, Black Panthers member Robert Seth Hayes imprisoned in 1998 was released only in 20 years having rapidly failing health (Pilkington, 2018b). Meanwhile, many African Americans remain imprisoned for decades. Nevertheless, many activists remain devoted to the ideas and politics their supported. For example, Jalil Muntaqim, who has spent in jail 46 years, argues that “If you understand the oppression that black people have suffered in this country, no one should have any regrets for having been identified as a revolutionary. I have no regrets about that” (Pilkington, 2018b). Moreover, Black Panthers activists face the destruction of their families. In particular, parents are separated from their children because of their involvement in radical movement and imprisonment. Therefore, the violence against the police officers, consequent imprisonment of main activists for their deeds and separation from their families consist some of the strong setback of the participation in the movement.

Conclusion

The comprehensive analysis of the Black Panthers’ history, ideology, members, methods of organization together with major accomplishments and setbacks proves that the organization represents the radical wing of civil rights movement. Notably, during the last 50 years the organization underwent different stages with 1960-1970 being the most active. The ideology of the party stood for the usage of force and violence for the achievement of equality and guaranteeing rights for African Americans. Among all active members of the organization, Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver are the most prominent. Further, the core methods that were used by the Panthers were the combination of militarism and armed struggle. As a result, the activity of this radical movement brought some positive accomplishments for the ensuring equal rights of African Americans in the US society as well as various setbacks such as loss of human lives and imprisonment of the most radical party members. In general, the study shows that high ideals cannot justify violent methods radical movements use for their attainments; therefore, the way of gradual reforms and consistent measures is more preferable.

References

Bassett, M. T. (2016). Beyond berets: The Black Panthers as health activists, AJPH Special section: Black Panther Party106(10), 1741-1742.

Pilkington, E. (2018a). Born in a cell: The extraordinary tale of the black liberation orphan. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/31/debbie-sims-africa-mike-jr-black-liberation-orphan-move-nine-philadelphia

Pilkington, E. (2018b). The Black Panthers still in prison. After 46 years, will they ever be set free? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/30/black-panthers-prison-interviews-african-american-activism

Reed, J. (2018). America’s black radicals. Timeline in pictures. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/america-black-radicals-timeline-in-pictures