Former Black Panther Party members plan to reflect on the black power movement, their experiences and their work in the black community when they celebrate the 40th anniversary of the controversial organization’s founding Friday through Sunday in Oakland.
The group is known for its involvement in a handful of violent confrontations in the late 1960s, some of which killed both party members and police. Now, surviving former members and associates are working to evoke a more positive image. They point out that an interest in politics, black history and the plight of African Americans led them to form the party in 1966.
“Our legacy is one of social-change activism that was probably one of the most profound grassroots anti-institutionalized racism messages,” said Bobby Seale, who together with Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
“We did things in the community and organized successful programs,” Seale said. “It wasn’t about guns and hating white folks.”
Leaders required party members to volunteer long hours and memorize 36 books on black history and socialism. They served food to hungry children in a 5 a.m. breakfast program in local churches, sold the party’s official newspaper, and registered voters. They offered groceries and medical care to the poor, drove people to the hospital in a Panther ambulance and took families by bus to visited incarcerated loved ones.
Several members of the organization—Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Geronimo Pratt and others—became infamous when they were arrested on a variety of charges.
At his first trial in connection with the fatal 1967 shooting of a police officer, Newton, who was killed in West Oakland in 1989, was convicted of manslaughter. He was subsequently cleared when juries couldn’t reach a verdict in retrials twice.
Cleaver, who served time in prison before joining the party and ran for president in 1968, fled the country after a shootout with Oakland police that killed a young Panther named Bobby Hutton. Cleaver later served five years’ probation. He died in 1998. His ex-wife, Kathleen, also a party member, became a law professor.
Murder conspiracy charges against Seale stemming from a 1969 incident in Connecticut were eventually dismissed. And Pratt’s conviction in a Santa Monica homicide was overturned in 1997 after he had been incarcerated for 27 years.
But the image that stuck with many Americans was that of black militants with berets and guns. Stories of Panthers’ shootouts with police overwhelmed coverage of their work with the poor, said Seale, who changed the group’s name from Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to Black Panther Party because “we got tired of being confused with a paramilitary-type organization.”
The party gained international notoriety when Seale and Newton sent armed members to the State Assembly in Sacramento in 1967 to oppose gun restrictions. Several members who walked onto the Senate floor with loaded weapons were arrested for disturbing the peace but not on weapons charges, because they were carrying theirs legally, Seale said.
At its height, about two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, the Black Panther Party had 5,000 members in 49 chapters and branches across the country, Seale said. The 1968 confrontation that left Hutton dead, along with other shootouts with Oakland police, caused the negative image, members say. The incidents also brought the federal scrutiny that they say ultimately broke up the party. The FBI infiltrated the Panthers and several other activist groups in its infamous counterintelligence program called Cointelpro, begun in 1967.
“J. Edgar Hoover saw the guns and what we were accomplishing and said the organization was a threat to security, and he told people that we wanted to shoot and kill white people,” Seale said. “We were about defending ourselves against white racists.”
Seale said that in the 1960s, that primarily meant protecting African Americans from police brutality and the institutionalized racism he says plagued the black community.
Many of the members hope the reunion will draw young people and inspire them to start social programs or a new activist movement.
“Today’s youth have a different mind-set,” Howard said. “Social consciousness is the last thing on their agenda.”
Click here for the Black Panther 40th Anniversary webpage.