By Sheila LyonHall
The historical legacy of the Black Panther Party is replete with misinformation and inaccuracy. There are conflicting versions of the truth regarding Black Panther activities in Los Angeles, including raids at its LA Headquarters. It’s no wonder so many shy away from acknowledging the laudable early work of the Black Panther Party. To dismiss the BPP as too radical is to undermine the lasting impact of their message of Black Power, and their effective organizing in our communities and on college campuses. The BPP created a foundation for many of the social programs we benefit from today. Black History Month is the perfect time to look back, see how we got over, and acknowledge the Black Panther Party for its contribution in moving us along.
There was a time in Oakland when the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a social-activism Machine. Confidence in its ability to rain down fire on its enemies was undeniable … and not because Open-Carry was legal. The BPP was young and full of righteous indignation over the plight of African Americans living under the Rule of Law administered by corrupt, unconscionable cops. Police brutality was the norm and seemingly unstoppable!
Even if you did not live in California in the 1960s, you were intensely aware of what was going on in this country. Most were repulsed by the hellish insanity of the times manifesting in plain sight. Black men were lynched in places other than the deep south. The Klan, in full regalia, had the run of the country. Without provocation, Black people were beaten and murdered by white cops with billy clubs and guns. Repressive Jim Crow laws were propped up by America’s long-standing infatuation with Segregation.
Let’s back up a bit for context. The origin story of the Black Panther Party clawed its way out of the embattled streets of Oakland. The 1966 founding goal of the Panthers was simple and strategic: Stop Police Brutality in Oakland! But like wildfires and high winds, BPP intentions could not be contained or easily stamped out. Their message spread across America and beyond her borders. Some of Oakland’s most audacious and resilient young people became co-architects of a new and spirited reality. Black Pride and Self-sufficiency got a serious hold on African Americans.
Locally, Panther influence could be seen and heard in the passionate and zealous barrios of Los Angeles. Chicano youth founded the Brown Berets in 1967, modeled after the BPP. They fought the same enemies oppressing their community – Racism and Police Brutality. Some chapters included education, jobs, and housing equity in their social justice demands.
Young Blacks were weary of the wait for Equal Rights, full-up Justice, and all the Citizenship Privileges of the Constitution. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was Assassinated!
Ignited by loosely bridled rage, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale began laying a foundation to cradle new birth: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Many of the early Panther inductees were barely out of their teens, not yet old enough to vote. Nevertheless, they burst on the scene fully aflame! They had lost hope in the protracted advances of the civil rights movement that belonged to their parents and grandparents. They believed the Movement needed a vigorous refreshing – Needed Them!
Now the real work would begin. BPP leadership initiated a survey where Panthers went door-to-door in Black communities to ask residents about their critical needs. “What do you want?” Their response gave birth to The Ten Point Program, a riveting document full of candor, clarity, and conviction. The soulful essence of African American demands was not unlike the reasonable aspirations of any group living in America – but denied full citizenship because of their skin color.
You be the judge.
We want freedom.
We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
We want full employment of our people.
We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.
We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried by a jury of their peers.
We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.
The remaining two demands called for (1) the exemption of all Black men from military service; and (2) the release of all Black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails. Not surprisingly, these did not have unanimous support among Black respondents.
History bears witness to this truth. The Black Panther Party did more than demand the government meet the needs of African Americans. It created interlocking services – often called “Survival Programs” – to meet those needs. Chief among these was the much-celebrated Free Breakfast Program for Schoolchildren. The program made it possible for every impoverished child the BPP could reach … to have a healthy breakfast before going into the classroom. What was true then is still true today – hungry children do not learn well.
Other BPP programs included legal aid, adult education, free community health centers, free food distribution, sickle cell anemia screenings, and others. While doing this good work, the BPP also challenged the police, protected Black citizens, and confronted corrupt politicians.
Let’s keep this real! The Black Panther Party was not perfect. Over time, it lost its Moral Center and began to erode from within. Self-destructive behaviors foreshadowed the demise of the BPP. These manifested as power struggles at the leadership level, ideology differences within the Party, leadership corruption, increased violence, greed, betrayal, the influence of drugs at the leadership level, and resistance to the rise of women to leadership.
Externally, the Fall of the Black Panther Party was fueled by J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, through the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Hoover declared War on the BPP and asserted: “The Black Panther Party is, without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” He pledged that 1969 would be the last year the BPP would exist. Based on this damning declaration, Hoover made destroying the BPP an FBI priority.
In 1976 the New York Times published the conclusions of the staff report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities. The staff report indicated the Senate Committee’s finding: The FBI carried out a secret, nationwide effort to destroy the Black Panther Party.
In every way possible, the FBI used subversive, unconscionable, illegal, and deadly force to crush and annihilate the Black Panther Party and its programs.
Despite the intent of the FBI, the Black Panther Party left an indelible mark on society and the world. It was a mixed bag … full of the Good and the Gray.
You be the judge.
Sheila LyonHall is an author living in San Fernando. Her debut novel (Bad Choices in Dark Places) will be published April 3, 2023, on Amazon and other publishing platforms.