They were not only young and angry, but thought they could change the world. And in the course of 10 years, they did.
Aarmed with sincerity, the words of revolutionaries such as Mao Tse-Tung and Malcolm X, law books, and rifles, The Black Panther Party fed the hungry, protected the weak from racist police, and presented a new paradigm of Black political and social activism. Founded in October 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, Ca., the Party grew to at least 5,000 members nationwide, with chapters in more than half of America and an international branch in Algeria.Its “survival programs”-such as food giveaways, free health clinics and free breakfast programs for children-were popular fixtures in Black neighborhoods in the early 1970s, but for the white power structure and the vast majority of the white public, the Panthers represented only anti-government militancy; a view which engendered the wrath of the police and FBI and led to the murder of several Party members by law enforcement. Some were little more than teens when they were killed, like 20-year-old Illinois state leader Fred Hampton, who was gunned down with fellow Panther Mark Clarke, in an early morning raid of the group’s Chicago headquarters on Dec. 4, 1969. The attack, aided by the help of an infiltrator, was masterminded by the city’s police force and the FBI powerful counterintelligence program (COINTEL-PRO).
For those not killed, the threat of incarceration was ever present. Some, like Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, would be arrested, on what often seemed little more than engineered charges. Despite government hostility, the organization flourished for a while, sweeping across Black America and attracting some of the most articulate young Blacks on the revolutionary scene of the 60’s. Among them were H. Rap Brown and Stokeley Carmichael, both former presidents of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and activist Angela Davis. But it was divisions within the Party itself, along with a focus on winning local political campaigns in Oakland, which led to its decline by the mid-1970s. Decades later, however, the legacy of the Panthers remains vivid in the minds of many; for it is a powerful illustration of the ability of individuals to rise up and join together to fight oppression.
And even today, the organization evokes strong emotions. Some believe that the current plight of former Panther and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, for example, is at least partially linked to his membership in the group.
Time has not erased the memory of these young revoluntionaries. The still potent image of the black-clad Panthers, with their trademark berets testifies to the fact that these were young men and women who were unafraid to take power into their own hands and defend the rights of their people, whatever the cost to themselves.