March 6, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman
cw/tw: violence against Black people, racism
Most public schools in America fail to mention the Black Panther Party (BPP) in history classes. If they do, they tend to paint it in a deceiving way, describing members as instigators of violence and implying that their approach was unjustified. Instead, the American education system centers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks during Black History Month, ignoring their more radical positions and sanitizing their legacies for an often racist agenda. By erasing the contributions of other significant figures in the Civil Rights Movement, like Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, Elaine Brown, and countless others, our education system and media industry is intentionally misinforming the public about one of the most important eras in history.
I want to recognize the Black Panther Party’s significant contribution to American and world history.
First, I have to begin with outrage at a culture that criticizes Black people who defend themselves against White racism, and express no issue with the racist violence itself. White people tend to reactively dismiss a person of colors’ experience of racism, or downplay the severity of it, instead of listening respectfully. Such instances of gaslighting that “well-meaning” White folks inflict on people of color are constant.
Since its inception, The Black Panther Party, an anti-racist organization, has been equated by White America with the Klu Klux Klan, a hate group created to perpetuate racist violence. This comparison could not be further from the truth, and it is important for us to set the record straight.
The mission of the Black Panther Party was radical and brave, as is shown in the historic list of demands that the Party created. I believe it is just as important to emphasize the incredible kindness and generosity that was shown by both individual Panthers and the Party itself. Throughout their ten-point list, they demand an end to police brutality and militarization, and refuse to participate in American imperialism. However, they also weave in very concrete economic ideals, by demanding an end to Capitalist violence as well. The final point, particularly, emphasizes this: “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.” These economic demands for survival and dignity are just as radical as the rest of their mission, but aren’t always referred to as explicitly.
Vanguard of the Revolution, a documentary on the Black Panther Party, features several former members of the BPP, as well as former police officers, and historians. Phyllis Jackson, a former Panther, notes, “Our attack was not only against white supremacy, but it was also about capitalism. We actually thought that the way in which capitalism created a working class that was kept absolutely destitute, well, that was wrong.”
The Party addressed these economic injustices by creating a number of free survival programs for Black communities across America. These include:
- A breakfast program for children, which served over 20,000 meals a week to young people in nineteen different communities, according to the film
- People’s Free Medical Centers, which were largely staffed and sustained by women
- The Intercommunal Youth Institute, which sought to improve the standards of public education for Black children
- Seniors Against a Fearful Environment, which provided older members of the Black community with greater security through free transportation
- The People’s Free Ambulance Service, which made emergency transportation much more accessible to low-income people
- The Free Food Program, which provided a “minimum of a week’s supply of food” per grocery bag to Black and low-income residents
- The Black Student Alliance, which created free transportation and childcare services, and made free books accessible to struggling students, along with several other accomplishments
- The Black Panther Newspaper, which brought in much of the Party’s revenue–despite being sold for only 25 cents per issue, it had a broad circulation.
“I was in labor cooking breakfast for the breakfast program, so I was between contractions, flippin’ pancakes,” Ora Williams, a BPP member, says with a smile in Vanguard of the Revolution. Women are described as the backbone of the BPP movement, with most of the rank and file members being women, despite charismatic male leaders usually taking the national stage. Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur are often credited with being visionaries of the Party, and there are hundreds more unrecognized Black women who deserve credit and celebration.
Fred Hampton was one of these charismatic leaders, described as being softer and more approachable than founder Huey P. Newton and leaders like Eldridge Cleaver. He valued and promoted racial unity and economic justice so gracefully. As a result, he reached people that may never have connected with the Party. One former Panther in the film noted, “We worked with organizations such as the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang that had become political, and the Young Patriots–‘hillbillies’, Appalachian White boys.” Another, named Landon Williams, said that “the coalition that Fred was building in Chicago represented the Latinos, poor Whites, and poor Blacks, but also because he had been in the NAACP, he had linkages with folks who were in the congregations, church folks, and with working class folks. So Fred was building a broad-based coalition in Chicago, and that was the threat.”
As Donna Murch, a historian, remarked, “Just at the moment that the Panthers are turning towards survival programs–free breakfast programs, free clinics, and free food programs that will help them reconnect with the Black community and build their membership, and repudiating this early advocacy of armed self defense and police patrols, J. Edgar Hoover attacks the Panthers.” The federal government and the FBI viewed these economic justice programs as a serious threat. They realized that the Black Panther Party truly intended to topple the American racist, imperialist, Capitalist system, and immediately began to attack. They formed COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, to surveil, exploit, and manipulate the Party.
Ultimately, the FBI sought to create a “culture of paranoia,” as was later mentioned in the film. They wanted to destroy the powerful unity that existed within the Black community, and used informants to create internal mistrust and chaos. Tragically, one of these informants was Fred Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neale, who released detailed information about Hampton’s whereabouts to the FBI. Cops broke into Hampton’s home and ruthlessly murdered him in his sleep, provoking untold pain and rage from surviving Panthers and community members. Just as infuriating, the FBI and the murderous cops themselves gaslighted witnesses, and denied responsibility for the violence.
After Hampton’s death, there was some internal debate about the success and meaning of these social programs. Huey Newton defended the programs, saying, “We know those are not revolutionary programs, they are at best survival programs. We know that the people are in jeopardy of genocide, and if they don’t survive, it won’t be possible to bring about revolution.”
Eldridge Cleaver, who was in political asylum in Algeria at the time, argued, “We have a breakfast for children program, you know. But that’s not what the Black Panther Party is all about, see. I don’t agree with saying that the Black Panther Party supports breakfast for children, and that’s all we’re about. The Black Panther Party is for overthrowing the United States government.” The rift between Newton and Eldridge grew over time, and eventually contributed to the dissolving of the Party itself.
Elaine Brown remarked on the conflict, criticizing Cleaver, “Eldridge Cleaver, who was sitting comfortable in Algeria, was assailing the Black Panther Party as being weak, and it didn’t have any more muscle, and it was a reform organization, a “breakfast for children club.” And he denounced the Party, and he denounced the chief administrator of the Party at that time, who was David Hilliard. He wanted to have even more bloodshed, which was not endearing us to the community.” Brown redirects the conversation to the true intention of the grassroots social programs–to build unity, trust, and respect in every Black community across the country. While Cleaver’s revolutionary ideals seemed appropriate in principle, she argued, it was not fair to ask thousands of people to risk their lives for the cause.
After watching this film, and learning more about the Socialist identity of the Black Panther Party, it seems to me that the social programs they created were just as revolutionary as taking up arms. Instead of simply fighting to overthrow the State, they were building expansive, successful networks to create a vision of what Black Liberation could look like. By sustaining and loving the people around them, they promoted self-love, independence, agency, and hope.
We often hear about the Party being formed as a means of self-defense. Just as significantly, it was an organization for creation and healing that left a legacy in Black American communities. Although they may not define themselves as revolutionary, organizations such as the Ujamaa Collective, the Hill District Federal Credit Union, and the Art House in Pittsburgh continue the powerful mission of sovereignty and autonomy that the Black Panther Party defined fifty years ago.
Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.