The Forbidden History of the Black Panther Party
Black Against Empire
By Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Utne Reader
Informed by twelve years of meticulous archival research, as well as familiarity with most of the former Black Panther Party leadership and many rankd-and-file members, “Black Against Empire” is the definitive history of one of the greatest challenges ever posed to American state power. Cover Courtesy University of California Press
Black Against Empire (University of California Press, 2013) is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence. Learn about why it has been difficult to construct a clear history of the evolution of the Black Panther Party in this excerpt from the introduction.
The Panthers shut out the pack of zealous reporters and kept the door locked all day, but now the hallway was empty. Huey Newton and two comrades casually walked from the luxury suite down to the lobby and slipped out of the Hong Kong Hilton. Their official escort took them straight across the border, and after a short flight, they exited the plane in Beijing, where they were greeted by cheering throngs.
It was late September 1971, and U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger had just visited China a couple months earlier. The United States was proposing a visit to China by President Nixon himself and looking toward normalization of diplomatic relations. The Chinese leaders held varied views of these prospects and had not yet revealed whether they would accept a visit from Nixon.
But the Chinese government had been in frequent communication with the Black Panther Party, had hosted a Panther delegation a year earlier, and had personally invited Huey Newton, the Party’s leader, to visit. With Nixon attempting to arrange a visit, Newton decided to accept the invitation and beat Nixon to China.
When Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, greeted Newton in Beijing, Newton took Zhou’s right hand between both his own hands. Zhou clasped Newton’s wrist with his left hand, and the two men looked deeply into each other’s eyes. Newton presented a formal petition requesting that China “negotiate with . . . Nixon for the freedom of the oppressed peoples of the world.” Then the two sat down for a private meeting. On National Day, the October 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Premier Zhou honored the Panthers as national guests. Tens of thousands of Chinese gathered in Tiananmen Square, waving red flags and applauding the Panthers. Revolutionary theater groups, folk dancers, acrobats, and the revolutionary ballet performed. Huge red banners declared, “Peoples of the World, Unite to destroy the American aggressors and their lackeys.” At the official state dinner, first lady Jiang Qing sat with the Panthers. A New York Times editorial encouraged Nixon “to think positively about Communist China and to ignore such potential sources of friction as the honors shown to Black Panther leader Huey Newton.”
In Oakland, California, in late 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton took up arms and declared themselves part of a global revolution against American imperialism. Unlike civil rights activists who advocated for full citizenship rights within the United States, their Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government. The Panthers saw black communities in the United States as a colony and the police as an occupying army. In a foundational 1967 essay, Newton wrote, “Because black people desire to determine their own destiny, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied in the police department. There is a great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by the racist police.”
As late as February 1968, the Black Panther Party was still a small local organization. But that year, everything changed. By December, the Party had opened offices in twenty cities, from Los Angeles to New York. In the face of numerous armed conflicts with police and virulent direct repression by the state, young black people embraced the revolutionary vision of the Party, and by 1970, the Party had opened offices in sixty-eight cities from Winston-Salem to Omaha and Seattle. The Black Panther Party had become the center of a revolutionary movement in the United States.
Readers today may have difficulty imagining a revolution in the United States. But in the late 1960s, many thousands of young black people, despite the potentially fatal outcome of their actions, joined the Black Panther Party and dedicated their lives to revolutionary struggle. Many more approved of their efforts. A joint report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Committee, and National Security Agency expressed grave concern about wide support for the Party among young blacks, noting that “43 per cent of blacks under 21 years of age [have] . . . a great respect for the [Black Panther Party].” Students for a Democratic Society, the leading antiwar and draft resistance organization, declared the Black Panther Party the “vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism.” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously declared, “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
As the Black Panthers drew young blacks to their revolutionary program, the Party became the strongest link between the domestic Black Liberation Struggle and global opponents of American imperialism. The North Vietnamese — at war with the United States — sent letters home to the families of American prisoners of war (POWs) through the Black Panther Party and discussed releasing POWs in exchange for the release of Panthers from U.S. jails. Cuba offered political asylum to Black Panthers and began developing a military training ground for them. Algeria — then the center of Pan-Africanism and a world hub of anti-imperialism that hosted embassies for most postcolonial governments and independence movements — granted the Panthers national diplomatic status and an embassy building of their own, where the Panthers headquartered their International Section under the leadership of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.
But by the time of Newton’s trip to China, the Black Panther Party had begun to unravel. In the early 1970s, the Party rapidly declined. By mid-1972, it was basically a local Oakland community organization once again. An award-winning elementary school and a brief local renaissance in the mid-1970s notwithstanding, the Party suffered a long and painful demise, formally closing its last office in 1982.
Not since the Civil War almost a hundred and fifty years ago have so many people taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States. Of course, the number of people who took up arms for the Union and Confederate causes and the number of people killed in the Civil War are orders of magnitude larger than the numbers who have engaged in any armed political struggle in the United States since. Some political organizations that embraced revolutionary ideologies yet eschewed armed confrontation with the state may have garnered larger followings than the Black Panther Party did. But in the general absence of armed revolution in the United States since 1865, the thousands of Black Panthers — who dedicated their lives to a political program involving armed resistance to state authority — stand alone.
Why in the late 1960s — in contrast to the Civil Rights Movement’s nonviolent action and demands for African Americans’ full participation in U.S. society and despite severe personal risks — did so many young people dedicate their lives to the Black Panther Party and embrace armed revolution? Why, after a few years of explosive growth, did the Party so quickly unravel? And why has no similar movement developed since?
Most obvious explanations do not stand up to the evidence. Some believe the Party was a creation of the media. But most of the media attention came after the Party’s rapid spread. Some assert that the Party’s success was just a product of the times. But many other black political organizations, some with similar ideologies, sought to mobilize people at the same time, and none succeeded like the Panthers. Others contend that this or that Panther leader was an unrivaled organizer and that by the force of his or her efforts, the Party was able to recruit its vast following. But most of the new recruits to the Black Panthers came to the Party asking to join, not the other way around. One common view is that the Party collapsed because it could not withstand the government’s repression, but the year of greatest repression, 1969, was also the year of the Party’s greatest growth.
While much has been written on aspects of the Black Panther Party, none of the accounts to date have offered a rigorous overarching analysis of the Party’s evolution and impact. Most writers have looked at a small slice of the Party’s temporal and geographic scope, providing limited historical context. Party sympathizers are as guilty of such reduction as its detractors are. Commentators reduce the Party to its community service programs or to armed confrontation with the police. They claim the Panthers espoused narrowly Marxist or black nationalist ideology. They maintain that Huey Newton was a genius or that he was overly philosophical, or that he was a criminal. They say the Party’s power came from organizing young blacks from the urban ghettos or that its influence stemmed from its ability to draw broad support from a range of allies. To some people, the Party was a locus of cutting-edge debate on gender politics, and they applaud its embrace of women’s and gay liberation; to others, it was sexist and patriarchal.
Occasionally, commentators have even suggested that the Black Panther Party was all of these things. But no one has made sense of the relationship among the parts, situated the varying practices of the Party in time and place, and adequately traced the evolution of the Party’s politics. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow recently pointed out in an extensive review of historical works on the Panthers, no one has yet offered a serious analysis of how the political practices of the Black Panther Party changed during its history or why people were drawn to participate at each juncture of its evolution. “Panther scholarship,” Garrow observes, “would benefit immensely from a detailed and comprehensive narrative history that gives special care to how rapidly the [Black Panther Party] evolved through a succession of extremely fundamental changes. . . . Far too much of what has been written about the [Party] fails to specify expressly which period of Panther history is being addressed or characterized, and interpretive clarity, and accuracy, will benefit greatly from a far more explicit appreciation and identification of the major turning points in the [Black Panther Party’s] eventually tragic evolution.”
Writing in the New York Times in 1994, sociologist Robert Blauner commented, “Because of the political mine fields,” the “complex and textured social history that the Panthers deserve” has not yet been written and “may be 10 or 15 years in the future.” More than forty years have passed since the heyday of the Black Panther Party, and almost twenty years have passed since Blauner’s writing, but to date, despite comment by a diversity of writers, no one has presented an adequate or comprehensive history.
As a popular adage suggests, “History is written by the victors.” Writing a history that transcends preconceptions is challenging. It takes time and perspective and endless sifting through often-contradictory evidence to test competing explanations and weigh the importance of divergent forces. But the lack of an overarching history of the Panthers and their politics, despite the abundance of writing on various aspects of the Party, is unusual. We suspect that the long absence of an adequate history is due, in part, to the character of state repression of the Party. Aimed specifically at vilifying the Black Panther Party, state repression powerfully shaped public understandings and blurred the outlines of the history.
The federal government and local police forces across the nation responded to the Panthers with an unparalleled campaign of repression and vilification. They fed defamatory stories to the press. They wiretapped Panther offices around the country. They hired dozens of informants to infiltrate Panther chapters. Often, they put aside all pretense and simply raided Panther establishments, guns blazing. In one case, in Chicago in December 1969, equipped with an informant’s map of the apartment, police and federal agents assassinated a prominent Panther leader in his bed while he slept, shooting him in the head at point-blank range.
In attacking the Black Panthers as enemies of the state, federal agents sought to repress not just the Party as an organization but the political possibility it represented. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) sought to vilify the Black Panthers and “prevent [the Party and similar] black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them.”
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover emphasized time and again, in different ways, that “one of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the BPP is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it.” Federal agents sought “to create factionalism” among Party leaders and between the Panthers and other black political organizations. FBI operatives forged documents and paid provocateurs to promote violent conflicts between Black Panther leaders — as well as between the Party and other black nationalist organizations — and congratulated themselves when these conflicts yielded the killing of Panthers. And COINTELPRO sought to lead the Party into unsupportable action, “creating opposition to the BPP on the part of the majority of the residents of the ghetto areas.” For example, agent provocateurs on the government payroll supplied explosives to Panther members and sought to incite them to blow up public buildings, and they promoted kangaroo courts encouraging Panther members to torture suspected informants.
One school of commentators simply took up Hoover’s program of vilification, portraying the Party as criminals and obscuring and minimizing its politics. In an influential article in 1978, Kate Coleman and Paul Avery made a series of allegations about personal misdeeds and criminal actions by Panthers in the 1970s, after the Party had lost influence as a national and international political organization: “Black Panthers have committed a series of violent crimes over the last several years. . . . There appears to be no political explanation for it; the Party is no longer under siege by the police, and this is not self-defense. It seems to be nothing but senseless criminality, directed in most cases at other blacks.”
David Horowitz wrote a series of essays in 1994 building on these allegations, treating them as the totality of what was important or interesting about the Panthers and describing the Black Panthers as “an organized street gang.” Hugh Pearson, in consultation with Horowitz, then wrote The Shadow of the Panther, a full-length book version of the story Horowitz had developed, telling Black Panther Party history through the alleged crimes and personal misdeeds of Huey Newton. The major newspapers celebrated the book as a respectable history of the Party and its politics. The New York Times called the book “a richly detailed portrait of a movement” and named it one of its Notable Books of the Year 1994.
The storm of criminal allegations touted as movement history effectively advanced J. Edgar Hoover’s program of vilifying the Party and shrouding its politics. While many of the criminal allegations that Horowitz and his colleagues made about Huey Newton and other Panther leaders were thinly supported and almost none were verified in court, these treatments also omit and obscure the thousands of people who dedicated their lives to the Panther revolution, their reasons for doing so, and the political dynamics of their participation, their actions, and the consequences.
Hoover’s program aimed to drive a wedge between the Party and its nonblack allies. Today, the popular misconception persists that the Black Panther Party was separatist, or antiwhite. Many current internet postings mischaracterize the Party in this way. In fact, the Party was deeply antiracist and strongly committed to interracial coalitions. Even some newspapers got the basic story wrong, such as the Providence Journal-Bulletin, whose editorial board characterized the Party as an “organization based on racial hostility . . . a mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan.” Such misconceptions have also taken root among some of today’s young activists seeking to emulate the historical example of the Black Panthers, such as the so-called New Black Panther Party, darling of Fox News, which while claiming to carry on the legacy of the original Black Panthers, preaches separatism and racial hate.
Another influential line of attack — the argument that the Panthers primarily advanced “black macho” rather than a broader liberation politics — has also done more to obscure than to illuminate the history of the Party. Michelle Wallace first popularized this argument in her influential 1978 book Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman, in which she denigrates the role of Angela Davis and other revolutionary black women as “do-it-for-your-man” selfless subservience to misogyny in the name of black liberation. As June Jordan commented in a 1979 review, Black Macho is “a divisive, fractious tract devoid of hope and dream, devoid even of competent scholarship for the subject so glibly undertaken.” Yet the argument gained traction, perhaps in part because it built upon a kernel of truth. Stewarding a predominantly male organization in the beginning, some Black Panthers indeed asserted an aggressive black masculinity. But by misrepresenting this black masculinism as the totality of the Party’s politics, Wallace and her ilk distorted and defamed the Party. They erased the women who soon constituted a majority of the Panther membership and devalued the considerable struggles Panther women and men undertook to advance gender and sexual liberation within and through the Party, often progressing well in advance of the wider society.
If J. Edgar Hoover were alive today, he would undoubtedly take great pride in the persistence of the factionalism he sought to create among the Panthers. Fights that erupted between Panther factions as the Party lost its national and international political influence in the 1970s have long outlived the organization. Decades later, former Black Panther leaders continue to condemn each other virulently in public. These disputes distract from the politics of the Black Panthers in their heyday and sustain the Party’s public vilification.
But in recent decades, the history of the Black Panther Party has proven irrepressible. Memoirs by former Black Panthers, as well as scholarly books, edited collections, articles, doctoral dissertations, and master’s theses, have chipped away at public fallacies, clearing obscurity and uncovering the history of the Party piece by piece. Memoirs by, and biographies of, Black Panther activists who served in various parts of the country, and some who were national leaders — including David Hilliard, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Elaine Brown, Safiya Bukhari, Stokely Carmichael, Marshall “Eddie” Conway, Flores Forbes, Evans Hopkins, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Steve McCutchen, Robert Hillary King, Huey P. Newton, Afeni Shakur, and Johnny Spain — provide personal perspectives and rich accounts of life in the Party. Edited collections by Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Judson Jeffries, Charles Jones, Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazerow, and countless journal articles, fill out the story of local chapters in cities across the country and develop thematic insights across them. Books on the Panthers by Paul Alkebulan, Curtis Austin, Christian Davenport, Donna Murch, Jane Rhodes, as well as more general recent books that contain significant discussions of the Panthers, build analytic perspective. A new generation of scholars has provided rigorous treatments of myriad facets of the Party’s history, producing the extraordinary number of ninety dissertations and master’s theses — most written in the last decade — analyzing specific aspects of the Party’s history, such as the sickle-cell-anemia programs, the multiracial alliances of the Chicago Panthers, or the artwork of Black Panther minister of culture Emory Douglas.
These previous treatments are invaluable, and the depth of our analysis is much richer for them. But despite the strength of many of these contributions, none has presented a complete picture of the Black Panther Party, or an adequate analysis of its politics. Pinning down history is always complex. The vociferous efforts of the federal government to vilify the Panthers, and the legacy of factional dispute, made the history of the Black Panther Party nearly impenetrable.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Black Against Empire, published by University of California Press, 2013.