The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded 50 years ago, on October 15th, 1966. In order to celebrate this and reflect a little about the trajectory, political perspective and legacy of the group, which until nowadays is one of the main references of the Black movements worldwide, we shall publish a series of articles, approaching different aspects of their history, the program synthesized in the “Ten Points”, the organization of Black communities, the role of women, the self-defense matter, the similarities and differences with revolutionary Marxism and the ferocious campaign undertaken by the US government and its repressive forces which led to the dispersion of the organization.

By Wilson Honório da Silva, National Education Secretariat (PSTU – Brazil)

 

In this first article we shall approach, summarily, the historical context in which the Black Panthers emerged, highlighting some of the questions raised around he who the Panthers themselves considered to be “heirs” of: Malcolm X.

The eruption of struggles and organizations in the 50’s

The decade before the appearance of the Panthers was marked by the development of the so-called “Civil Rights Movement”, which shook the South of the United States. Despite having fought almost uninterruptedly since the time of slavery, Black men and women intensified their actions particularly after the end of WWII, when the discourse of prosperity and the propaganda of the US as the “global guardian of democracy” clashed brutally with the institutional racist segregation and the awful conditions in which the Black population lived.

The eruption of struggles can be dated exactly a decade before the foundation of the Panthers, on August 28th 1955, when Emmett Louis Till, a 14 year-old boy, was tortured, had his eyes ripped to be finally murdered in the city of Money, Mississippi, after having allegedly whistled to a white woman. Those responsible for the crime were absolved in a grotesque judicial farce, what caused a wave of protests along the United States.

It was in this context that, on December 1st, 1995, in the city of Montgomery (Alabama), Rosa Parks refused to cede her place on the bus to a white man (as the law stipulated), detonating a boycott to the bus companies that spread to Black communities across the country, lasting 381 days.

As we know, the main leader of this process was the minister Martin Luther King Jr. (read the article: “The 50 years of Luther Kings’s speech: On unfulfilled dreams and daily nightmares“, about Kings trajectory, the struggles and debates of the time). But he was not the only one. The ascent was marked by the emergence of countless entities, of distinct political hues but in general quite influenced by the Luther King’s pacifistic discourse, or by a perspective of “reforms” that would guarantee institutional rights to Black men and women. Among them were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, created in 1957), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1960) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, 1961).

Over the following years, the protests and the organization grew rapidly, creating a growing and ever more explosive racial tension in the US. A meaningful example of this period was the “Freedom Summer”, a project of the SNCC, which gathered in June 1964 more than a thousand college students (black and white) to help the Black population of the South to get through the racist system of electoral registration.

However, the consequences of the project, particularly in the state of Mississippi, also ended up questioning the pacifist and reformist perspectives. The volunteers were received with brutality, both by the population and by the repressive forces, and especially by the Ku Klux Klan, the disgusting, centenary movement for white supremacy.

The numbers of the ten weeks project are expressive. 1062 people were arrested, 80 volunteers were beaten, 30 shops or houses of Blacks were bombed or torched, four people were gravely injured, and on June 21st three volunteers (one Black and two Jews) were murdered: James Chaney, Michael Schwerner (both activists of the CORE) and Andrew Goodman.

Having reached a crossroads, the Black movement took different paths. One the rightward path, a sector emerged that started defending overcoming racism through literally integrating to the system through social ascension (an “individual empowerment”), or the institutional way (elections, public offices, etc.).

To the left, there was a radicalization of the so-called “Black nationalism”, which despite its different branches always had as its center the defense of “racialism”: that is, the idea that the struggle against racism is a struggle solely of Black men and women, and usually has nothing to do with fighting against capitalism; so, consequently, it was averse to any alliance with White men and women, even those who are too exploited and oppressed.

The Nation of Islam was part of this camp, and it is symptomatic that by the end of the 50’s around 100 thousand Black men and women had joined this religious-political movement. One of its main leaders, as known, was Malcolm X (1925-65), and for us to understand the political perspective adopted by the Black Panthers, it is worth remembering some elements of the context and thoughts of the Black leader, particularly after March 1964, when he officially split with the Nation of Islam, went to Africa and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

From defending rights to attacking the system

In a book called “Black Liberation and Socialism”, the US writer and Trotskyist Ahmed Shawki synthesized the social and political climate in which the Black Panthers arose: “1965 marked an important turning point for the Black liberation movement. The hegemony exercised by the “old guard” leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. was finally broken. The movement had succeeded in defeating Jim Crow [1] in the South, and the government passed civil rights and voting rights legislation. The center of the movement would shift to the Northern cities – where the majority of Blacks lived in 1965. Northern Blacks were inspired by and supported the civil rights struggles in the South, but the end of Jim Crow legislation did not directly affect them. Jobs, poor housing, discrimination, police violence and substandard education remained fundamental problems”(p. 187).

A categorical example that things had changed very little was the fact that in 1966, the year in which the Panthers appeared, unemployment among Black men and women was bigger than in 1954; 32% of Blacks lived below the poverty line and 71% of the poor living in metropolitan areas were Black.

It was in face of this situation that we can understand the transformation of a struggle for rights into a more offensive combat, turning against the structures of the system as well, since it was more and more clear that the “reforms” (institutional, legal, etc.) already conquered were far from satisfying the concrete needs of the population, even if they became real (which was not even guaranteed, as reality proved).

This, for example, was what Malcolm X thought, as evidenced in his last international speech called “The clamor of the oppressed masses for action against the common oppressor”, given in the London School of Economics, on February 11th“Nineteen sixty-five will be the longest and the hottest and the bloodiest year that has yet been witnessed in the United States. Why? I’m not saying this to advocate violence. I’m saying this after a careful analysis of the ingredients — the sociological, political dynamite that exists in every Black community in that country”.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X

An explosive situation, he analyzed in an interview given shortly after, whose roots were in the system behind the confiscation of the most basic rights: “the same causes that existed in the winter of 1964 still exist in January, in February, of 1965. Now, these are causes of inferior housing, inferior employment, inferior education. All the evils of a bankrupt system still exist where Black Americans are concerned”[2].

It is absolutely not an accident that Malcolm X was murdered exactly 10 days after this speech. It was evident for racists (starting with those seating in the White House) that Malcolm could easily become a “dangerous” leadership alternative for this new movement. A possibility which was even more feared due to the fact that, while he developed his analysis of the reality around him (and especially after having widened it to the international level), Malcolm X also distanced himself from “racialism” and approached a much more dangerous perspective to the eyes of the bourgeoisie: the unity of “race and class”.

It was after his trip to Africa that Malcolm X not only declared having met many “true revolutionaries”, who were neither Black nor pacifistic (as Luther King), but also placed socialism as an objective for the struggle of Black men and women, as he said during a forum promoted by the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), on May 29th, 1964: “All the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism turn towards socialism. I don’t think that’s an accident. Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into a conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism”.

From Malcolm X to the Black Panthers

Behind Malcolm X’s new political stance was a world situation that was, at the very least, explosive. Beyond the independence process of the African countries, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Revolution, the struggles across Latin America and the growing revolt in Europe were literally shaking hearts and minds, feeding rebellious, revolutionary winds in every corner of the world.

A situation that, in Malcolm X’s opinion, was weakening capitalism to the point of exhaustion, as he stated in a interview on January 18th, 1965: “It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, the capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely”.[3]

By then, Malcolm X acted under the flag of the OAAU and his methods of direct (and armed) action certainly reflected his understanding. And, also being consequent with his analysis, Malcolm X started defending more and more the unity in struggle against oppression, beginning with international unity.

This is evident on the end of his speech in London, when he defended it was time to discuss with “all of our African brothers, our Asian brothers, our Latin American brothers, and those people in Europe, some of whom claim to mean right”, in order to do “whatever is necessary to help us to see that our rights are guaranteed —not sometime in the long future, but almost immediately (…) And just as you see the oppressed people all over the world today getting together, the Black people in the West are also seeing that they are oppressed. Instead of just calling themselves an oppressed minority in the States, they are part of the oppressed masses of people all over the world today who are crying out for action against the common oppressor.”

The identification of a “common enemy” also led Malcolm X to a new understanding of the alliance with non-Blacks, as he had already stated when he was in Cairo, taking part in a meeting of the “Organization for Black Unity” on 1964: “We will work with anyone, with any group, no matter what their color is, as long as they are genuinely interested in taking the types of steps necessary to bring an end to the injustices that Black people in this country are afflicted by. No matter what their color is, no matter what their political, economic or social philosophy is, as long as their aims and objectives are in the direction of destroying this vulturistic system that has been sucking the blood of Black people in this country, they’re all right with us.”.

Although he apparently widened his criteria too much, we know he must be understood within the perspective of someone who became famous for defending the struggle against racism “by any means necessary”. And certainly it wouldn’t be “any” white man or political, philosophical, etc. position which would submit to that. Even more important is the fact that, with growing intensity and conviction, Malcolm X realized these means would be, necessarily, anti capitalistic.

This was the tone of his last speech, given before the students of the University of Columbia, in New York, February 18th, 1965 -symptomatically a mere three days before his death: “We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era…. It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”.

The Black Panthers are born

On the 21st of February of 1965, millions of Black men and women across the world mourned the death of Malcolm X with the same intensity with which they raged, with an unstoppable anger that led hundreds of thousands to the streets to protest. Among them were two friends which had met in college in Oakland, California.

Their names were Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Huey was 25 years old; Bobby had already reached 30. Both were also political activists already. Bobby Seale had been member of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and both had been part of the Soul Students Advisory Council (SSAC). However, their names were to enter History once and for all as the founders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, on October 15th, 1966.

bobby-seale-huey-newton-thumb-510x306-43952
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale

The methods and even the stance of Malcolm X were clear references for the actions taken, which rapidly impacted the North-American society. Taking advantage of the weapon laws, the Panthers developed a radical policy of self-defense and organized patrols to monitor the communities and challenge the police and racist violence. Rooting themselves in the communities, they developed (from 1969 on) projects like “Free Breakfast for Children” and community health clinics.

The impact of the movement is evident by the extent it took. By the end of the 1960’s, the Black Panthers had headquarters in 45 cities (as well as representations in Algeria, Africa, which worked from 1969 to 1972), had more than five thousand militants, as well as thousands of sympathizers, and at their peak they sold 250 thousand newspapers per week.

Their social strength was reflected also in art and culture, like through the singer Nina Simone, and even in the world of sports, as the entire world saw in 1968, during the Mexico City Olympics, when the 200 meters contester Tommie Smith (1st place) and John Carlos (3rd place) received their medals raising their arms with clenched fists (the symbol of the Party) and lowered their heads while the US anthem was playing.

His importance in the struggle against oppression can be illustrated by the fact that Huey Newton was one of the first leaders of an organization to give support to the LGBT rebellion in Stonewall (against the unfortunate LGBT-phobic stance of important leaders of the group), and by the fact that women like Angela Davis or Assata Shakur were part of its leadership.

We also know that the Black Panthers paid a very steep price for their daring (and also, it must be said, for their mistakes in analyses and politics). The fact is that, realizing the potential of the Panthers, the US bourgeoisie spared no efforts to destroy them.

In 1969, the infamous head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, publicly declared that the Panthers “represent the greatest threat to internal security of the country”, which green-lit a veritable dirty war against the movement, which used monitoring, infiltration, legal and clandestine maneuvers, police persecution and a series of other tactics that ended up in a huge amount of its leaders arrested, murdered or exiled; headquarters invaded, torched or bombed, and a number of other crimes.

This is a tale, however, that deserves to be brought back with more care and depth. And that is what we intend to do with the next articles, for a series of reasons, including that we believe the history of the Black Panthers allows us to reflect on a series of matters related to the Black struggle nowadays. After all, aside from the methods and part of the political perspective of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers also inherited from him many of his contradictions and some of the main debates which were open by the time he was murdered: internationalism, Pan Africanism, class unity, the limits of “Black nationalism/racialism” and reforms, the efficacy of institutional struggle, the right to self-defense, among others.

For now, let us just remember that the foundation of the Black Panthers can only be saluted and celebrated by all those who fought and fight against racism and for a world that is fairer, freer, more egalitarian. Bringing back their history, for us, who are part of the PSTU, is also a tribute to the many men and women who were pursued, arrested, and gave their lives for the project, like Mumia Abu-Jamal, for example. And reflecting on its successes and mistakes is important for us to carry this history forward. To victory. To socialism. With race and class.

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Notes:

[1] The Jim Crow Laws, which imposed a severe segregation of the Blacks, were given this name after the regiments formed by the around 400 thousand Blacks taken to the North American Civil War (1861-65). The name was taken from the song “Jump Jim Crow”, from the 1830’s, in which the white singer Thomas D. Rice, wearing blackface, ridiculed Black men and women. The laws voiding Black men and women from going to the same public places as whites -from bathrooms to buses to schools- or to have access to basic rights (like voting), were imposed in 1877 and lasted until 1965.

[2] J.H. Clarke. Malcolm X: the man and his times. New York: Macmillan Co., 1969, p. 209.

[3] Interview given to Jack Barnes and Barry Sheppard, published on the April-March 1965 edition of the Young Socialist magazine.

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Translation: Gabriel Tolstoy.