Many Americans hated and feared the Black Panther Party founder. Party members were called racist gun-toting militants and Black avengers who thought violence was as American and American as cherry pie.
The unthinkable happened in Oakland, 55 years after the party was founded. A bronze bust of Newton was unveiled by Fredrika Newton, Newton's widow, and Dana King, a sculptor.
True, it is true that, aside from Oakland, the birthplace of the Panthers and Newton's murder, there are very few places where such an icon would be welcomed. There is no other location that could accommodate his statue at the intersection of Dr. Huey. P. Newton Way, and Mandela Parkway. This parkway is named after the late South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
It would be wrong to say that the Panthers are experiencing a revival, or even a moment; they were disbanded nearly 40 years ago.
It is true, however, that historians and activists will be reexamining the legacy of the Panthers in 2021. They claim that the Panthers were a forerunner of identity politics today, helped to shape progressivism and served as grandparents and grandmothers to Black Lives Matter.
Robyn Spencer, associate professor of history at Lehman College, New York City, said that there are detractors who see the Panthers as a militia. Then, there are the people who actually appreciate the Panthers because it was necessary.
She stated that the Panthers and their contemporaries laid out an agenda with clarity that is rare today.
She said, "We must have a critical view of what these organizations did." It's not that they must be protected because they were so brutally attacked by the state. The moment we are in requires us to be able to see clearly politically and to cut through the weeds. We also need to avoid being nostalgic.
The party's history has been often overshadowed because of its association with violence. The Black Panther Party is often seen as an organization that wanted war with police. This group was doomed by infighting and infiltration, as well corruption among its leaders.
The party's 15-year history was a learning ground for many of the Black, Latino and Asian people currently in public office and on public platforms. The party's greatest achievements, such as its community service programs and public education, have helped transform health care and public education.
Fredrika Newton is one of those who wants to tell the story of the Panthers for a new generation. She co-founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, Oakland. She stated that the bronze bust was just the beginning of a bigger effort to place the Black Power movement alongside other less confrontational civil rights activists. She also wanted to see the U.S. National Park Service recognize Panther sites.
She said, "You're hearing more than ever before about the Black Panther Party and Huey’s contributions to (Black] liberation as thought leader," There's a great hunger for it. We are at the edge of our doom.
Bobby Seale and Newton met at an Oakland community college. They founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD) in October 1966. Seale was the party chairman and Newton was the party's defense minister.
They created the Ten Point Program for the party, which outlines the party's beliefs. They demanded freedom to decide the fate of the Black community; economic empowerment through full employment, wealth redistribution; an education system that includes the Black experience and an end to violence and fatal encounters between Blacks and police.
In its early years, the party was known for its uniform. Men and women wore matching black berets and leather jackets. Sometimes, long-barrel shotguns were added. There were also the Panther marches and patrols that were meant to show discipline and strength.
Police departments saw the anti-police rhetoric of Panthers as more than bravado. Some law enforcement groups were offended when Beyonce and her backup dancers appeared in the Super Bowl halftime show in San Francisco in 2016 wearing black leather attire and berets in a tribute to the Panthers.
Unknown facts include the fact that the majority of party members, and its leadership, outside of the central organizing board in Oakland, were Black women. Although the party was more successful as it grew, it struggled with sexism. Elaine Brown and Angela Davis are some of its most prominent alumni. It is not surprising that women are the most prominent leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Former Panther members admitted in interviews that their party's name influenced perceptions of its power and intimidation. The name "for Self Defense" was dropped from the party's original name. Huggins was the first woman to head a Panther Party chapter.
Huggins stated that there was a discussion about the posture. Huggins explained that paramilitary did not have to be used to inform people that they were protecting their community. From 1973 to 1981, she ran the party-sponsored Oakland Community School.
She said, "We stopped wearing what you refer to as the iconic uniform after three years." People said to us, "Why are you making yourself apart from us?" "You're exactly like us."
Its "Survival Programs" were a major reason that the party gained acceptance in almost 70 communities throughout the U.S. and internationally. They opened offices, had chapters, opened office, offered free health care clinics, free breakfast programs to schoolchildren and published Black Panther newspapers. Its 65 programs included pioneering sickle-cell disease testing research, free food distribution and transportation service for families visiting their incarcerated loved one. Seniors who needed help getting to a grocery store or pharmacy were also among them.
Katherine Campbell was a teenager who first participated in the Panther newspaper's free breakfast program in San Francisco. She said that the activities of the party didn't warrant being targeted by law enforcement.
Campbell said that "we were supposed to be a threat to government," and eventually became a member of the party. Can you imagine feeding children as a threat to government? It took off. We didn't know it, but we would make history."
She said that press and other media organizations played an important role in demonizing the party. At times, they were unquestioningly willing to accept police narratives and the FBI's view that the party was "the greatest threat" to the United States' internal security.
The FBI aggressively monitored Panthers and its illegal COINTELPRO program, which included intimidation and infiltration of Panthers groups throughout the country, was infamously illegal. It created paranoia, distrust, and violence within the party. Members claim that the FBI shared intelligence with police departments. This led to the arrest, torture, imprisonment, and death of Panthers in the country.
Fred Hiestand, a former Black Panther Party attorney, stated that the Panthers were the antidote against (police) violence and they were frequently challenged to violence.
This story continues at places such as the Officer Down Memorial Page. It is a website that honors law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line-of-duty.
"The Black Panthers are a racist, radical organization that professed to murder law enforcement officers," reads Frey's memorial entry. It also claims that Panthers were responsible at least 15 deaths and the injuries of many others across the country.
More than 20 Panthers were killed in violent encounters between police and Newton while Newton was in prison. These included Bobby Hutton (16-year-old recruit from Oakland) and Fred Hampton (leader of the Illinois party's Chicago chapter).
Seale, who is still a proponent of the party's legacy, was imprisoned in 1968 for his participation in protests at Chicago's Democratic National Convention.
The party was in chaos.
Newton tried to restore the image of the Panthers by encouraging members to concentrate on survival programs after his release. Newton supported the Black community's right to defend itself against police but he no longer believed that party members should openly own guns to stop brutality.
After years of police surveillance, declining national membership, violence infighting, allegations about embezzlement, and scandals in the which Newton was involved, the party finally disbanded in 1982.
The party also left behind many enemies but many admirers.
Peter Coyote (American actor, founder of the Diggers), a San Francisco improv group that printed the newspaper for Panthers and provided food for their breakfast program, said, "They were honourable, they were upright."
Coyote stated, "They were human beings. Of course, they messed it up here and there." "But to me they were heroes."
The old Panthers flew from Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans to Oakland, where they shared stories and told of their old days.
Charlotte O'Neal, Kansas City Panthers, stated that "I don't consider myself a former Panther." "Once a Panther is always a Panther. It's in our blood. We used to say, "We're going to bop 'til the drop."
They say that we live in the Black Panthers world in many ways. They cultivated the soil and made it fertile to support activism against police brutality and mass incarceration, as well as generational poverty, and racial wealth gaps. They helped to create the America we know today.
The Panthers were radical in their day, but today their views are less extreme. Today, social activism based upon race, ethnicity, gender identity, and political ideology is more common. While armed self defense is still considered extreme, it has not stopped white extremists from adopting the idea.
The Panthers also encouraged society to treat Black people as they were, and not as racists. This was in stark contrast to the "respectability politics” of the nonviolent civil right movement. The Panthers took inspiration from Malcolm X's "by all means necessary" mantra and didn't ask politely about their freedoms.
This has been carried over to Black Lives Matter. In response to the deaths at the hands police and vigilantes of Black boys, men, and women, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor, protesters used tactical confrontation with elected leaders and law enforcement.
Phillip Agnew, an activist based in Florida and early organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement said that the Panthers "still have a model to learn from." He also co-founded Black Men Build, which is a national organization focused on the empowerment, political education, and political education for Black men. Agnew stated that the platform of the group was "our version" of the Ten Point Program.
Although the ripples of the Panthers are everywhere, there have been very few tangible efforts to place them in history. Is the Newton bust a sign of change?
Ron Sundergill is a senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association's Oakland branch. He stated that the larger Black Power movement was not represented in monuments or historical sites in the National Park System.
This association conducts research and reconnaissance on historical sites and recently collaborated with the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation in order to identify buildings and other locations that are important to the Panther Party's history. These locations include the former St. Augustine's Episcopal Church which was the location of the first free breakfast program and the storefront that served briefly as the Panther Party's office space before it moved on.
Sundergill stated, "It's past time." According to me, the National Parks Service should cover this story. It's a very important history, not just for the United States but for the entire world.
It is unlikely to be an easy task. The Fraternal Order for Police was notified in 2017 that nearly $100,000 had been allocated to the Black Power project. In a letter, the police union expressed "outrage" at the Trump administration's decision to pay the park service to honor a group that was involved in the 1973 murder of a San Francisco ranger.
A spokesperson for the park service stated that the funding was withdrawn by the agency after an "extra review."
Sundergill stated that if a monument to the national Panthers is approved by the park service, it would need to be signed off by President Joe Biden. This could take up to two years.
Rep. Barbara Lee is a Democrat congresswoman and believes that the national monument will be a success. She volunteered for the Panthers' survival programs in Oakland as a young woman.
Lee stated, "We're going through any obstacle, any barricade that comes before our eyes, we're going to keep at this,"
"I believe that the time is right for the Black Panther Party. All of us have to do our part in this race. It's a marathon.