Decades later, a new look at Black Panthers and their legacy

·12-min read

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — It once would have been unthinkable for a city to erect a monument to Huey P. Newton.

The Black Panther Party co-founder was feared and hated by many Americans, and party members were dismissed as racist, gun-toting militants — Black avengers who believed violence was as American as cherry pie.

But the unthinkable has happened — in Oakland, the city of the party’s founding 55 years ago. In an unrelenting deluge on an October Sunday, Newton’s widow Fredrika and sculptor Dana King unveiled a bronze bust of Newton.

It is true that aside from Oakland, where the Panthers were born and Newton was murdered, there are few places where such a bust would be welcome; there is probably no other place in the world that could place his statue at an intersection of Dr. Huey P. Newton Way and Mandela Parkway, named for the late South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

And it would be wrong to suggest that the Panthers are enjoying a resurgence, or even a moment; the party disbanded almost 40 years ago.

But it is also true that in 2021, some activists and historians are taking another look at the legacy of the Panthers through a less-freighted lens. The Panthers, they say, were a harbinger of today’s identity politics, helped shape progressivism, and have served as grandfathers and grandmothers to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You have the detractors who only see (the Panthers) as a militia, and then you have the folks who are actually happy for that because the times required it,” said Robyn Spencer, an associate professor of history at Lehman College in New York City.

She said the Panthers and many of their contemporaries set out an agenda with a clarity that is rare even today.

“We have to have a critical perspective on what these organizations did,” she said. “It’s not that we have to defend them because they were attacked so viciously by the state. This moment that we’re in now requires us to be clear politically, to try and cut through the weeds, and to not be nostalgic.”

Much of the party’s story has often been overshadowed by its association with violence. The Black Panther Party has been seen as an organization that sought war with police, a group doomed by infighting, infiltration and corruption among its leaders.

Yet over its 15 years of operation, the party and its politics were a training ground and an inspiration for a generation of Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and white people who hold public office or public platforms today. Some of the party’s biggest accomplishments, like its community service programs, helped transform public education and health care.

Fredrika Newton, who co-founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation in Oakland, is among those who want to retell the Panthers story for a new generation. She said the bronze bust is just a start of a larger effort to see the Black Power movement take its place in history with other, less confrontational actors of the civil rights movement. Among her goals: recognition of Panther sites by the U.S. National Park Service.

“You’re hearing more about the Black Panther Party, and Huey’s contributions to (Black) liberation as a thought leader, than you’ve ever heard before,” she said. “There’s a hunger for it. We’re just on the precipice.”

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After meeting at a community college in Oakland, Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966. Newton was the party’s minister for defense and Seale was the party chairman.

Together, they wrote the party’s Ten Point Program, laying out the party’s beliefs. Among their demands: Freedom to determine the destiny of the Black community, economic empowerment through full employment and wealth redistribution, an educational system inclusive of the Black experience, and an end to brutality and fatal encounters between Black people and police.

The party became famous in its early years for its uniform: men and women in matching black berets and black leather jackets, sometimes accessorized by long-barrel shotguns. And there were the Panther formations, marches and patrols, meant as a show of discipline and strength.

Police departments took Panthers’ anti-police rhetoric and name calling as more than just bravado. As recently as 2016, when pop icon Beyoncé and her backup dancers performed in the Super Bowl halftime show near San Francisco dressed in black leather get-ups and berets as a clear tribute to the Panthers, some law enforcement groups took offense.

A lesser-known fact was that a majority of the party’s membership, as well as its leadership outside of the central organizing committee in Oakland, were Black women. The party struggled with sexism and misogyny, although less so as it grew across the country. Some of its most famous alumni include Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Erika Huggins. Perhaps not coincidentally, women are the most prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In interviews, former Panther members acknowledged that the party’s very name drove perceptions that it only operated by force and intimidation. The party eventually dropped “for Self Defense” from its name. But those words also meant nutrition, health care and political education for the Black community, said Huggins, who was the first woman to lead a chapter of the Panther Party.

“There was a conversation about the posture, that we didn’t have to be paramilitary to let people know we were in defense of our community,” Huggins said. She ran the party-sponsored Oakland Community School for children from 1973 to 1981.

“We stopped wearing what you call the iconic uniform after about three years,” she said. “People said to us, ‘Why are you making yourself separate from us? You’re just like us.’”

Largely due to its “Survival Programs,” the party was embraced in nearly 70 communities across the U.S. and abroad where it had chapters, opened offices, provided free health care clinics to residents and free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, and published Black Panther newspapers. Also among its 65 programs were pioneering sickle cell disease testing research, free food and clothing distribution, transportation service for families visiting incarcerated loved ones, and the escorts for seniors who needed assistance getting to a supermarket or a pharmacy.

Katherine Campbell, who first volunteered with the Panther newspaper and the free breakfast program in San Francisco as a teenager, said the party’s activities didn’t merit its targeting by law enforcement.

“We were supposed to have been a threat to the government,” said Campbell, who eventually became a party member. “Can you imagine that feeding some children is a threat to the government? But it took off. Little did we know, we were going to make history.”

She and others said press and other media organizations played a role in demonizing the party, at times unquestioningly accepting police narratives or the FBI’s opinion that the party presented “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”

Panthers were aggressively surveilled by the FBI, and the agency’s infamous and illegal COINTELPRO effort included infiltration and intimidation of Panthers groups across the country. It sowed paranoia, distrust and violence within the party. Whenever the FBI shared intel with police departments, members say, it preceded the assault, torture, arrest, imprisonment and deaths of Panthers across the country.

“Because the Panthers sought to be the antidote to (police) violence, they were often challenged to violence,” said former Black Panther Party attorney Fred Hiestand.

The narrative continues in places like the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website dedicated to honoring law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Among those memorialized is John Frey, an Oakland police officer who died of gunshot wounds in 1967 after pulling Newton over. Newton denied shooting Frey but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1968. The case spurred a “Free Huey” campaign, contributing to a surge of interest in the party globally. Newton’s conviction was overturned two years later.

“The Black Panthers is a racist, radical group that professed the murders of law enforcement officers,” reads the memorial entry for Frey, which also includes claims Panthers were responsible for the deaths of at least 15 officers and the wounding of dozens nationwide.

While Newton was imprisoned, more than two dozen Panthers died in violent encounters with police, including Bobby Hutton, the 16-year-old remembered as the party’s first recruit in Oakland, and Fred Hampton, leader of the party’s Illinois chapter in Chicago.

Seale, who continues to promote the party legacy today, had himself been imprisoned in 1968 over his involvement in protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The party fell into disarray.

After his release, Newton sought to rehabilitate the Panthers’ image by urging members to focus on the survival programs. He still advocated the rights of the Black community to defend itself from police, but no longer argued that party members should openly carry guns as a check on brutality.

The party officially folded in 1982 after years of police surveillance, dwindling national membership, violent infighting, allegations of embezzlement and scandals in which Newton was implicated.

In its wake, the party left a lot of enemies, but admirers as well.

“They were honorable, they were upright,” said Peter Coyote, the American actor and founder of the Diggers, a San Francisco improv troupe that worked with Panthers early on, printing the party’s newspaper and providing food for the breakfast program.

“They were human beings, of course, they messed up here and there,” Coyote said. “But to me, they were heroes.”

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The old Panthers flew in from Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, for a dinner in downtown Oakland the night before Newton’s bust was unveiled, and shared stories about the old days.

“I don’t call myself a former Panther,” said Charlotte O’Neal of the Kansas City Panthers. “Once a Panther, always a Panther. It’s in our blood. As we used to say, ‘We’re gonna bop ‘til we drop.’”

In many ways, they say, we now live in the Black Panthers’ world. They tilled the ground and made it fertile for activism against police brutality, mass incarceration, generational poverty and racial wealth gaps. For better or worse, they helped launch the America we see today, broken up into tribes by sex and race and creed.

Sure, the Panthers were radical for their time, but their positions are less so today, when social activism based on race or ethnicity, religious faith, queer and transgender identity and political ideology is common. And while armed self-defense is still considered extreme, that has not stopped some whites on the far-right from embracing the concept.

The Panthers also pushed society to deal with Black people as they are, not as racists see them. It was a clear contrast to the “respectability politics” of the nonviolent civil rights movement. Taking inspiration from Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” mantra, the Panthers didn’t ask politely for their freedoms.

That has carried over to the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters adopted tactical confrontation with law enforcement and elected leaders in response to the deaths of Black boys, men and women at the hands of police and vigilantes: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Phillip Agnew, a Florida-based activist and early organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, said the Panthers are “still a model to draw from.” He co-founded Black Men Build, a national group focused on the empowerment and political education of Black men. The group’s platform was written as “our version of the Ten Point Program,” Agnew said.

The ripples of the Panthers are all around us, but there have been few concrete efforts to mark their place in history. Does the Newton bust portend a change?

Ron Sundergill, a senior regional director in the National Parks Conservation Association’s Oakland office, said the larger Black Power movement is not currently represented in any monuments or historic sites included in the National Park System.

The association, which researches and conducts reconnaissance on historic sites, recently worked with the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation to scope out a series of buildings and locations in Oakland that are significant to the Panther Party’s story. Those locations include the former St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, the site of the first free breakfast program, and a storefront that briefly served as the Panther Party’s first office before it outgrew the space.

“It’s way past time,” Sundergill said. “The National Parks Service should be covering this story, in my view. It is a really important history for not only the United States but the world.”

It probably will not be easy. In 2017, the Fraternal Order of Police caught wind of nearly $100,000 in funding for the project on the Black Power group. The police union sent a letter to the Trump administration expressing “outrage and shock” that the park service would pay to honor a group associated with the 1973 killing of a San Francisco park ranger.

A park service spokesperson has said the agency withdrew the funding after “an additional review.”

If a national Panthers monument wins approval of the park service, Sundergill said, it would require a final sign off from President Joe Biden, which could be two years away.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat congresswoman who is pushing for the national monument, believes the effort will succeed. As a younger woman, she volunteered with the Panthers’ survival programs and its political campaigns in Oakland.

“We’re going to keep at it, through any obstacle, any barrier that comes before us,” Lee said.

“I think for the Black Panther Party, its time has come once again. We all have to run our lap of this race. It’s a marathon.”

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News researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed.

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Morrison, a native of Oakland, is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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