Black Panther Party Celebrates Anniversary in Philadelphia

As the group gets ready to mark 45 years at the Hilton this weekend, here's the real truth about the BPP

Full employment. Decent housing. Enlightened education. An end to police brutality. Fair trials. Justice and peace. These goals constitute six of the points in the Ten-Point Program initially drafted by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland on October 15, 1966, in connection with the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Shortly after, Newton and Seale joined with Reggie Forte, Sherman Forte, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, and “Lil” Bobby Hutton as the founders of this revolutionary party. Within three years, it had more than 10,000 members and its newspaper, which began publication in 1967, reached a circulation of 250,000. The Panthers had chapters across the country, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, D.C., Dallas, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, L.A., NYC, New Haven, New Orleans, Newark, Oakland, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Philly. The Oakland chapter gained such public support that Seale, in his 1972 mayoral run, came close to an upset victory, garnering 40 percent of the vote.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the mainstream media depicted the Panthers as a bunch of white-hating, anarchistic urban terrorists. Though many persons continue to foolishly believe that to this very day, the characterization is a myth. First of all, terrorists don’t create a free breakfast program for children, like the Panthers did in Oakland in January 1969 (a program later copied by the federal government). The Panthers expanded free breakfasts to numerous cities, ultimately feeding more than 10,000 children every day. Terrorists don’t do that. And terrorists don’t establish and operate more that 45 social services, called “Survival Programs,” including free medical care, sickle-cell testing, blood drives for black and poor people, and non-violent gang dispute resolution. Also, terrorists don’t have organizational regulations that require them to “speak politely … pay fairly for what (the members) … buy, (never) … hit or swear at people … (and never) take liberties with women,” as the Panthers’ “Eight Points of Attention” required. Moreover, terrorists don’t require their central committee staffs to engage in “anti-crime” behavior and promote “gun safety,” as the Panthers did.

Don’t get me wrong now: The Panthers weren’t a group of kumbaya pacifists. They included “self-defense” in the name for a reason. And that reason was in direct response to relentless and officially sanctioned police brutality. That’s precisely why on May 2, 1967, 30 visibly armed Panthers and supporters marched to the California state capitol of Sacramento where Seale read a prepared statement opposing the Mulford Act, which was a legislative proposal later signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. It criminalized the carrying of loaded firearms in public—and did so only because some black folks and poor folks decided that they wanted to exercise their right to self-defense just like whites and the middle class had always done. But guns weren’t what the Panthers were all about in response to police brutality. People would be shocked to learn that the Panthers, armed with law books and basic legal training, would often arrive at the scene of incidents of police brutality and would stand a safe distance away and read aloud the pertinent sections of various criminal statutes and judicial decisions to inform both the cops and the victims of what the law mandated in those particular situations.

However, that didn’t stop the bloodshed—not the bloodshed of police, but the bloodshed of innocent Panthers. On March 13, 1968, Arthur Morris became the first of many Panthers murdered by federal, state and local government agents, state and local police officers, and provocateurs hired and paid for by agents and officers. Twenty-one-year-old Fred Hampton was killed on December 4, 1969 when a Chicago police army launched a raid on his home at 4:45 in the morning, and shot a sleeping and unarmed Hampton twice in the head, and killed 22-year-old bodyguard Mark Clark. Hampton’s pregnant wife was shot but fortunately both she and the baby survived. Some law-enforcement apologists and history rewriters claim that police fired in reaction to a Panther fusillade. There were as many as 100 shots fired—99 by the police who broke into the house and one by Clark, who was awakened from a deep sleep … and then maliciously shot into a permanent one. By the way, FBI Special Agent Gregg York was quite candid in his assessment of what happened: “We expected about 20 Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black nigger fuckers were killed.” And the list of murdered Panthers increased.

There weren’t just murderous crimes against the Panthers. There were also widespread crimes against the Constitution, as made crystal clear in a 1976 report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence Activities, which said “In 1967, the FBI initiated a covert action program COINTELPRO (an acronym for the Counter Intelligence Program that operated from 1956-1971) to disrupt and ‘neutralize’ … (certain) organizations … ” As proclaimed by the FBI, the program was designed to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement … Martin Luther King aspire(s) to this position … ” The report noted that the Panthers “were not among the original ‘Black Nationalist’ targets (but that) in September 1968, however, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country … ’” The report went on to state that “Although the claimed purpose of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO tactics was to prevent violence, some of the FBI’s tactics against the BPP were clearly intended to foster violence … (The FBI) proudly claimed credit for violent clashes between rival factions which, in the words of one FBI official, resulted in ‘shooting, beatings, and a high degree of unrest … ’” The report concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that … FBI conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association … ”

Based on the sordid history of COINTELPRO’s assassinations, beatings, wrongful imprisonment, harassment, disinformation, and malevolent divide-and-conquer trickery, as well as the ongoing civil rights violations of George Bush’s 2001 Orwellian Patriot Act and President Obama’s woefully disappointing 2011 extension of it, the Black Panther Party is needed now more than ever. And the Panther movement will be revived here in Philly when the organization celebrates its 45th anniversary October 28-29 at the Hilton Hotel where there will be lectures, panel discussions, workshops and exhibits. The keynote speaker will be Bobby Seale. See here for more info or call 215-787-0857. Power’s from the people!