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Black Panthers

American militant black power organization. In 1966 in Oakland, California, two Merritt Junior College students, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, both of whom were black power advocates, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, later known as the Black Panther Party (BPP). The events that triggered the foundation of the BPP were the 1965 assassination of the Nation of Islam's Malcolm X and the 1965 riots in Watts, an impoverished black neighborhood in Los Angeles. The Black Panthers pointedly rejected the nonviolent approach of the mainstream civil rights movement as personified by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The BPP demanded that American society reform and provide equality to black Americans in all spheres as well as freedom and self-determination through United Nations-supervised plebiscites. It also sought restitution for slavery, exemption from military service for black Americans, an end to police brutality, and full employment. The BPP was also bitterly opposed to the Vietnam War.

The Black Panthers believed in self-help; therefore, they set up neighborhood programs that created educational programs, food banks, medical services, and patrols against police abuse. From their base in Oakland, the BPP quickly grew into a nationwide organization. Defenders of the Black Panthers claimed that they talked more violence than they practiced. Critics, however, pointed to their tactics of violence, aimed particularly at the police.

To publicize their militant image, BPP members usually donned black berets, leather jackets, and firearms. Their militancy resulted in repeated confrontations with police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Fearing a union of black and white radicals, the FBI organized and conducted a counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, that operated from 1956 to 1971 to monitor and control dissent. The FBI infiltrated the BPP, paid informants, and raided Black Panther offices from coast to coast. In 1963, a shootout with police in Chicago killed Fred Hampton, the Illinois BPP leader, while a showdown in Oakland in 1967 left a policeman dead and landed Newton in jail for manslaughter. By the end of the 1960s, twenty Black Panthers had died in such violence, and much of the leadership was behind bars.

Released while his case was on appeal in 1970, Newton focused the BPP strictly on community services such as soup kitchens, free clinics, clothing and food drives, and community patrols of schools. During this period, he also led successful rent strikes and campaigns against drug abuse and crime and published Revolutionary Suicide (1973). He was shot dead on an Oakland, California, street in 1989. By 1973, with many of its leaders jailed or dead, the BPP had faded almost into obscurity.

John H. Barnhill


Further Reading
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice, 1935–1998. New York: Laurel/Dell, 1992.; Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2002.; Newton, Huey P., with J. H. Blake. Revolutionary Suicide. London: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995.
 

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