It was bound to happen--a Revolution. The fight for civil rights at its height in the 1950s and 1960s would slowly change the mode of operations from asking for rights to demanding rights and protections of African-Americans, making way for us to own our destiny. In 1965, there was a continued litany of tumultuous events from the murder of Malcom X, who championed self-defense and Black empowerment to the Selma marches, which eventually helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. That was a significant a win for civil rights, but rights on paper still had to be defended, especially against the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Other iconic incidents at the time included the 1965 Watts riots of Los Angeles, wherein the Black community was at odds with the police over the systemic mistreatment of African-Americans. The angst and tension continued the next year into 1966. Organized, collective strength was needed. Several stepped up with efforts on both the nonviolent side of the spectrum and the self-defense side nationwide. Early organizations such as CORE (Congress of Racial Equality, SNCC (Student Non-violent [later changed to National] Coordinating Committee) and Deacons for Defense & Justice were a few. Among the most notable self-defense activists, similar in many respects to the Deacons, were the Black Panther Party (BPP). The group was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California.
Before we go further, let’s set the record straight. Though both originated the same year, the Black Panther comic hero launched in July of 1966 by Marvel Comics, is no relation to the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in October of 1966. Both are inspirational tales, yet the BPP didn’t live in an imaginary land of riches and superpowers. Instead, the BPP addressed real life strife with little means beyond the will to survive. In fact, survival is the root of the name. The black panther, co-founder Newton learned, wasn’t an aggressor. It doesn’t strike first but fights when backed into a corner, hence the inspiration for the party’s name.
The group was originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The group was the manifestation in response to poverty, disparity of rights between whites and blacks and ills of social justice – particularly police brutality. It was as much a feel-good effort, too. At a time black color and culture was under attack, the BPP members rocked afro hairstyles as a symbol of black pride and beauty. The Black Power movement was at hand!
Service, education or black pride may come to mind when you heard about the BPP, yet there’s a slanted more myopic view characterizing the Black Panther Party as gun-toting, beret wearing anarchists. The stigma of being operatives subversive to the US, was the spin put forth by J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director at the time. He dedicated inordinate amounts of time to undermining the BPP and similar organizations. Hoover called the BPP “the greatest threat” to America. The Bureau’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) was one of the linchpins that would thwart activities of the BPP. Misinformation, false claims and incarceration were the tactics used to divide and destroy the BPP.