Who’s Afraid of the Black Panthers? Lessons from the Black Panther Party

by Samuel Skinner

As Marx correctly noted in the Communist Manifesto, the ruling ideas in any era are the ideas of the ruling class. The history that is published in school textbooks and made into TV mini-series is distorted in order to protect and support the capitalist system. Popular narratives of the Civil Rights movement erase the key role played by socialists; for example, textbooks usually neglect to mention that Rosa Parks was a veteran political organizer with ties to many socialist and communist activists. We are similarly not told about how Martin Luther King Jr. faced widespread condemnation from both conservatives and liberals, especially after he vocally came out against the Vietnam War.

While figures like Parks and King have largely been sanitized in the capitalists’ history, the fate of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was much different. Since their inception, the Black Panthers were painted as criminals and terrorists, with then head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover even referring to them as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Throughout its existence, the BPP was subject to sabotage, harassment, espionage, and even political assassinations.

Why was the ruling class so scared of the BPP? Because the BPP was building an organized socialist movement that was starting to cut through the racist muck of capitalism. Capitalist stooges like Hoover were right to fear the BPP; if they had succeeded in creating the broad multi-racial working-class organization they were working towards, the ruling class would have a revolutionary force at its doorstep.

Though the BPP eventually collapsed due to external state pressure and internal issues within its leadership, its legacy lives on. It is of great importance today that socialists study the successes and failures of the Black Panthers, especially their Rainbow Coalition. With the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests taking place amidst an economic depression, the stage is set for a broad coalition to form which realizes that our various struggles for justice and equality can only be won through revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system.

The Black Panther Party: Early Years

A year after Malcolm X was killed, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale started the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD) in Oakland, California. They envisioned the BPPSD as carrying on the legacy of Malcolm X, whose writings pointed the pair in the direction of achieving black liberation through a mixture of black nationalism and opposition to capitalism.

While the ideas of black nationalism and pan-Africanism certainly influenced and shaped the BPPSD from its inception to its dissolution, the BPPSD took to heart Malcolm X’s sentiment that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” They worked to highlight the links between race- and class-based oppression, increasingly inspired by the classic works of Marx, Engels, and other revolutionary socialists. The BPPSD also drew inspiration from the global postcolonial movement that sought self-determination for colonized people on a socialist basis. As with all stages of the Civil Rights movement, the fight for black rights in the United States was inseparable from the larger anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles that were occurring around the world.

The BPPSD had a Ten-Point Program that included calls for guaranteed community-owned housing, reparations for slavery, the release of all imprisoned black people, and the right of black communities to self-defense. The BPPSD put this last demand into practice by “patrolling the pigs.” BPPSD members would follow police around black neighborhoods, document their encounters with civilians, and intervene if necessary, armed with a gun in one hand and a lawbook in the other. While this tactic unsurprisingly infuriated the police—who had, in the past, acted with impunity—many of the black residents of these neighborhoods were impressed.

While this tactic of armed patrols certainly attracted many working-class and poor black people towards the BPPSD, it alienated many others, and also allowed the police to justify deploying ever-increasing amounts of violence and surveillance against the BPPSD. A small armed organization could not withstand or resist this repression in the same way the organized masses of the working class would be able to. As Seale recently said, “we allowed ourselves to be marginalized. We had ego issues, went to the gun too soon, and allowed the government to label us as gun crazy.” Similarly, Newton reflected that:

We were looked upon as an ad-hoc military group, operating outside the community fabric and too radical to be part of it. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and did not fully understand that only the people can create the revolution. And hence the people ‘did not follow our lead in picking up the gun.’

The Black Panthers shortly dropped the “self-defense” part of their title—a move which was representative of the change in strategy and philosophy that the organization was undergoing. As the BPP continued to grow and organize in new locations, its membership began to put a larger emphasis on the economic roots of black oppression and—in the words of left-wing civil rights activist William Patterson—challenge the “illusion that the black people, of historical necessity, had to go it alone… [They] began to see that the unity of the oppressed was something for which a desperate fight had to be made.”

The Rainbow Coalition

In 1969, Fred Hampton of the Chicago section of the BPP formed the Rainbow Coalition, originally composed of the Young Lords (YL) and Young Patriot Organization (YPO). The YL and YPO were both street gangs turned political organizations, with the YL made up of Puerto Rican immigrants and the YPO of white migrants from Appalachia. These groups came to understand that their individual fights against poverty and the police were part of a larger struggle against global capitalism and imperialism, which necessitated a united struggle.

The Rainbow Coalition grew to include groups representing Chicano, Native American, and Chinese workers. Together they instituted free health clinics and free breakfast programs in Chicago and fought against the racism and xenophobia that capitalism relies on to divide the working class. Jose Cha Cha Jimenez, the founder of the YL, emphasized how the Rainbow Coalition did not view the fight against poverty as separate from the fight against racism, saying “we had a Rainbow Coalition, and the beauty about that is… Chairman Hampton recognized the fact that we could not talk about class struggle without talking about racism. These organizers knew that unless capitalism and racism were fought against simultaneously, neither could be defeated.”

At the core of this effort was the leadership of Fred Hampton, and his philosophy that “we aren’t going to fight racism with racism; we’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” In response to being asked by a member of the YPO why Hampton would want to organize with white people when “we enslaved you… we oppressed your people,” Hampton replied, “I put that behind me because the revolution is in front of me, and you can’t have that without everybody.” As a revolutionary socialist, Hampton recognized that only a broad and diverse movement of the working class could win the fight against racism and poverty.

Despite the monumental achievement that the Rainbow Coalition represented, it was unable to sustain itself after Hampton was murdered by the police and FBI at the end of 1969. At the time of his death, he was only twenty-one years old—yet another young black man murdered by the capitalist state. Following Hampton’s murder, the Rainbow Coalition fell apart due to a lack of leadership and relentless state repression.

Lessons to Learn

The Black Panthers endured constant attacks from the FBI under its C.O.I.N.T.E.L.P.R.O terror campaign, which involved political assassinations, raiding of BPP offices, and the surveillance of BPP members coupled with targeted police harassment. Speaking on why the BPP was the target of so much state violence, Seale said, “They came down on us because we had a grass-roots, real people’s revolution, complete with the programs, complete with the unity, complete with the working coalitions, we were crossing racial lines.” Seale himself was arrested while protesting outside the Democratic National Convention in 1969, before being convicted during a trial where he was bound and gagged inside the courtroom to prevent him from speaking on his own behalf.

In addition, many prominent Black Panthers began to lose faith in the movement and head in different directions. When he was released from prison, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, losing with forty percent of the vote. Many BPP members and leaders were disheartened by this defeat. While some of the leadership’s disillusionment was certainly organic, the FBI also worked behind the scene to promote internal disagreements. One prominent Black Panther, Eldrige Cleaver, received stacks of FBI-fabricated letters while exiled in Algeria, begging Cleaver to assume leadership of the BPP and denounce Newton. Cleaver would go on to heavily criticize Newton and the entire BPP in a television interview, before becoming a born-again Christian and devout anti-communist.

The context in which the BPP operated was also characterized by the large presence of Stalinism and Maoism in the international left at the time; this limited the BPP’s ability to develop a well-rounded Marxist approach. As our co-thinker Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party of England and Wales wrote in her article, Lessons from the Black Panthers:

It was the influence of Stalinism which in large part was responsible for the failure of the Panthers to have a consistent orientation towards the working class. The leadership of the Panthers was particularly inspired by the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, both of which were led by petit-bourgeois guerrilla leaders based on the peasantry, with the working class playing a passive role. In addition, the Panthers, again following the Stalinists, and based on their own experience of the brutality of the US state, falsely concluded that fascism was around the corner in the US. This, combined with the desperate conditions facing blacks, created an overwhelming impatience for an immediate solution and added to the lack of a consistent strategy to patiently win over broader sections of the working class.

Today we are seeing a resurgence of the BLM movement around the murder of George Floyd and other high-profile police murders of unarmed black people. It is possible that as these movements are repressed by the state and co-opted by liberal organizations and the Democratic Party, the stage will once again be set for groups to emerge on the left that emulate aspects of BPP tactics.

The lessons of the BPP and of the Rainbow Coalition must be learned today if we are to use the best of their tactics tomorrow. As Malcolm X concluded, we must work to create a broad multi-racial movement centered around fighting racism and capitalism at the same time. We must ensure that the leadership of this movement is elected democratically and supported by a well-disciplined core of members who have studied the lessons of history, in order to prevent a single leader’s demise from destroying the whole movement. This mass political leadership will help preserve these movements.

We must employ a Marxist approach to the current events. While engaging with and supporting the BLM movement, we must be drawing more and more layers of the working class into the struggle, showing how true liberation for all people must be preceded by the overthrow of the capitalist system. We must work with and within the existing trade and industrial unions, and work to get as many workers as possible into unions. We must fight for every possible reform under capitalism, but we must fight for them as members of the working class, instead of accepting them from cynical politicians.

As we see corporate brands attempt to capitalize on the BLM movement, we must be vocal in our conviction that the solution to black oppression is not black capitalism, but revolutionary socialism. We must not believe the ruling class when they tell us that the battles for black, LGBTQ+, and women’s liberation must all be waged separately. We need to fight these liberation struggles in an organized and unified fashion, and we need to firmly connect the various oppressions we face to their historical and ongoing relationship to the global capitalist system.

A united movement of the diverse working class is needed to achieve the goals of the Black Panthers. Get organized; join the socialists!

Before you go, check out our article on Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.

Image Credit: Daniela Kantorova via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0