Stokely Carmichael, Honorary Prime Minister of the BPP
It all began with two college students; Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. They both worked at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, where they also served on the advisory board. To combat police brutality, the advisory board obtained 5,000 signatures in support of the City Council’s setting up a police review board to handle complaints. Seale was taking classes at Oakland City College, while Newton attended both San Francisco Law School and City College. Both institutions were active in the North Oakland Center.
With their numerous connections, Newton and Seale decided to start their own organization. “Inspired by the success of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, in Mississippi, and Carmichael’s calls for separate Black political organizing, they wrote their initial platform statement, the Ten-Point Program. With the help of Huey’s brother, Melvin, they decided on a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, black berets and openly displayed loaded shotguns. (In his studies, Newton had discovered a California law that allowed carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun, as long as it was publicly displayed and pointed at no one.)
What were some of the broader historical factors that led to the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966? The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged in 1960 as the organizational consolidation of the spontaneous sit-in movement that had begun in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four Black students sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, which refused to serve them. Less than a month after the celebrated March on Washington, in 1963, four Black children died in a bombing at a Birmingham, Alabama church. During the ‘long hot summer’ of 1964, there was unprecedented racial violence in the cities and against hundreds of volunteers who had gone to Mississippi to work on voter registration drives and other projects. On March 7, 1965 (what was to become known as ‘Bloody Sunday“) state troopers and Dallas county deputies beat and gassed demonstrators marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
This period sparked a reconsideration of non-violence as a tactic in the movement. Bob Moses, a leading SNCC activist in Mississippi, captured the essence of the ideological struggle:
“We don’t agree with it, in a sense. The majority of the students are not sympathetic to the idea that they have to love the White people that they are struggling against. But there are a few who have a very religious orientation. And there’s a constant dialogue at meetings about non-violence and the meaning of it. For most of the members it is a question of being able to have a method of attack rather than to be always on the defensive.”
The Black Panther Party For Self-Defense’s Ten-Point Program read:
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the White man of our Black community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.
6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county, city prisons and jails.
9. We want all Black people, when brought to trial, to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from other Black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And, as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of Black people as to their national destiny. . . (The Ten-Point Platform concludes with an excerpt from the U.S. Declaration of Independence.)
By 1968, the BPP had grown rapidly; transforming itself from a locally-based group to a national one. In 1969, it had over 5,000 members in forty chapters. ‘Survival’ programs were set up to provide immediate relief for local communities to operate in. The most successful of these was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, the brainchild of its chairman, Bobby Seale. “In October, 1968, the BPP newspaper advertised for volunteers to prepare and serve free breakfasts in Berkeley, California. The program spread quickly to churches, community centers, and auditoriums in San Francisco and Oakland. By the end of 1969, breakfasts were being served in nineteen cities under the sponsorship of the national headquarters and twenty-three local affiliates. More than twenty thousand children received full free breakfasts before going to school.”
Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party, Edited by George Katsiaficas and Kathleen Cleaver
“The offices were like buzzing beehives of Black resistance. It was always busy, as people piled in, starting at 7 a.m. opening time, and continuing ’til after nightfall. People came with every problem imaginable and because our sworn duty was to serve the people, we took our commitment seriously. When people had been badly treated by the cops or if parents were demanding a traffic light on North Philly streets where their children played, they came to our offices. In short, whatever our peoples’ problems were, they became our problems. We didn’t preach to the people. We worked with them.”
From August 1969 through 1970 the Black Panther Party established an array of community programs across the country. In addition to the breakfast program, there were: ‘liberation’ schools’, health clinics, food, clothing and shoes distribution, busing for prison visits, housing cooperatives, pest control, plumbing and maintenance, legal aid, renters assistance, senior escorts, ambulance services and a Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation - all free of charge, utilizing volunteers who were both paraprofessional and professional. Many of these programs were short lived, depending upon the strength and viability of a given chapter at a particular time.
Official repression occurred almost from the beginning. In 1967 Newton was incarcerated after a violent confrontation with an Oakland police officer, which left him wounded and the officer dead. Ultimately, after two trials – one ending in a hung jury - Newton was allowed to go free, having been jailed for three years. On September 8, 1968, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, declared that the BPP was, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.” This precipitated a national campaign to destroy the organization.
“No aspect of the Black Panther program was of greater concern to the FBI than the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which fostered support for the Panthers revolutionary politics. Hoover drove home this point in an ‘airtel’ to the special agent in charge in San Francisco, on May 27, 1969:
You state that the Bureau should not attack programs of community interest, such as the Breakfast for Children. You state that this is because many prominent ‘humanitarians’, both Black and White, are interested in the program, as well as churches, which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point . . . You must recognize that one of our primary aims in counterintelligence, as it concerns the Party, is to keep this group isolated from the moderate Black and White community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed Whites and moderate Blacks.”
Blacks Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin,Jr – Pg.134
. . . to be continued . . .