Armed Black Panthers in the Capitol, 50 years on


A Black Panther Party member brings a shotgun into the state Capitol, May 2, 1967. He was one of two dozen armed Panthers who entered the building. (Photo: Walt Zeboski/Associated Press)

It’s largely forgotten now, but 50 years ago, it created a national sensation. It even caused the National Rifle Association and Ronald Reagan to back a gun-control bill authored by a Republican.

Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of the May 2, 1967 “invasion” of the state Capitol by two dozen gun-toting Black Panthers. Carrying rifles, pistols and shotguns, and wearing dark glasses, leather jackets and berets, they marched up the front steps and into the Capitol to demonstrate their opposition to an anti-gun bill by Oakland Republican Don Mulford (1915-2000).

Unlike today, there were no airport-style security checkpoints at Capitol entrances — visitors could come and go freely.

When they arrived, Ronald Reagan, then near the beginning of his eight years as governor, was on the Capitol lawn, hosting a gathering of eighth-graders.

“CAPITOL IS INVADED” blared the huge front-page headline in the May 2 then- afternoon Sacramento Bee. Associated Press photographer Walt Zeboski’s dramatic pictures ran in newspapers across the nation. The Panthers had also alerted television stations to their upcoming demonstration.

It all came about as a result of an American racial divide that existed 50 years ago and in some measure continues today. On the eve of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense began in 1966 as a small community organization across the bay in Oakland. The founders were Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

Seale described the Panthers as “an organization that represents black people and many white radicals relate to this and understand that the Black Panther Party is a righteous revolutionary front against this racist decadent, capitalistic system.” The motto was “Power to the People.”

The Panthers instituted armed “Police Patrols” to protect African Americans, they said, from Oakland police harassment. In those days in California, it was legal to carry guns in public as long as they weren’t pointed at someone.

Six months after they began the Black Panthers, Seale and Newton heard about Mulford’s bill. They decided to dramatically demonstrate their opposition by going to the Capitol.

The demonstration drew the attention of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover wanted to be sure “black nationalist hate groups”were scrutinized.

When they arrived, Ronald Reagan, then near the beginning of his eight years as governor, was on the Capitol lawn, hosting a gathering of eighth-graders. As the armed and fearsome-looking Panthers arrived, Reagan was hustled inside.

The visitors walked into the building, and headed for the Assembly chamber on the second floor, where they intended to read aloud “Executive Mandate Number 1,” a statement in opposition to the Mulford Bill. They were not allowed to enter the chamber, so they went outside and read the statement on the front lawn.

The Black Panthers’s action resulted in swift approval of Mulford’s bill. Mulford even added a clause barring anyone but law enforcement from bringing a loaded firearm into the Capitol.

Reagan quickly signed the bill. He was quoted as saying “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

The demonstration drew the attention of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover wanted to be sure “black nationalist hate groups”were scrutinized.

In 1973, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, finishing second to incumbent John Reading.

The Black Panthers and their dramatic tactics captured the imagination of young African-Americans, who felt someone was standing up for them in the face of White racism. The racial divide in the United States continued unabated, however. The next five decades saw repeated instances of black-white confrontations, including recent videos of police dealing with Black males that went viral, provoking outrage.

The Black Panthers had declined in influence by the early 70s, beset by internal schisms and legal problems.

Huey Newton earned a doctorate from the University of California at Santa Cruz and continued to be a voice for angry African-Americans. He fled to Cuba in 1974 and remained there for three years to avoid charges of murder and assault. (He was later acquitted of both charges.) Newton was shot to death on August 22, 1989, in Oakland. Newton’s killer, Tyrone Robinson, also an African-American and a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, was convicted of the murder in 1991 and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.

Bobby Seale, now in his early ’80s, later became one of the original”Chicago Eight” defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1973, he ran for mayor of Oakland, finishing second to incumbent John Reading.

In 2013, the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Atlanta. It has no ties to the original Black Panther organization.

The Mulford Act is still part of the California Penal Code.

 

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