The Black Panther Party

(excerpt from Black Activism-Chapter 9)

In its report on the Black Panther Party published in August, 1971, the House Committee on Internal Security stated:

It is hard to believe that only a little over a year ago the Panthers, despite their small number ranked as the most celebrated ghetto militants. They fascinated the left, inflamed the police, terrified much of America, and had an extraordinary effect on the black community. 1

The committee felt, however, that the "Panthers...through their own excesses" did much to destroy their image. "Most of thoseliberals and idealists who once sympathized with the Panthers have realized that the Panthers are not so much Robin Hoods as theyare hoods....."2 The committee concluded that never at any time had the Panthers "constituted a clear and present danger to the continued functioning of the U.S. Government or any other institutions our democratic society."3 Based upon the data it undoubtedly had at its disposal, the committee could also have concluded that a substantial percentage of the criminal indictments and prosecutions of the Panthers throughout the nation had been malevolent in nature and inspired by a vigilante sense of justice. Victims of a veritable inquisition, the Panthers had been prosecuted, persecuted, and proscribed as had been no other group in the history of the United States.

Two youthful black ghetto militants, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, were the co-founders of the Black Panther Party. Newton, the younger of the two, was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana, on February 17, 1942. He was one of seven children. Two years later Huey's father went to California in search of wartime employment and wound up working for the Naval Supply Depot. During the following year he moved his family from Louisiana and settled them in Oakland. Young Huey was to become a product of Oakland's tough black ghetto. After graduating from high school in nearby Berkeley, California, Huey registered in Oakland's two-year Merritt Junior College. Attending only as a part-time student, Newton took five years to earn the Associate of Arts degree. He also took some courses at a law school in San Francisco, but after a year he dropped out. 4

Bobby Seale was born in Dallas, Texas, on October 22, 1936. His father was a master carpenter, but jobs for black craftsmen were few and far between and the family lived constantly on the edge of poverty. After World War II the family moved to California, and young Bobby Seale was enrolled in Oakland High School. During the mid-1950s Bobby was inducted in to the United States Air Force. In 1958, with more than three years of service behind him, Seale apparently became fed up with routine, discipline, and military life in general. To his superior officers he became almost unmanageable. At Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota he was court-martialed and dismissed with a bad conduct discharge. During the next three years Seale found work as a comedian, a musician (he played the drums), a carpenter, a mechanic, and a mechanical draftsman. He worked also in a couple of aircraft and electronics plants until the personnel managers discovered that he had lied about his discharge from the service.

In September, 1961, Seale enrolled in Merritt College, but not until a year later did he meet the fellow student who was to become his ideal and his leader. Newton was speaking at a campus rally of the Afro-American Association when Seale first came upon him. Seale was immediately and completely captivated. "I think that when I met Huey P. Newton, the experience of things I'd seen in the black community.....and my own experience, just living, trying to make it, trying to do things, came to the surface."5 Largely because of Newton, Seale joined the Afro-American Association. The association was in reality an Oakland community organization with a chapter or branch on the Merritt College campus. Its founder was a young black attorney named Donald Warden. The association was not black nationalist in orientation though Warden preached black dignity and black self-esteem. He insisted that young blacks should strive for a growing role in the political activities of teh community and that black people should spend their money with black businessmen. Warden soon began to attract support for his program from local whites who approved of his ideas of black self-help.

Although neither of them approved of Warden's philosophy, both Seale and Newton continued as members of the association. Early in 1963, Newton led the black students at Merritt in a demand for the establishment of a black history course. Surprisingly enough the college administration readily agreed to the demand. When the course was set up, however, it did not meet with Seale's specifications. Newton did not enroll. The course bore the title "Negro History," and it was taught by a white instructor. Seale almost immediately cried "Foul". "The cat that was teaching it didn't know what he was doing. He really wasn't teaching Black History; he was teaching American history and reiterating slavery..."6 By 1964 both Seale and Newton had become sufficiently disenchanted with the Afro-American Association to leave it. Shopping around for something with a more radical orientation, Seale took up with the local chapter of the RAM. He was soom to discover, however, that the local branch of that organization was far more proficient with rhetoric than with revolution. Newton, in the meanwhile, was having difficulties with the law. Invited to a so-called "mixed" party, Newton became involved in a heated argument with a tough ghetto black. In the altercation that ensued, Newton inflicted a knife wound on his opponent. He was subsequently convicted of assault and sentenced to serve eight months in prison with three years on probation. In the years which followed, prison was to become a very familiar place to young Huey.

Like hundred of other young black activists in 1965, Seale became a disciple of Franz Fanon. He was so enthralled, that he read The Wretched of the Earth six times and encouraged Huey P. Newton to read the book. In the days that followed, Fanon became the chief topic of conversation between them. (See Chapter 12 for extended discussion on Fanon's influence.) With new ideas and a broadened vision of the black struggle, Seale and Newton decided to establish a new black organization on the Merritt College campus. It would be called the Soul Students' Advisory Council. Its demands would include a comprehensive black curriculum instead of a "Negro History" couse, recognition of the rights of black students, and provisions for their special needs and social programs. The SSAC was to become the prototype for the black student unions that were to usher in "Black Studies" a few years later.

Once the SSAC was established, Seale and Newton became moe ambitious in their plans for the black struggle. They insisted upon a close reading of Franz Fanon, and they assigned special importance to Malcolm X's catechisms on violence and self-defense. But they intended to move beyond mere rhetoric to follow the teaching of Malcolm X, but not his personal example. Newton wanted to convert the SSAC into a black militant group that would look and act as though it meant business, even to the point of displaying loaded weapons. He had carefully researched California law and knew it was entirely legal for any citizen to have in his possession, unconcealed, a fully loaded weapon.

At a meeting during the spring of 1966, Seale and Newton proposed to the SSAC's central committee that for the commemmoration of Malcolm X's birthday a squad of disciplined armed young blacks from the ghetto be brought upon the campus.

We could reach the community (because the press would be hungry for it) and show them, on Malcolm X's birthday, May 19, that Malcolm X advocated armed self-defense against the racist power structure and show the racist whitepower structure that we intend to use the guns to defend our people. 7

The member of the central committee were stunned. They considered SSAC to be an organization of black militants, not black insurrectionists. What they had in mind was an educational program that would stress black self-esteem, black pride, and the black experience. If the black masses ulitmately called for armed revolt, that was one thing; but to parade in public like black storm troopers was to court disaster. The central committee backed away from the idea. In a fit of temper Seale jumped up and yelled, "We resign....We don't have time for you. You're jiving in these colleges." 8 Seale and Newton quit the SSAC and the college community for good. "We just went ot the streetsm wher ewe should have been in the first place-those four or five years that preceded this showed us that-and Huey, the brother off the block, had never reallly left the streets at all" 9

Up until 1966 the black ghetto or so-called "brother off the block" had not been generally represented in the leadershipof the black revolution. The movement had originated among and had been dominated by young middle class blacks turned black militant. There was no end of talk about the ghetto and the "jungle" but never any real effort to recruit its members. The truth of the matter was that there was a hard and fast bias against the "block boys". They were considered to be too vulgar, too gross, and too prone to violence. Whenever they made their appearance, the atmosphere became charged with a sense of foreboding, fear and general discomfort. They were never really welcome. A realization of this fact finally forced itself upon Seale and Newton and impelled them to return to their roots in the ghetto.....

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