Originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, this group represented an important movement in the Civil Rights era. It was co-founded in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 and within a few years, it has reached its peak membership level and had offices in 68 cities.
There are still a number of misconceptions surrounding the group, which dissolved in 1982. For example, some people still perceive the Black Panthers as violent militants who were anti-white and chauvinistic. In reality, the group harbored a desire to improve the lives of African-Americans that lived in poor communities. During their short history, they were involved in a number of innovative projects, some of which survive today.
With a Few Exceptions, The Black Panthers Group Was Not Particularly Violent
Despite the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, African Americans continued to suffer from social and economic inequality. A reduction in public services and employment opportunities led to widespread urban problems which culminated in various uprisings such as the Watts riot in L.A. in 1965. Police were given greater power to deal with protests which meant an increase in violence against citizens; primarily African-Americans.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, two students from Merritt Junior College, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966 although they shortened the name to the Black Panthers soon after. The group quickly looked to differentiate itself from organizations such as the Nation of Islam. While African American cultural nationalists were often anti-white and regarded all Caucasians as oppressors, the Panthers were only opposed to racist whites and aligned themselves with white people who fought against racism.
One of the major misconceptions about the group was that they were militant and prone to violence. While some dubious characters allied themselves with the group, the Panthers as a whole were against violence. In 1967, the Panthers protested against the Mulford Act, a law designed to make the bearing of loaded weapons in public illegal. Some of their members caused controversy by standing in front of Sacramento’s State Capitol Building with large guns. Certain sections of the media used this imagery to portray the group as violent unfairly.
They Were an Organized Group That Advocated Social Change
Another myth surrounding the Black Panthers was that it was an unorganized rabble. In reality, the group had very clear goals and set out its agenda in a 10-Point Plan. The Panthers demanded freedom from oppression for poor black communities, greater employment opportunities, improved housing & education, greater financial equality, freedom for political prisoners, free healthcare and an end to police brutality against African-Americans.
The Panthers were at the center of a news storm in 1967 when Newton was arrested after a shootout with police; one officer was killed. Newton was charged with the murder but protested his innocence. The saga led to a ‘Free Huey’ campaign, and the co-founder of the party was released three years later.
The Panthers began to spread across the United States and around the world. The Southern California chapter was founded in 1968, and ultimately, there were chapters in 48 states and several countries around the world including Japan, England, Germany, Sweden, South Africa and France.
The group was also exceptionally media savvy insofar as they knew how to appeal to what they believed photographers and journalists looked for when covering the news. Within a few years of its formation, the Black Panthers group was a legitimate voice of protest for disenfranchised African-Americans. Their voices were heard on mainstream news stations and images of prominent members were printed in magazines and papers. The Panthers were able to use the sudden avalanche of attention to institute real change.