Celebrating Black History Month: The Black Panther Party


Betty Benson, Senior Editor

The legacy of Martin Luther King. Jr. is known by virtually every American over the age of 10. In school, we are taught about the significance of his role in liberating African Americans all across the country. However, there are many other groups and movements that were created during the civil rights era that had lasting impacts on communities everywhere. One organization in particular that sparked change was The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, also known simply as, The Black Panther Party. This group really began taking off after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. They believed in a world where African Americans need not be afraid of being brutalized by law enforcement on the basis of the color of their skin. The group worked to hold police officers accountable, as well as help African American communities get on their feet and flourish like they were meant to. The Black Panther Party is a lesser known name, but the group has influence over this country even today.

A Brief History of the Party

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. They met each other at Merritt College in a program meant to strengthen and empower African Americans. Both men had witnessed severe trauma throughout their lives in regards to racial injustice and were ready for systemic change. Newton had actually been a part of getting Merritt College’s first African American Studies class to be offered to students (2020). Together, with Newton as Minister of Defense, and Seale as Chairman, the duo founded The Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The party believed in ending police brutality, and giving African Americans the same opportunities as other groups of people.

Rather than peacefully protest, the Black Panthers had a more hands on approach for dealing with problems. In California, where the party was initially founded, the state had an open carry law (2020). When the group heard of police dealing with individuals in their local community, they would travel to the scene and stand in a line holding their guns to their chests. This was a rather intimidating scene, but served to hold officers accountable and make sure they did not abuse their power. The party caught national attention, and many chapters of the organization opened throughout the country. The group didn’t stop with self defense, and they created many programs for local communities that combatted poverty, and worked to educate and help the youth of the nation.

The United States government saw this new up and coming group as a severe threat. Due to their socialist ties, and extreme anti-capitalistic views, many perceived this group as dangerous. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the height of the BBPs influence made the statement that, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country” (2002). FBI documents released years after the party was dissolved show that the government played a large part in breaking apart the party. Unfortunately, the group faced internal dilemmas, and didn’t have very stable founders to begin with. Both Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton had racked up quite the criminal record, and both spent time in jail. Over time, public interest and support waned. The group officially dissolved in 1982. It should be noted that the FBI strongly influenced the negative outcome the group experienced.

The Mission Behind The Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party was founded on the idea of Black Power. Black power in the 1960s, “emphasized racial pride, economic empowerment, and the creation of political and cultural institutions” (2020). Since America’s founding, African Americans had been oppressed and brutalized. The Black Panther Party and groups similar to it were asking for more than simply equality. They wanted African Americans to feel that they could openly celebrate their heritage without fear of being attacked by the public. Rather than base their work off of peaceful protest like Martin Luther King Jr., the party reflected more of the beliefs of Malcolm X. Rather than peacefully find a way to receive equal opportunities, The Black Panther Party was willing to literally fight for their rights. The group wasn’t afraid of violence, especially if it meant furthering the success of their mission.

The party created a ten point program used as the backbone of their mission (Vernon 2017). This program highlights the ultimate goals of the party. Some points of the outline were more radical than others, but in the end, the BBP was really just asking for justice. They wanted the United States to acknowledge the harrowing tragedies that African Americans had endured in the country since it’s founding, and make reprimands. The hyperlink can be used to explore the points of the program.

Influential Party Individuals

Huey P. Newton

Huey P. Newton was one of the original founders of The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. He was born in Louisiana, but grew up poor in Oakland, California (2020). During school, he faced severe discrimination. Newton realized that he wanted to make a difference in the lives of African Americans, and co-founded The Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in 1966. He worked on revising the party so that it was less associated with violence, and more with empowering African Americans. In 1980 Newton got his PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, in 1989 he was killed by a drug dealer in Oakland.

Bobby Seale

Bobby Seale was another original founder of The Black Panther Party. He met Newton at Merit College at the school’s Afro-American Association (2020). Seale went to jail multiple times, and was accused of murder, but never convicted. After the fall of the party, Seale began teaching African American studies classes at a college in Philadelphia. He now resides in Oakland, California once again, and works on helping the African American community with racial justice related problems.

Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton was a member of The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. He was murdered by Chicago police officers on December 4th, 1969. Hampton was a key figure of The Black Panther party, and his death sparked major public outrage. Initially, it was stated that the police had a warrant to search for weapons in the place that Hampton was staying, and that they only opened fire after Fred Hampton and the people he was with did first. However, fifty years later, FBI records from the time of Hampton’s death show that the death of Hampton wasn’t merely a coincidence, and certain law enforcement individuals were even rewarded for his death.

The Black Panther Party Legacy

Whether it be known or not, the work of such a forgotten group has had a lasting effect on the lives of African Americans that struggle, even to this day. Free breakfast programs still take place across the country, and Black Power is still being fought for. It’s unfortunate that the fight of a group has been so widely forgotten. The Black Panther Party wasn’t afraid to fight for their rights, and in return, they were cracked by the government and brought to an end. Their legacy however, is everlasting. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense will go down as a group of individuals working for beliefs that many considered radical at the time. Nevertheless, the individuals of the party still dedicated their lives to furthering their cause, and creating true equality for African Americans.


Works Cited

The Black Panther Party. (2020, August 27). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power/black-panthers#bpintro

Black power. (2020). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power

Bobby Seale (October 22, 1936). (2020, August 25). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/bobby-seale

Huey P. Newton (February 17, 1942- August 22, 1989). (2020, July 9). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/huey-newton

A Huey P. Newton story – people – J. Edgar Hoover & the FBI. (2002). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/hueypnewton/people/people_hoover.html

Vernon, J. (2017, April 26). The black Panthers’ 10-Point Program. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://blackpower.web.unc.edu/2017/04/the-black-panthers-10-point-program/