The Black Panther Party was an organization situated between violent urban radicalism, as shown by its willingness to fire back at police officers and its image of a community oriented political party. It responded to both the urban insurrections of the 60s and the accompanying increase in police brutality as well as to more economically defined aspects of Black urban life. The later aspect is what I will focus on here: The party as a vehicle of broad social change, implemented through reforms in local communities.
The free breakfast program
This community orientation was especially apparent with the free breakfast for school children program started in 1968, which provided impoverished children with a free meal. This was understood first and foremost as an act of survival, but also had wider implications, as one can read in a flyer advertising the program: “[…] you can’t get the best jobs because you are uneducated and you’re uneducated because you didn’t learn in school because you weren’t interested. And every time the teacher mentioned 5 apples plus 6 bananas, your stomach growled”. This shows that the Party took their program to have implications beyond the immediate welfare of children in that it could break the cycle of poverty for (some) Black children. The program was also an open critique of the inadequacy of school funding in Black communities.
Augmenting the immediate needs of school children were the liberation schools, such as “The Samuel Napier Intercommunal Youth Institute”, which provided a free education to the community, focusing especially on topics the Panthers thought were neglected by the state run schools, such as “the class struggle in terms of black history”. Beyond this the schools attempted to instill a sense of self-respect and black pride the party found was lacking in public schools. This again most be seen in the context of consciousness raising activities of the party, which tried to instill values that went beyond the integrationist politics of the civil rights movement.
Repression & Violence
The success of these community programs, as opposed to the militant Marxist-Leninist language the party employed, can be seen in the threat the FBI saw in the breakfast program. Under the COINTELPRO program the FBI tried to discredit the program, by printing a book for children calling for violent insurrection and sending it to some of the companies providing food for the program. It is telling that this community program received so much attention from the FBI in that it had the potential to change the public image of the Black Panther Party from violent hoodlums to an organization with ties in the community. These ties however were not only undermined by the counter intelligence program run by the FBI, but also by the violence committed by the Panthers against members of the community. It has been alleged that the party committed acts of extortion to finance its social programs, a convenience store that refused to donate more to the breakfast program was firebombed.
Kendi, Ibrahim X. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: 2016.
Newton, Huey P. War Against The Panthers: A Study of Repression in America. 1980. https://libcom.org/files/WATP.pdf Last accessed: 06/05/2017
Self, Robert O. “The Black Panther Party and the Long Civil Rights Era” in: Lazerow, Jama / Williams, Yohuru In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives On a Revolutionary Movement. Durham and London: 2006.
Author: Jens Pranaitis