Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their antiracist, anticapitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program. (source)

Like Greene’s article, the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (click here to watch online) traces the roots of the Black Panther movement and the impact of its rise and fall on society.

The Black Panther Party put itself at the vanguard for social change. Their community social programs, including free breakfast for school kids and community health clinics, and acts of civil disobedience lead the FBI to call the movement “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and start an extensive government program called COINTELPRO to surveil, infiltrate, perjure, harass, discredit, destabilise and disintegrate the movement. The U.S. government did everything it could to destroy this grassroots movement for racial advancement, including the assassination of its leaders.

Other movements can learn from the example of Black Panthers and their community-based action for social change. No matter what the powerful do to stop them, the people will continue to fight for what’s right.

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All power to the people.

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