“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution. You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation!” -Fred Hampton, Black Panther leader assassinated December 4th, 1969
The beauty of watching a documentary like The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution with a like-minded group such as Film Club 3.0 is the joy of getting to discuss, in person and online, the film after viewing. I was not shocked to discover that hardly anyone that I encountered afterwards knew much more about the Panthers and their journey than I did. For many of us, the iconic black leather jackets and berets and the raised fist signifying unity and power along with the most vague understanding of what it all meant was the extent of our knowledge. Also, the infamous quote, ‘Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther Party’ from Forrest Gump kept creeping into my subconscious…
In 1966, young black Americans were in the midst of change. Some parts of the country were a bit more progressive than others but oppression and racism were still rampant in many cases. In Oakland, California, an influx of southern black families after WWII opened up a younger generation to hardships markedly different from their parents experiences. It was disheartening to follow this documentary as it lays out the beginning of a revolution. It seems as if very little has changed. Police brutality. Racism. Poverty. Disrespect for cultural differences. Second amendment disputes over the use of firearms. The struggle for Civil Rights. Abusing the political system. Sound familiar?
In October of 1966, the Black Panther Party was born of two enigmatic young men-Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Tired of watching young men of color seemingly singled out by police and unnecessarily roughed up, the party was started as a community-wide form of self defense. If the largely white police force (according to a quick search, there were only 16 black officers on the Oakland force at this point in time) was going to abuse their powers, the Black Panther Party would educate themselves and utilize the resources available to them to keep their own peace in their own communities. The police would be monitored for brutality and the Vanguard would use loaded guns, as was their legal right, to make sure their presence was felt and their manifesto clear. It caught on like wildfire.
Young black men flocked to the Black Panther headquarters in droves. Young women too, not as many at first, but the promise of change and the opportunity to better their communities had wide appeal. The aggressive, more militant approach felt right in light of the abuse that was part of the daily lives of these young citizens. Of course, there were largely white factions of law enforcement and government that were horrified at the perceived threat…
As the movement gained momentum, there really did seem to be a concerted effort to not only intimidate their oppressors, but to improve living conditions and bring a sense of community to the people. Breakfast programs were started for children that may not have enough food at home. Groceries were made available to struggling households. Funds were given to research sickle-cell disease. A newspaper was circulated to spread the word and ensure that anyone that wanted to keep informed had all of the current information available. Women were encouraged to carry guns and men were encouraged to cook for the various programs in an effort to dash gender stereotypes. Afro hairstyles were encouraged for both sexes to symbolize the natural beauty of the African American lineage. Unfortunately, the positives were forcibly overshadowed by internal strife and increasing mistrust by the FBI.
Eventually the Black Panther Party was deemed a ‘black nationalist hate group’ by the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover displayed what now seems like an extremely racist and paranoid view of the BPP. Maybe it was more common at the time to display such blatant hate and disdain, but it remains a less than proud moment in our history that only sought to divide, not unify. An embarrassing amount of effort was put into painting a portrait of the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. The movement was unfairly targeted and undo violence was brought upon the leaders that were deemed the biggest threat.
As with any large scale organization, the chosen leaders of the BPP varied from genuine leaders with the best interests of their community in mind to megalomaniacs hungry for attention and fame. Along with founding fathers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, other notable players included Lil’ Bobby Hutton, the Panther’s first and youngest recruit as well as their first casualty, Eldridge Cleaver, author of ‘Soul on Ice’ and self-appointed leader after Newton is jailed in 1967 for allegedly killing a police officer, and Fred Hampton, a young and charismatic member that held broad appeal for young white youth-he was deemed the dreaded ‘black messiah’ that Hoover feared the most. He was murdered in his sleep in a law enforcement raid in Chicago, 1969.
As the party progressed in power and notoriety, the push-back from the FBI and law enforcement took it’s toll and dissent eventually set in. Death and jail time allowed for strong leadership to ebb and flow. Ideological differences began to split the party. Half the party believed that the focus should be on more involvement with local government and social programs and the other half were in favor of a more violent strong-arming of law enforcement. The next few years saw the party in turmoil, desperately trying to gain control and solidify the group to it’s original intent.
The Black Panther Party dissolved in 1982.
I learned so much from this documentary. The blatant fear-mongering by the United States government was hard to swallow. Yes, the Black Panthers used militant, threatening and sometimes violent means to prove a point, but the rights afforded to the majority of our country seem to never be quite as available to the minority. This story is part of our history and it was told in the spirit of revolution and equality regardless of race. I learned from it and I hope that others will watch and learn too.