Picture a sunny day in Oakland, California during the decade of peace and love. For white people, the city is a place that embodies the hippie, free love movement of the 1960’s. For people of color, it was nothing but blatant harassment and violence from the police department that sought to target black people in Oakland with excessive consistency. From this violence comes a surge of resistance from empowered black people in Oakland who have had enough of the violence and band together to protect themselves. This group is known as the Black Panther Party and they became one of the most notorious black power movements in American history.
When forming an organization like the Black Panther Party, a sense of structure was necessary to get their message of resistance out to as many people as possible. The Panther’s outlined a 10-point program which served as a guideline for members and citizens alike to understand what members code of ethics, morals and overall mission was. The formation of the Panther’s was a direct response to the violence and harassment that black people have been dealing with in Oakland forever. Many of the demands were simple and basic human rights such as equal employment and the end to police brutality among the black community.
But it wouldn’t be the Black Panther’s without a bit of radical thrown into the mix. Alongside the more reasonable demands in the program were outlandish requests for control of all modern technology, the release of all black people from imprisonment and for black men to be exempt from military service. Regardless, the ten-point program served as an example of the many ways black people had been denied basic human and civil rights.
Another way the Panther’s sought to reach out to black communities in Oakland and across the country was through the medium of a newsletter, The Black Panther, distributed to members of the black community. Just as any newsletter, the goal was to raise awareness to issues going on in their community. A quote in the newsletter explains a lot about the rhetoric used among the Panthers that posed a threat to the police and anyone else that threatened their freedom and equality.
“BLACK MEN!!! It is your duty to your women and children, to your mothers and sisters, to investigate the program of the PARTY. There is no other way. We have tried everything else. This is the movement in history when Black People have no choice but to move and move rapidly to gain their freedom, justice and all other ingredients of civilized living that have been denied to us. This is where it is at. Check it out, Black Brothers and Sister! This is our Day!!!!!”
When seeing this rhetoric and understanding the climate towards black people, especially black men, during the time it was printed, it’s understandable why the Panther’s raised eyebrows from regular Oakland citizens to the FBI. These “radical” declarations in their newsletters and in the ten-point program were seen as a violent and aggressive response to the decades of oppression black people in America have endured. The group was declared the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1969.
In reality, the organization coined the greatest “threat” to national security were running outreach programs from Oakland to Chicago to provide what had been historically denied from their black communities. From food pantries, free clothing and food drives, after school tutoring, health clinics to legal workshops– the Black Panthers did all they could to improve the lives of their black brothers and sisters.
For me, that is such a telling sign of the way many black power organizations in America are viewed throughout history. Community enrichment and empowerment are at the core of (most) of these organizations but all people want remember are the black berets and guns slinging from leather jackets.
We see the same national resistance toward the Black Lives Matter movement whose central goal is to gain freedom, justice and equality for black people. It would be wrong for me to say there weren’t legitimate instances where both organizations, the Panthers and BLM, have rightfully been criticized for certain actions or language in their fight for equality. But we have to ask ourselves, what would we do if we were in their position?
Black Americans have had to deal with decades of systematic oppression and institutional racism in every area of life. From red lining to A seemingly never ending struggle for basic human rights in a country that claims all men are created equal. How far would you be willing to fight for the right to live where you want; have access to equal health care and educational opportunities; to not be followed every time you enter a grocery store; or to not fear for your life at a routine traffic stop?