50 years later, who are the heirs of the Black Panthers?

Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: By 1968 the Black Panthers became a global phenomenon
  • The Panthers articulated a structural critique of racism, he says
  • Panthers were hobbled in part by illegal surveillance, internal battles drug abuse

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)Fifty years ago today, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in Oakland, California, by activists Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The group quickly shortened its name to the Black Panther Party (BPP) and emerged as the most iconic revolutionary organization to come out of the Black Power era and the larger global political maelstrom of the 1960s -- and one whose causes still resonate today.

The Panthers, inspired by Malcolm X's revolutionary black nationalism and the socialist revolutions in Cuba, Africa and across the Third World, issued a 10-point program, divided into sections titled "What We Want" and "What We Need," that called for ending police brutality, decent housing for black people and the radical reform of the criminal justice system.
    Peniel Joseph
    The group's demand for "land, peace, bread and justice" paved the way for the Black Lives Matter Movement that has galvanized a new generation of activists in the United States and around the world.
    Like surrealist painters, the Panthers imagined a world that did not exist but could be willed into being. They fashioned themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of a worldwide liberation movement that would be led by blacks but feature multiracial and multinational coalitions, including the white New Left, who they characterized as "mother country radicals."

    Their image

    Sporting leather jackets, bandoliers, powder blue T-shirts and black turtle necks, the Panthers adopted the garb of modern-day warriors, an image amplified by an iconic portrait of Newton sitting in a chair surrounded by African shields, holding a rifle in his right hand and a spear in his left.
    Black children of the Great Migration who traced their roots back to Louisiana and Texas, the 24-year-old Newton and 30-year-old Seale belonged to a generation of young black men denied educational opportunities by Jim Crow, criminalized by law enforcement, and marginalized within the civil rights movement.
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    Ironically, the civil rights insurgency in Lowndes County, Alabama -- where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced "snick") helped organize an independent political party -- was nicknamed the Black Panther Party and provided the BPP with its name and symbol.
    In an era before social media offered visual evidence of police brutality and the murder of black people, the Black Panthers organized armed patrols of Oakland police, leading to dramatic confrontations that nearly ended in violence. The group made national news on May 2, 1967, when an armed contingent strolled into California's state capitol to protest a bill aimed at ending their right to openly carry weapons.
    The group's swaggering, at times reckless, bravado attracted scores of new recruits, including activists Kathleen Neal Clever and Eldridge Cleaver, a former prisoner who became the BPP's minister of information and a best-selling author.
    By 1968 the Black Panthers became a global phenomenon, fueled by a "Free Huey" campaign organized in the aftermath of the young BPP minister of defense's confrontation with two police officers that left one officer dead and the other seriously wounded. Newton also suffered a bullet wound to his stomach. He was sentenced to two to 15 years for a manslaughter conviction. The campaign helped to get Newton an appeal and he was released in 1970.
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    Through a nationally distributed newspaper, The Black Panther, the BPP organized demonstrations, political education rallies and alliances with white, Latino, Native American and Asian American allies. The BPP became, for a time, one of the leading revolutionary groups in the world. Although some media focused on the image of the Panthers as urban guerillas, the group's biggest impact occurred at the grassroots through community organizing.
    Comprising several thousand members and over three dozen chapters in cities that included Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, New Haven, Connecticut, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Panthers established free breakfast programs, health clinics, busing to prison programs, legal clinics, sickle cell anemia testing and food drives that aided some of America's poorest black communities.
    Like today's movement for black lives, the Panthers articulated a structural critique of racism, which they linked to capitalism's political and economic exploitation of the poor on a global scale. The Black Panthers identified America's criminal justice system as a gateway to racial and class oppression. They recruited ex-convicts and organized inmates and became leaders in a prisoner rights movement that gained international notoriety with the Attica Prison uprising of 1971.
    Importantly the Panthers linked domestic and international anti-racist struggles, becoming a symbol of a political revolution that touched every corner of the world. After Newton was released from prison in 1970, the group drew tens of thousands of young supporters to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in efforts to re-imagine American democracy and end racial and economic injustice.

    Why their revolution failed

    Of course, the revolution the Panthers attempted to organize with such confidence and brio did not come off as planned. State-sanctioned violence, in the form of illegal FBI surveillance and local police authorities (including the first SWAT team in Los Angeles) pummeled, brutalized, and at times killed members of the group.
    Internal contradictions, including substance abuse, political authoritarianism, sexism and ideological disputes led to violence within the group and greatly contributed to the group's decline.
    Yet in a very real sense the Panthers were ahead of their time in organizing against institutional racism, war and violence by any means necessary. Inspired by Malcolm X, the Panthers adopted a dual strategy for black liberation that featured armed self-defense and engaged community organizing.
    Their 10-point program reads like a rough policy outline to create a new world. Thousands of young black women and men undertook this mission, against long odds, during the 1960s and 1970s. Like their modern day BLM counterparts, the Panthers raged against not only racial injustice but the ideology of white supremacy that normalized black oppression.
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    But at its core, the group pursued—like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the BLM Movement—a radical human rights agenda, one that viewed black equality as the common denominator for a wide range of social justice causes.
    Fifty years after their founding, the spirit of the Panthers (if not their exact tactics, as the BLM have adhered to the philosophy of non-violence) lives on in the efforts of a movement for black lives that continues to believe that a new world free of racism and economic injustice, homo- and transphobia and sexism and misogyny is not only possible but can be reached within our lifetime.