Why the Black Panthers Matter Today

Roundup
tags: Black Panthers



Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University and former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. He is the co-editor of a new book, "The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution" (Nation, 2016). A public school activist, he is a contributing writer to The Progressive.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The significant racial challenges in our own time, including the continued killing of unarmed people of color by police, makes the Panthers’ complicated history particularly significant. A little-known lie helped fix the party’s image in the public imagination as a violent, anti-white hate group.

We may be in danger of replicating the same error with regards to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense sought to address the police violence and nagging inequalities that punctuated African Americans’ everyday lives. To accomplish their goal, the founders drafted a ten-point program that laid out the Panthers’ blueprint for change.

Far from being anti-white, the party addressed issues of poverty and inequality that most acutely but not exclusively affected communities of color. Newton and Seale were particularly concerned about police brutality, a major problem not only in Oakland but throughout the entire nation. Citing the Second Amendment, point seven of the Panthers’ program directed black people to “arm themselves for self- defense.”

In order to model the type of defensive posture they envisioned, the party, taking advantage of California’s open-carry law, which at the time permitted the public display of weapons, initiated armed patrols to keep watch over the police. In addition to guns, the Panthers carried law books for the dual purpose of shining a spotlight on police misconduct and informing those being stopped or arrested of their Constitutional rights. All of this this took place less than four months after the United States handed down its decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona mandating that police advise suspects of their Constitutional rights. At the time of the Party’s founding, however, this still was not common police practice. ...




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