A-Z of Black Radicalism

P is for Panthers

Make it Plain is exploring Black Radicalism with Kehinde Andrews exploring a new letter each day. All of these are sourced from Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, proceeds of which go to the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity There are some limited suggested resources below but please send in suggestions for more, these are just a few to start with

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a relatively short-lived organisation that collapsed under pressure from the state and fractions in the movement. But their influence is still felt over 40 years after they disbanded because they presented one of the best models for Black radical politics.

The Panthers were the definition of a grassroots organisation, built from the ground up, engaging with the most marginalised members of society. They based their work on the expressed needs of the people, dedicating time to ask what they needed. It was these organic links to the community that built the Panther party, not the more publicised battles with the police.

Study was an essential element to the movement, with members required to take political education classes. The Panthers were also intellectuals with the conceptual work of figures like Huey P. Newton and Elaine Brown providing the basis for both understanding and overturning the system. One of their contributions is vitally important to radical politics, the idea of ‘survival pending revolution’.

Most of the work of the Panthers was to produce the Black Panther newspaper; to educate the masses; run the free breakfast programme for children; free health clinics and liberation schools. Armed confrontation with the state was an important side-line. They understood these were not in themselves going to overthrow the system but they were essential programmes to support the community and build the organisation. You cannot have a revolution without mass support. Whilst they were Marxist in rhetoric, they resembled the Universal Negro Improvement Association more than the Communist Party, in practice.

There are also important lessons in the Panther’s decline. The attack from the state on the party was vicious including the FBI’s infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) which included bugs, planting informants and misinformation across the Party. The most deadly tactic including the killing of Panthers, with the most notable being the murder of Chicago leader Fred Hampton who was shot twice in the head whilst he was asleep, after being drugged by a traitor working for state.

We need to be extremely wary of such tactics by the state, but there were internal reasons the Panthers declined. Although the Party was over sixty percent Black women, had a female chairperson in Elaine Brown, and was ahead of most organisations at the time it had serious problems with misogyny. As well as the impact on Black women in the Party they were also torn apart by certain Panthers desire to reclaim their lost manhood by provoking armed conflict. In 1971 the Party split after Eldridge Cleaver – who somehow got bail when he was charged with the attempted murder of police officers and managed to flee the country to Algeria- called out Huey P Newton for focusing on social programmes rather than armed struggle. Revolution is a process, not a gunfight to prove your manliness.

In survival pending revolution the Panthers found the perfect balance of keeping an eye on the global struggle, whilst providing for the needs of the community. They were an inspiration across the globe, with the first international chapter in Britain being the first of many. All power to the people!


Elaine Brown A Taste of Power

Huey P. Newton Revolutionary Suicide

Bobby Seale Seize the Time

Robyn Spencer The Revolution Has Come

The Murder of Fred Hampton

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