The Black Panther Party: Challenging Police and Promoting Social Change

Black Panther demonstration, Alameda Co. Court House, Oakland, Calif., during Huey Newton's trial. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was the era’s most influential militant black power organization.

Its members confronted politicians, challenged the police, and protected black citizens from brutality. The party’s community service programs - called “survival programs” - provided food, clothing, and transportation. Rather than integrating American society, members wanted to change it fundamentally. For them, black power was a global revolution.

Organizing a Revolutionary Party
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, young political activists in Oakland, California, were disappointed in the failure of the civil rights movement to improve the condition of blacks outside the South. They saw brutality against civil rights protesters as part of a long tradition of police violence and state oppression. They immersed themselves in the history of blacks in America. In 1966 they organized young, poor, disenfranchised African Americans into the Black Panther Party.

Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister of Defense

Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister of Defense
A poster of Huey Newton sitting in a rattan throne chair wearing a beret and a black leather jacket while holding a rifle in his right hand and a spear in his left hand. 

Along the bottom of the print is the text, “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of black people, or face the wrath of the armed people.”
   

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Kathleen Neal Cleaver: Inspired by women of the Civil Rights Movement, Cleaver joined other women as influential members of the Black Panther leadership. 

Kathleen Neal Cleaver: Inspired by women of the civil rights movement, Cleaver joined other women as influential members of the Black Panther leadership. (Above) Cleaver addresses the congregation of the Unitarian Church, San Rafael, Calif.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © 2011 Pirkle Jones Foundation

The Black Panthers and the dawn of black power.

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Like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers believed that nonviolent protests could not truly liberate black Americans or give them power over their own lives. They linked the African American liberation movement with liberation movements in Africa and Southeast Asia.

We don’t hate nobody because of color. We hate oppression.

Bobby Seale

To Serve the People
Local chapters of the Panthers, often led by women, focused attention on community “survival programs.” They organized a free breakfast program for 20,000 children each day as well as a free food program for families and the elderly. They sponsored schools, legal aid offices, clothing distribution, local transportation, and health clinics and sickle-cell testing centers in several cities. These activities provided concrete aid to low-income communities and drew support for the Panthers.

People’s Free Food Program, Palo Alto, California, 1972

Two women partake in the Black Panther organized People’s Free Food Program, Palo Alto, Calif., 1972

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Advocating for Community Reforms
Although created as a response to police brutality, the Black Panther Party quickly expanded to advocate for other social reforms. Among the organization initiatives, they campaigned for prison reform, held voter registration drives, organized free food programs which included food giveaways and a school breakfast program in several cities, opened free health clinics in a dozen cities serving thousands who could not afford it, and created Freedom Schools in nine cities including the noteworthy Oakland Community School, led by Ericka Huggins from 1973 to 1981.

Panther Free Food Program: Children Prepare Bags of Food for Distribution at the Oakland Collesium at the Black Panther Community Survival Conference, Oakland, California, March 1972

Panther Free Food Program
Children Prepare Bags of Food for Distribution at the Oakland Collesium at the Black Panther Community Survival Conference, Oakland, California, March 1972

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Stephen Shames
Flier for the 1972 Black Community Survival Conference with promotion provided by the Black Panther Party's Angela Davis People's Free Food Program. 

Flier for the 1972 Black Community Survival Conference with promotion provided by the Black Panther Party's Angela Davis People's Free Food Program. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Women in Leadership
Women made up about half of the Panther membership and often held leadership roles. Vanetta Molson directed Seattle’s survival programs. Lynn French in Chicago and Audre Dunham in Boston were inspirational local leaders. Elaine Brown became the national chairwoman in 1972. Still, the organization’s members struggled to overcome gender inequality.

Poster featuring an image of protesting women and a list of demands. This poster was used to announce a protest scheduled for November 22, 1969 orchestrated by the N.E. Women's Liberation and the Black Panther Party of Connecticut in support of six female Black Panthers who were being held in Niantic Connecticut State Women's Prison.

Women! Free Our Sisters
Poster featuring an image of protesting women and a list of demands. This poster was used to announce a protest scheduled for November 22, 1969 orchestrated by the N.E. Women's Liberation and the Black Panther Party of Connecticut in support of six female Black Panthers who were being held in Niantic Connecticut State Women's Prison.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

This short documentary explores what we can learn from the Black Panther party in confronting police violence 50 years later.

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