Updated: Jan 5
The drama of armed patrols of Black Panthers confronting the police in Oakland, California, made national headlines in 1966 when I was sixteen. Against a smoldering landscape of police brutality in Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense took a solemn oath to protect black communities from police violence. Founders Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, who first met at Merritt College in Oakland, risked their lives to uphold the oath. Their display of courage and their fiery rhetoric changed the way I looked at myself and the fight against police brutality.
I was a shy, sheltered kid growing up in Philadelphia when the Panthers first organized. Mocked in school, laughed at in the neighborhood, and shunned and rejected by my friends, I couldn't put two words together without stuttering. I was a skinny little kid searching for acceptance and identity in a world where I did not fit. I knew from the beginning of the Panther's campaign against police brutality that I wanted to become a Black Panther.
Oddly enough, however, I came from a family background that was comfortably middle-class, not typical of Panther members. My grandmother, grandfather, mother, and I lived in a sizeable six-bedroom house we owned. My grandmother was a licensed beautician. My grandfather was a trained dental technician. We never needed state welfare as we were independent homeowners in a neighborhood where we were the first black family on the block to buy a house in a community that Jewish people had abandoned because of rioting in 1962. Although I had the best material things--I was the best-dressed kid on the block, I still felt insecure, inadequate, angry, and lonely.
In 1969, I left Philadelphia and moved to New London, Connecticut, where along the way, I visited the office of the New Haven chapter of the Black Panther Party. There I officially joined the movement. Here I saw a group of people who were as angry and dissatisfied as I was. Finally, I found a place where I could belong. I embraced symbolism and political philosophy. The most astonishing and memorable thing I had ever seen was the black leather jacket, black beret, and dark sunglasses worn by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
While I was joining the organization, Huey Newton, convicted of killing police officer John Frey in Oakland in 1967, was coming up for an appeal in federal court on May 1. Following my induction into the Black Panther Party, I moved in with my Aunt Nanny and Uncle Linwood in New London. Unknown to me was that my Uncle Linwood had previously served as president of the New London office of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). The Panthers had no presence in New London, except for me. I was a one-man show, the sole representative of the Panthers in New London.
My immediate purpose in New London was to organize a rally supporting Huey Newton's appearance in federal court. The Panthers planned demonstrations at federal courthouses around the country on May 1. Since there wasn't a federal courthouse, only a state courthouse, in New London, I organized my demonstration to take place there. Only a handful of demonstrators--primarily high school students--showed up, but my rally was successful. I had made my point.
"Boy, have you gone crazy!" my Uncle shouted at me across the breakfast table the following day. He was reading from the morning newspaper where there was a front-page picture of me leading the demonstrators. "I'm trying to make life better for negros in New London, and you're bringing this Panther mess here." The whole time he is screaming at me, I'm smiling. The federal court in Oakland acquitted Huey of murder.
I learned that most--if not all--of the political theorizing, writings, and research into Marxist Leninism were done by Huey Newton, whose aspirations and accomplishments included earning college degrees. Newton was a scholar. He studied at the San Francisco Law School and the University of California at Santa Cruz, earning a bachelor's degree. In 1980, he completed a Ph.D. in social philosophy at Santa Cruz. That's the transcendent side of him.
Newton's other side was a street thug and crack addict. In 1974, he was alleged to have murdered a prostitute. Subsequently, Newton was believed to have murdered his tailor. He was also suspected of embezzling $300,000 from the movement he founded. In 1989, he was rumored to be a crack addict and allegedly was robbing street drug dealers when Dr. Huey P Newton was shot and killed in Oakland on August 22, 1989. He was forty-seven years old.
As an idealistic eighteen years old kid, I lacked the perception to foresee that by wearing a black beret, black leather jacket, and sunglasses, I was making myself an instant target to be killed by police. I was proud to be a Panther but naïve to the fact that Black Panthers struggled to exist. In 1969, J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), described the Panthers "as the greatest to the internal security of the country." According to declassified documents, the FBI's policy under J. Edgar Hoover was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist hate type organizations, " including the Black Panther Party. The FBI enlisted local police agencies around the country to hunt down and kill Panthers. The infamous, most publicized direct consequence of the FBI policy was the 1969 assassination of twenty-one-year Fred Hampton and twenty-two-year-old Mark Clark in Chicago. They were shot dead in their beds as they slept.
During their campaign to end police brutality in Oakland, the Black Panther Party was denied their 2nd amendment rights. The Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to bear arms in defense of themselves. It was legal for white people to carry guns publicly, but when Black people began to carry firearms, they were arrested. When the Panthers in Oakland packed rifles, patrolling African American neighborhoods, exercising their Constitutional right, local, state, and federal agencies around the country rushed to pass laws requiring permits to carry guns in public. Unlike today, The National Rifle Association did not challenge this gun legislation. They were okay with creating hurdles to legally owning guns to prevent black people from possessing firearms. In contrast, armed, white militias who threatened civil unrest and sedition against the United States government were allowed to exist. The Panthers were labeled a terrorist group by the FBI, setting in motion a deliberate effort to destroy them.
In their heyday, there were Black Panther chapters in 48 states with supporters in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Mozambique, South Africa, and Algeria. From the mid-1970s through the '80s, the activities of the Black Panther Party all but ceased due to the infiltration of FBI and police informants, systematic murder of Black Panthers, and inner squabbles among Panther leadership.
The Black Panther Party were visionaries. They recognized the historical precedents and roots of police brutality. Police killings of black people are an enduring culture and institution that spans centuries of slavery and is unlikely to abate until white America acknowledges that systemic racism exists.
Fifty-six years later, in 2022, as I turn seventy-two years old, I consider the Black Panthers one of the century's most important and impactful political organizations. More than Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, or Elijah Muhammad and their organizations, the Black Panther Party bought attention to police brutality.
Ron Alexander is a Miami-based journalist and book author.
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