"The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life." - Huey P. Newton

Panther liberation fire still burns

by Lester Holloway
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SURVIVORS OF AMERICA’S war against black leaders regrouped last week as they marked the Black Panthers 40th anniversary.

The reunion was missing some important names – Fred Hampton, Huey P Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Lil’ Bobby Hutton – the heads of a once-powerful organisation that was decapitated by the state.

With their trademark berets, rifles and revolutionary zeal, the Panthers embodied the black power movement and liberation struggle.

What scared Washington the most, their armed self-defence militancy or their social programmes to fed and clothed poor African-Americans, is open to question.

Whichever it was, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO, a covert counter-intelligence operation followed by wave after wave of arrests and shoot-outs.


The end of the 1960s cops had shot over 20 Panthers dead, including Hampton and Hutton. Others like Newton and Cleaver ended up in exile after being charged with killings themselves.

A long line of tragedies saw the Panthers eventually fold in the mid-80s, long after they had ceased to be a major player.

The days when Cleaver ran for US president, when they fed 10,000 hungry mouths every day with a Breakfast for Children programme, and when armies of uniformed men patrolled neighbourhoods to deter police brutality seem long gone.

Militaristic images now seem frozen in time, overshadowing their extensive social programme that delivered healthcare and education to thousands, and a radical ten-point plan for justice and freedom.

200 or so veterans of the war who gathered in Oakland, California, last week surveyed their legacy and perhaps pondered what could have been if their ideological mission had not been disrupted by the might of government.


Some, like David Hilliard, entered academia to teach a younger generation the ideals and faults of the Black Panthers.
Hilliard was one of the original Panther founders and its chief of staff. He became leader when Newton was arrested in 1968.

He is also lucky to be alive after being ambushed by Oakland police in the same incident that saw Hutton shot ten times despite surrendering with his hands in the air.

The killing occurred just two days after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.

Hilliard told said that the Black Panthers had lost the propaganda war. ‘Without a doubt victors write the history and we don’t control media. We were a political movement with clinics and educational programmes.

‘It was the government strategy to criminalise our movement and to discredit us. Even the militancy was just self-defence responding to Americas violence.


‘The reunion is not just about celebrating of the existence of the movement. I’m more interested in how we translate that historical phenomenon into something contemporary.

‘Like how do we develop programmes for ex-offenders, housing, education and jobs. I’m about a living organisation, not just nostalgia.’

One of the Panthers great achievements was fusing the political philosophies of Karl Marx, Chairman Mao and William Du Bois with practical and well-organised community outreach social action.

They ran door-to-door tests for Sickle Cell anaemia in an age when the state hardly recognised the condition, delivering groceries to thousands of homes, and persuading local gangs to clean up their act.

Many of the original Panther leadership were students of Malcolm X who broke away because they believed bearing guns was necessary to carry out their programme without interference.

The Panthers burst onto the national consciousness with a regimented march on California’s state capital Sacramento while carrying loaded weapons.

Patrols by armed Panther units achieved instant success with a sudden reduction in police brutality in black neighbourhoods.

But the image that so terrified white America also presented a ready-made excuse for the state to use arms against the Panthers.

Minister Hilary Mohammad, leader of the UK’s Nation of Islam, said: ‘We knew that it would give the government justification to shoot and kill them.

‘The US were threatened by the coming together of black men to protect their community and the emergence of strong black leadership.

‘Forty years ago our organisations were under attack, but what is happening today? The minister Louis Farrakhan is till banned today in Britain. What is this indicative of?’


By 1969, just three years after its birth, America’s war against the Panthers began to divide the organisation.

Not long after Hoover denounced the group as “greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, Hampton was shot in his bed during a police raid.

Fellow Panther Mark Clark was also shot dead. Over ninety bullets were fired in the operation with just one coming from Clark.

After Newton was imprisoned for manslaughter, a conviction later overturned, a dispute flared about whether to allow white people in.

Stokley Carmichael represented one strand of belief encapsulated by a speech when he said: ‘we are to proceed toward true liberation we must cut ourselves off from white people… [otherwise] we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country.’

But others, influenced by Mao’s Red Book which was compulsory reading, saw the Panthers as part of a wider class war.


At the height of their power, the group has 45 chapters and 5,000 dedicated members while their newspaper had a circulation of 100,000.

But as they entered the early 70s the movement faced more strife with dozens of members indicted for murder, many of them trumped-up charges, and Hilliard prosecuted for threatening President Richard Nixon.

An FBI campaign of forged letters widened internal splits between Cleaver and an exiled Newton in Algeria.

Bobby Seale’s bid to become mayor of Oakland, when he came second with 40% of the vote, was one of the last highs before factional fighting and resignations took hold.

The Black Power concept, that empowered and emboldened a whole generation of black people survived, but a structure that allowed young African-Americans to stand up to oppression did not.


Today the New Black Panther Party, led by Malik Zulu Shabazz, carries forward some of the legacy although Hilliard thinks the NBPP have been sold the “militaristic” Panther image but lack the underlining socio-political bedrock.

Hughie Rose, leader of the UK branch of the NBPP, disagrees. ‘We are now standing on the shoulders of these original Panthers.’

He said: ‘A lot of conditions that existed then still exist today, bad housing for our people, bad healthcare, overt and covert racism, and the rise of white supremacists around the world.

‘They wanted to ultimately crush the ideology of the Black power movement but fortunately we’ve been able to re-ignite it again and step back up on that same programme.’

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