"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

Panthers took a stand but couldn't stand long

Although the group's flaws destroyed it, the party laid the foundation for social justice and black advancement ever since
By William Brand and Cecily Burt


OAKLAND - One warm spring day in 1967, two dozen young men and women -- mostly from Oakland, clad in black leather jackets and black berets and carrying loaded pistols, shotguns and assault rifles -- barged into the California State Assembly chamber in Sacramento and onto television screens and newspaper front pages around the world.

Black people with guns!

In a heartbeat, the Black Panther Party became the most famous radical group in 20th-century America's most radical time. The founders, Bobby Seale, 30, and Huey Newton, 25, furnished fiery rhetoric to match the image, accusing the government of brutalizing poor black communities and claiming the right to arm themselves in self-defense.

Back in Oakland, there was another reality.

Seven months earlier, Newton and Seale had scratched out a 10-point manifesto that would become their guiding principles. It was filled with revolutionary demands reflecting the tumultuous political climate of the civil rights movement in the South, the nascent black power movement, and the anti-Vietnam War protests sweeping the country.

"We want Freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community," Seale and Newton demanded in point No. 1.

They also listed demands that seemed elusive in 1960s black communities: full employment, decent housing, land, food, education and peace.

Their ideas struck a chord in the Bay Area's black community and among citizens everywhere, who saw the yawning gap between black and white worlds, between poor and rich.

So while the Black Panther leadership grabbed headlines and drew fire from the white establishment, the police and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, its rank-and-file members and thousands of volunteers quietly laid the groundwork for social programs that have become national standards today. They provided nutritious breakfasts for school children who usually went to school hungry, groceries for poor families, free medical care, after-school and summer-school programs teaching black history.

The breakfast program was the idea of Bobby Seale, who had grown up in West Oakland helping his father at his successful carpentry shop. He enlisted the Rev. Earl Neil of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in West Oakland and parishioner Ruth Beckford to help.

Beckford, now 80 and a well-known Afro-Haitian dance instructor, signed on. She said she was criticized by some who disagreed with the group's militant tactics, but not deterred. "I said, 'Well, I'm not a Black Panther Party member, but I believe in the breakfast program, so that's what I'm going to do.'"

The idea of a free medical clinic and testing for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that affects one in 400 African Americans and people of Mediterranean origin, also was a groundbreaking idea of the Black Panthers.

At Seale's urging, Tolbert Small, an Oakland doctor, started the first widespread testing for sickle cell disease. Eventually all 11 Panther clinics and 49 Panther chapters around the country offered free screening. It helped raise the medical community's awareness of the little-known disease. The Panthers' political lobbying led to passage of the Sickle Cell Act, and President Richard Nixon mentioned sickle cell disease for the first time in a State of the Union address.

For all those efforts, police on the West Oakland beat saw a darker side of the Panthers. "I worked West Oakland when the Panthers were doing their extortions, following the police and shooting cops," said retired Officer Bill Gillespie. "I spoke with the merchants after the throngs of Panthers would request 'donations' from Seventh Street merchants who were hardly getting by.

"I remember the owner of one business in tears. He was ashamed. He gave them $100 because he was scared to death. They would come in, 10 or 12 of them in their black leather jackets. They called it a community tax," Gillespie said. "I don't think much of that money went to those programs."

Things like the breakfast program were positive. But different people were running that, he said.

The history of violence often overshadowed the good works. In 1967, Newton was arrested in the death of Oakland police officer John Frey during an Oakland shootout in which Newton and another officer were wounded. In 1968, Bobby Hutton, 17, the party's first recruit, died in a shootout with Oakland police.

Newton's trial made him an international cause celebre, and the relatively small, tight-knit organization was suddenly flooded with new members. He was acquitted of murder, and his manslaughter conviction later was overturned.

The party's ranks swelled to 5,000 in chapters across the country after the April 4, 1968, assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But by the end of 1969, 28 party members had been killed, and the FBI had infiltrated the party in an effort to discredit it and turn the leaders against each other, Seale said.

"I had 28 dead party members. There were 14 dead policemen -- 12 of them we can attribute to the Panthers," Seale said. Seale spent time in the Berkeley jail on a weapons charge after a police raid. He also served two years in prison after a conspiracy conviction for events connected to the disruption of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

"The problem was what the establishment press tended to call 'militancy.' It was distortions planted by the FBI that said things like we hated all white people and that we were trying to invade the white community and shoot and kill white people," he said.

"That was not true. I truly believe in democracy, real power to the people, and I believe in human equality to all people, white, black, brown," Seale said. "When I said things like 'the bullet or the ballot,' I preferred the ballot."

The Panthers registered thousands of black voters across the country. When the party formed, there were fewer than 100 African Americans in elected office. By the 1990s, more than 12,000 blacks had been elected, and also many women, Seale said.

"This is what my revolution was all about, putting (control) back into the hands of the people," Seale said.

Stanford University Professor Clayborne Carson, editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, compares the Panthers to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the group famous for its voting rights drive in the rural South. "The Black Panther Party's main accomplishment was to set a new tone in the urban north, in terms of the black community and its goals," he said.

"They were young people who were idealistic, who were willing to put their lives on the line to make the world better," Carson said. "I think they made a lot of mistakes, like a lot of young people. They raised a number of issues that are still with us -- police brutality, the need for institutions that serve the needs of the black community."

Indeed, that first headline-grabbing action in Sacramento was a protest over a gun-control bill, as well as the shooting death by a sheriff's deputy of a young black North Richmond man. Although he was shot in the back, it was ruled "a justifiable homicide."

Members saw themselves as revolutionaries, said Curtis Austin, Southern Mississippi University assistant history professor and the author of a new book on the Panthers, "Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party."

"They had the guns. They had the rhetoric, and they were on the ground floor of social change. It was shocking," Austin said. "White society in general was used to dominating black society. Here, you had these people saying, 'No. You're not going to do that.'"

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, was typical of people drawn to the Panthers while she was a student at Mills College. "They were committed to changing the system that gave rise to racism and oppression," said Lee, who volunteered in the Panthers' community learning center and worked on Seale's mayoral campaign.

"For me, their 10 points are still very relevant today. When they went to Sacramento, it was a testament to their commitment to social and economic justice."

However, in the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party was dissolving into chaos because of dissension among the leadership. Eldridge Cleaver, the party's minister of information, and his wife, Kathleen, had fled to Cuba. There were only about 200 members left at that point, although the party hung on for another few years.

"My hope was to kill the party," Seale said about his 1974 resignation. "My friend, Huey, who had done all this positive stuff in the past, had degenerated and was a drug abuser," Seale said. "The party was over when I left. The dynamic, organizing Black Panther Party was over. It would never happen again."

Newton died outside a crack house on a West Oakland street in 1989, shot in the head over a drug deal, police said.

As he looks back today, Seale says there are many things to be proud of: the breakfast program, sickle cell testing, registering people to vote, feeding the poor, and those efforts can be credited to the rank and file, he said.

"They did all the hard work. They are my heroes," Seale said. "I love them."

"History will say this," Austin said: "This was probably the most profound movement of black people pushing for liberation in the 20th century, important not because of their rhetoric, but for trying to include all people, Native American people, Asians. It was in reality an inclusive fight. They accepted anybody who wanted a revolution."

"Despite all the mistakes they made, I wish there was a Black Panther Party here today working for the kinds of changes those young people were working for 40 years ago," Clayborne Carson said.


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