Artwork: Emory Douglas, H. Rap Brown (Man with Match), 1967. Poster, 17 x 22 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. All Of Us Or None Archive. Gift of the Rossman Family.
Fifty years ago today, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to protect the citizens of Oakland, CA, from abuses of the state. Under the protection of the Second Amendment, the created armed citizens’ patrols to monitor police officers and challenge police brutality. “Our position was: If you don’t attack us, there won’t be any violence; if you bring violence to us, we will defend ourselves,” explained Seale, who was inspired by the Black Nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X.
Following the Great Migration, the demographics Oakland had been transformed by a new generation of African Americans living in a community ruled by de facto segregation. This was a new type of apartheid that hid its hand covertly instituting policies likes redlining that denied services like banking, insurance, healthcare, mortgages, credit cards, and retail to the black community. Combined with high unemployment, underfunded public schools, and substandard housing, a new form of poverty emerged, and the state, under then-Governor Ronald Reagan, sanctioned violence against.
In 1966, Oakland’s police force was almost entirely white and regularly brutalized African American communities with impunity. Newton and Seale studied California gun law until they knew it better than the officers themselves, understanding it was legal to organize armed citizen patrols to protect themselves from the police. From this stroke of brilliance, a movement was born—one that quickly captured national attention, for nothing like it had ever been seen. Dressed in blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets, and black berets, the Black Panthers let it be known that they would stand up to injustice fully armed.
Seale revealed, “On the one hand, the guns were there to help capture the imagination of the people. But more important, since we knew that you couldn’t observe the police without guns, we took our guns with us to let the police know that we have an equalizer.”
But guns were only the first, most obvious stand against injustice that the Black Panther Party took. They established the Ten Point Platform and Program, and began to mobilize, setting up chapters in 68 cities around the city over the course of less than five years (which Crave has outlined at further length in a story on the new book by Bobby Seale and Stephen Shames). Seale explained, “The first point was we wanted power to determine our own destiny in our own black community. And what we had done is, we wanted to write a program that was straightforward to the people.”
The BPP took the rights granted to them by the Constitution, and for this reason, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” In response, he created COINTELPRO, an illegal operation of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and ultimately murder to destabilize, discredit, criminalize and ultimately destroy the movement.
The legacy of COINTELPRO has far outlived its time, for the mythology surrounding the Black Panther Party is filled with disinformation. The BPP was not anti-white. The BPP was pro-black, which does not preclude the alliances with likeminded individuals from all walks of life. “We were not talking about the average white person: we was talking about the corporate money rich and the racist jive politicians and the lackeys, as we used to call them, for the government who perpetuate all this exploitation and racism,” Seale explained.
We have come full circle, right back to where the Black Panther Party began. The extrajudicial killings of unarmed men, women, and children has not abated in fifty years; what has changed is the ability to record and distribute these crimes as they occur. In recent years, a call to justice has resonated with American citizens from all walks of life, committed to taking a stand against living in a police state.
The Oakland Museum of California commemorates hometown heroes with All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, on view now through February 26, 2017. Featuring the work of Ruth-Marion Baruch, Elizabeth Catlett, Alan Copeland, William Cordova, Ducho Dennis, Emory Douglas, Gayle Dickson, Sam Durant, Meres-sia Gabriel, Kenneth Green, Sr., Chinaka Hodge, David Huffman, Pirkle Jones, Trevor Paglen, Stephen Shames, Bryan Shih, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.
The exhibition includes artifacts such as a rare handwritten draft of the Ten Point Program from 1967 and an audio recording of Bobby Seale sharing his thoughts and the conditions related to the Program’s creation, a painted rifle belonging to a former Party member, and iconic and rare posters and graphic materials demonstrating the Black Panthers use of media and art to communicate and inspire.
All Power to the People invokes the spirit of Malcolm X, who understood, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed.” In light of all that has transpired over the past five decades, one thing has become clear: as American citizens, injustice is our inheritance but it need not be our legacy.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.