No one knows when the idea entered Huey Newton’s brain, kindling it like a forest fire. To be sure, he had been a wayward youth, engaged in burglaries and fistfights – sometimes with more than fists – eventually spending even some weeks in The Hole, that California penal institution later outlawed by the Supreme Court.
But at some point, in the course of human events, the idea occurred to him.
He would start a political party.
And not just any party, a party with congresses and rules of order, but a party of action. You see, Jesus was never in a church.
Little is known about the Black Panther Party, founded 50 years ago. Much is believed. It is believed that the Panthers were a racist organization, but celebrated white pianist Leonard Bernstein raised thousands of dollars for the party; Marlon Brando served as a pallbearer for one of the first Panthers to be murdered, unarmed, by police.
Long before black lives mattered, the Panthers personified the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 1960s, inspiring groups of all races, from the Chicano Brown Berets and the Chinese-American Red Guard to the white Appalachian Young Patriots and the senior-citizen Gray Panthers. Their influence was global: They reached the Untouchable Dalit Panthers in India; they were received as emissaries by Mao’s deputy Chou En-lai in China; they were regarded as fellow freedom fighters by the Vietnamese and the Algerians.
But half a hundred years later, schoolchildren would not know a Huey Newton from a Fig Newton.
Today’s conservatives should in fact be the Black Panther Party’s greatest fans. If the Panthers had been allowed to build their schools and free health clinics, to give away shoes and groceries to the old and the poor, then we might not see today such blight in urban areas. The police brutality that the Panthers sought to stop has led to billions of dollars of damage in riots; the 1992 riots in Los Angeles being but one example.
Did the Panthers commit violence? Yes. Did they make mistakes? Also, yes. They were not professional revolutionaries. But were their crimes any worse than law enforcement’s? Ask Malcolm X’s bodyguard or read the infamous coloring books: It is impossible to distinguish the shadow of the Panther from the FBI’s dirty tricks and disinformation.
Indeed, Sen. Frank Church’s committee conclusively proved that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a man so powerful five presidents could not unseat him, had waged an illegal war against American citizens – called COINTELPRO – surveilling such dangerous revolutionaries as Martin Luther King Jr. This $100 million effort was designed to “prevent the rise of a black messiah,” such as King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee – and the Black Panthers.
While Hoover notoriously claimed that organized crime in America did not exist, he raided hundreds of Panther offices. Not, as the media believed at the time, because the Panthers had guns (these guns, as few bothered to note, were legal; one may have heard of the Second Amendment), but, as Hoover wrote in a secret memo, because of their Free Breakfasts for Children Program.
After LA Panther leader Bunchy Carter was murdered on the UCLA campus (in a secret memo, local FBI agent Richard Held took credit for provoking the killing), Geronimo Pratt, a Vietnam veteran, assumed the leadership of the chapter. Pratt was then framed by police, primarily based on the testimony of one man, Julius Butler, who declassified documents later showed was an agent working for the FBI. Geronimo Pratt spent 27 years in prison – longer than Nelson Mandela – before his conviction was overturned.
A former FBI agent, disgusted with Hoover’s dirty tricks, admitted that they knew Pratt did not commit the crime because the FBI had been wiretapping Pratt at the time and knew that he was 400 miles away from the place where the crime supposedly occurred.
In October 1966, the Black Panther Party became the last, best hope not just of black America, but of the world’s poor and disenfranchised. They were lovers of humanity who sought to realize the Social Gospel: to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, comfort the broken-hearted and set the prisoners free.
The party is no more, but that hope will not – must not – be lost forever.
The writer (www.latticetheory.net) has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, and The Baltimore Sun, for whom this piece was written.