RISE OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
It was against this backdrop that Huey P. Newton was organizing the Black Panther Party for self-defense, boldly calling for a complete end to all forms of oppression of blacks and offering revolution as an option. At the same time, the Black Panther Party took the position that black people in America and the Vietnamese people were waging a common struggle, as comrades-in-arms, against a common enemy: the U.S. government. What was most "dangerous" about this was that young blacks, the same urban youth throwing molotov cocktails on America, were listening.
This message was amplified when a small group of Black Panther Party members, led by Bobby Seale, designated chairman of the Party, marched into the California legislature, in May 1967, fully armed. Defined as protest against a pending guncontrol bill (which became the Mulford Act) aimed at the Party with the position that blacks had a Constitutional right to bear arms, the Party’s message that day became a clarion call to young blacks.
When, therefore, in October of 1967, Huey Newton was shot, arrested and charged with the murder of a white Oakland cop, after a gun battle of sorts on the streets of West Oakland that resulted in the death of police officer John Frey, it was indeed the spark that lit a prairie fire. Young whites, angry and disillusioned with America over the Vietnam war, raised their voices with young, urban blacks, to cry in unison: "Free Huey!"
It became a movement of itself, the very embodiment of all the social contradictions, between the haves and have nots, the included and excluded, the alienated and the privileged. The freeing of the black man charged with killing a white cop, the oppressed who resisted oppression, was tantamount to the freedom of everyone.
One result was not only the flowering of the Party itself but a rapid proliferation of other, like minded organizations. Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in Southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland based organization to a national organization, as black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.
At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs, and were operated by Party members under the slogan "survival pending revolution."
The first such program was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which spread from being operated at one small Catholic church, in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, to every major city in America where there was a Party chapter. Thousands upon thousands of poor and hungry children were fed free breakfasts every day by the Party under this program. The magnitude and powerful impact of this program was such that the federal government was pressed and shamed into adopting a similar program for public schools across the country, while the FBI assailed the free breakfast program as nothing more than a propaganda tool used by the Party to carry out its "communist" agenda. More insidiously, the FBI denounced the Party itself as a group of communist outlaws bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
Armed with that definition and all the machinery of the federal government, J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to wage a campaign to eliminate the Black Panther Party altogether, commanding the assistance of local police departments to do so. Indeed, as Hoover stated in 1968 that the Party represented "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.," he pledged that 1969 would be the last year of the Party’s existence. Indeed, in January of 1969, two Party leaders of the Southern California Chapter, John Huggins and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, were murdered at UCLA by FBI paid assassins, with the cooperation of black nationalist Ron Karenga and his US Organization. By the end of that year, nearly every office and other facility of the Black Panther Party had been violently assaulted by police and/or the FBI, culminating, in December, in an FBI orchestrated five hour police assault on the office in Los Angeles and FBI directed Illinois state police assassination of Chicago Party leader Fred Hampton and member Mark Clark.
In the interim, there had been the Oakland police murder of 17 year old Party member Bobby Hutton, in April of 1968; the August 1968 Los Angeles police murder of another 17 year old Panther, Tommy Lewis, along with Robert Lawrence and Steve Bartholomew; numerous arrests, from that of Party chairman Bobby Seale on conspiracy charges in connection with anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago to that of chief of staff David Hilliard on charges of assaulting police officers (in the April 1968 police gun battle in which Bobby Hutton was killed) to a conspiracy to kill the President (Nixon) charge arising from an anti-war speech, to the famous New Haven murder conspiracy case of Bobby Seale and veteran Panther Ericka Huggins. There had been every kind of assault imaginable on the Party’s social programs and destruction of Party property. From police raiders who smashed breakfast programs eggs on the floors of churches they invaded to those who crushed Party free clinic supplies underfoot to those who caused the destruction of batches of the Party’s newspapers. In addition, intimidation and other such tactics were being employed to undermine the Party’s support, to break the spirit and commitment of Party supporters and family members. More sinisterly, perhaps, and subtlety were the activities carried out under the FBI’s so called counter-intelligence program known as COINTELPRO, whereby the FBI directed its field offices and local police to destroy the Party through the use of informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder.
Nevertheless, the Party survived and continued to build its Survival Programs, which came to include not only the free breakfast programs and free clinics, but also grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, school and education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs, among others.