When I moved to Berkeley in 1969, the Black Panthers were in their heyday. Only three years earlier, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had begun building the party around an image and a name they’d appropriated from other Black organizations then active in those turbulent years of the Vietnam War and exploding ghettoes. Yet before the decade of the 1970s was out, the Black Panther Party had all but disappeared. Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s excellent study of the Black Panthers and their politics, makes clear why and how they grew into such a force — and why the party collapsed so few years later.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The pivotal event in the history of the Black Panther Party was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Before that day, the Party was just one of hundreds of activist African-American organizations, most of them vanishingly small, in Black ghettoes and on university campuses all across the country.
The Black Panthers grabbed headlines. They were different.
The Panthers were set apart from others by their distinctive black outfits, by carrying guns in public to defend themselves against police brutality, by their outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, and, perhaps most of all, by their willingness to encompass people of other ethnicities. As a result, they had grabbed headlines locally and were growing at a fast pace, attracting African-Americans in their late teens and twenties who were disillusioned by the timidity of their elders in the Civil Rights Movement — but the party’s activities were largely limited to Oakland, Berkeley, and nearby cities.
However, when Rev. King was murdered, the Black Panther Party quickly emerged as the leading organization nationwide with the credibility and the activist ideology that could channel the fury and the hope of young African-Americans and attract alliances with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other largely non-Black radical organizations. The Party quickly began opening offices around the country — a total of 68 cities by 1970 — and for three years remained a powerful and ever-present force in the activist politics of the day.
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III (2016) 564 pages ★★★★☆
Soon, however, the party’s rapid decline began in earnest. Bloom and Martin emphasize two key factors — the Panthers’ establishment enemies and the shrinking U.S. engagement in Vietnam under Richard Nixon — to which I would add a third: the explosive personality dynamics of the Panthers’ leaders themselves.
The Black Panther Party’s sworn enemies included the FBI, the Oakland police, and, later, police in Chicago and many other cities. J. Edgar Hoover personally led the FBI’s campaign against the Panthers, introducing informers and agents provocateur to trigger violence and sow dissent within their ranks. The Bureau’s efforts went so far as to hand out explosives, spread destructive rumors to undermine the marriages of Panther leaders, and arrange the assassination of key Panther activists.
The Oakland police used violent and often illegal tactics, invading Panther homes and offices without search warrants and arresting individual Panthers on transparently trumped-up charges. The most egregious incident took place in Richard J. Daley‘s Chicago, when police, acting on information from an informer, illegally burst into an apartment in the middle of the night and murdered Fred Hampton, the local chapter leader, sleeping in his bed. All told, police murdered dozens of Panther activists around the country.
Richard Nixon played a role
Richard Nixon played a pivotal role, too. “Nixon was the one who rolled back the draft, wound down the war, and advanced affirmative action.” The cumulative effect of these strategic moves was to erode the foundation of the Panthers’ support both in the Black community and among white radicals (whose popularity among young people, it became clear, was largely grounded in fear of the draft). Once regarded not just by themselves but by other self-appointed revolutionary organizations as the vanguard of the revolution, the Panthers increasingly found themselves alone as liberals attacked them and the revolution on the nation’s campuses went the way of the draft. The party was officially dissolved in 1982.
So far as it goes, this analysis of the principal forces that undermined the Black Panthers is right on target. However, I would argue that the personality dynamics of the party’s leadership played a significant role as well. Judging from my own observations as well as the evidence advanced in Black Against Empire, the three leading figures in the party were all brilliant men. It’s idle to speculate what roles they might have played in society had they been born white in middle-class families — but it’s clear that their life experiences as African-Americans growing up in America in the 1950s and 60s, not to mention the cruel frauds worked on them by FBI agents and informers during the late 1960s and early 70s, wreaked havoc on their mental health.
Of the founders, only Bobby Seale survived
Of the three, only Bobby Seale survived the Panther years whole and sane. Both Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were, by all accounts, unhinged in the final years of their lives. So far as I’m concerned, no further proof is needed than the bitter feud that erupted between the two of them, which led to dangerous and sometimes violent splits within the Panther organization.
For anyone who lived through those unsettling times on the margins of the day’s events, Black Against Empire is illuminating. Though I crossed paths with a number of the individuals named in the book, and we had a great many mutual friends, I was quite unaware of the Black Panthers’ early history and of the party’s years of decline. If you have any interest in East Bay history, Berkeley politics, or African-American history and politics, you’ll find Black Against Empire essential reading.
Joshua Bloom, the principal author, is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA. His collaborator, Waldo Martin, is a Professor of History at UC Berkeley specializing in African-American history.
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