Black Panthers: Definition & History

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson you will learn about the origins and evolution of the Black Panther Party and gain an understanding of how they promoted their message during the civil rights era of American history.

Who Are the Black Panthers?

As one of the most transformative eras in recent U.S. history, the 1960s is a decade marked by considerable social upheaval and incredible cultural change. The cause of this profound social change was in large part due to the tireless efforts of civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers, who demanded political and social change across all areas of American life.

One of many civil rights groups of the 1960s, the Black Panther Party was a Black Nationalist group who operated in the United States from 1966-1982. Unlike the peaceful protest movement encouraged by Dr. Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers advocated arming citizens, monitoring police activity, and aggressively resisting the various forms of racism encountered by African Americans on a daily basis.

Because it is at the center of the Black Panther identity, nationalism is a concept worth explaining a little more. Nationalism is a social ideology that involves a person strongly identifying with or taking great pride in their nation of origin. In the case of the Black Panther Party, Africa and the difficult history of slavery were a means by which African Americans could differentiate themselves from the white majority in the United States. For example, ideas of Black Power, slogans like 'I'm Black and I'm proud' or references to Mother Africa were ways of demonstrating a rejection of white dominated American culture and establishing an identity separate from the society that had marginalized them.

Black Panther Rally, 1971
Black Panther flyer

Social programs were another means by which the Black Panthers attempted to empower African Americans during the 1960s and 70s. Having identified white Americans as their oppressors, the Black Panthers started programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, an health clinics to encourage African Americans to help themselves and each other.

Where did the Movement Begin?

Dissatisfied with the slow progress of the non-violent civil rights movement advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in their hometown of Oakland, CA during the fall of 1966. Inspired by activists, like Malcom X, Newton and Seale hoped to create a movement in which African Americans didn't have to wait for white culture to help them but would instead help themselves.

In the early days of the Black Panthers, the goal was to improve the lives of impoverished people and eliminate the violence and police brutality that so many regularly experienced in their lives.

Black Panthers and Law Enforcement

As a result of their strong rhetoric and intimidating presence, the movement quickly attracted the attention of the federal government. In response, the government initiated a program known as the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELLPRO) to covertly monitor those groups that they had labeled nationalist or hate groups in the United States. Through the use of phone tapping, surveillance, and harassment, the FBI was able to keep tabs on individuals associated with groups like the Black Panther Party, though their tactics have been widely criticized over the years and were, at times, illegal.

By the end of the 1960s, the Black Panthers had adopted a noticeably more aggressive political position, often encouraging citizens to openly carry guns, overtly monitor police behavior, and antagonize law enforcement, who they believed to be targeting African Americans. These actions frequently led to violent conflict between the Black Panthers and police officers, such as the shootout between Panthers and Oakland police in the spring of 1967, which resulted in the death of Panther member Bobby Hutton.

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