50 years later, the Black Panthers are as relevant as ever

October 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — that black revolutionary and socialist organization — in Oakland, California.

The Panthers represent an important chapter in American history and in the country’s struggle for racial, social and economic justice. Fully half a century since its formation, the message and platform that the organization promoted remain as relevant as ever, providing lessons for a new generation of political activists and organizers.

Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers were a manifestation of the Black Power movement, with the late Malcolm X as a strong influence on the organization. (Incidentally, the assassination of Martin Luther King had a profound impact on the BPP as well.)

This was a time that was ripe for revolutionary thoughts, with the Watts riots, and the continued poverty and injustice facing people of color despite the passage of seminal civil rights legislation. These were the bad black folks — bad meaning good — an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, this time a departure from the nonviolent civil disobedience

that Dr. King and others had advocated. Even King and others in the movement relied on guns for protection, and the Deacons for Defense helped protect civil rights workers from the Klan terrorist violence, so the Black Panthers were a continuation of this tradition.

Drawing in 5,000 members nationwide, an international chapter in Algeria and worldwide support and at its height, the Black Panthers were known for their menacing and lunging black cat as their emblem and the black berets, leather jackets and sunglasses. And then there were the guns, in a bold and conspicuous exercise of the Second Amendment in order to protect the community.

They began as a citizens’ patrol to monitor the police and protect the black community from police violence, a familiar theme and a common scourge, both then and now. And their use of guns gained attention when the group marched into the California state legislature in Sacramento, fully armed. But the Black Panther Party was far more, as it mobilized the community for economic justice, spoke truth to power, and established free medical clinics and a breakfast program for children.

The Panthers’ 10-point program bore some similarities to that of other nationalist organizations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Nation of Islam.

In their plan, the Black Panthers called for self-determination for the black community; full employment; an end to the robbery of the community; housing; education; exemption from military service; an end to police brutality and the murder of black folks; freedom for all incarcerated black men; black juries for black people tried in court; and “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” with a UN-supervised plebiscite for black people to decide their destiny. And while they were not perfect, the BPP even supported LGBTQ rights, and black women were fundamental to the party’s success and helped shape its direction, even if they are often missing from the history books.

Contrary to the stereotype that the Panthers were a group that hated white folks — not unlike the white racist spin on Black Lives Matter — the BPP forged coalitions with a multiracial array of radical social justice groups, and in turn inspired other groups in the U.S. and in other countries.  Celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland provided financial support. And even today, the manufactured image of the Black Panther Party as a bunch of militant criminals remains. And it is not by accident.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover sought to stop Black Power in its tracks and kill revolutionary white, Latino, Asian and Native American social justice movements as well. Through Hoover’s COINTELPRO, the U.S. government’s goal was, according to an internal memo, to “Prevent the COALITION of militant black nationalist groups,” “Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” and “prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth.” Despite the attention paid to the Black Panthers’ guns, Hoover viewed their free breakfast program as the real threat — what he called the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” The FBI — along with the cops and the D.A.s — waged a war against the Black Panthers, framing, and imprisoning and killing them, or sending them underground. Police raided BPP headquarters and assassinated members such as the charismatic Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton and 17-year old Bobby Hutton in West Oakland. And to this day, some of these Black Panthers still languish behind bars as political prisoners.

Ultimately, no one could kill what the Black Panther Party represented, and the blueprint they left for black America. The Panthers addressed police violence, education, community empowerment, criminal justice reform, health and so many other issues. And they stared power in the face but refused to blink. Fifty years later, the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove