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What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party—But Should


What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party—But Should

Adam Sanchez, Jesse Hagopian

Fifty years ago this month, the Black Panther Party was born. Its history holds vital lessons for today’s movement to confront racism and police violence, yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Black Panthers.


I lived in the SF Bay Area when the Black Panthers emerged and watched local politicians and local media scapegoat them. It always appeared to me that the Panthers were a convenient boogeyman for racists to rationalize their beliefs and actions, and for politicians to distract us from what they didn't want us paying attention to.

Concurrent with the Panthers' emergence I read 1984. George Orwell telling us that "in an era of universal deceit anybody telling the truth is labeled a radical" explained why the Panthers were and continue to be mischaracterized by the corporate propaganda machine.

Ever since connecting those dots I have always questioned authority.


I was a new 11th grade US History teacher in San Diego in the fall of 1965. Besides the Black Panthers, there was another active group that is not honored and that is the Brown Berets. The KKK was burning crosses in Imperial Beach in the lawns of black and brown residents. The state published and brought to me in January of 1966 a supplement to the text book entitled "Black History in the US" and I was charged with integrating the content into my classroom instruction. It was a very interesting time and why we don't learn about the sixties in greater detail is still a mystery to me. The Brown Berets grew out of Caesar Chavez, La Rasa, and the grape boycott. The Black Panthers were intellectually led and based in the Oakland area that were on the forefront of equity issues - initially trying to bind together the Brown and Black power movements. These issues were why I went into teaching - to help in issues of equity to support democracy. It is now the end of my career and the forces against change are stronger than I ever imagined. Thank you for reading.


There is definitely a great deal of disinformation about the Black Panthers in popular media. Of course the definitive history of the Panthers was Huey Newton's doctoral dissertation which is available on the web. Huey Newton's "To Die for the People" and Bobby Seale's "Seize the Time" are also both great reads.


What a wonderful testimonial. Do you remember who wrote the supplement? Please share more of your story with the Zinn Education Project. You can write to us at zep@zinnedproject.org You may be pleased to know that there are now more than 63,000 teachers signed up to download people's history lessons from our website -- and more sign up every day. From Deborah Menkart, Zinn Education Project co-director


I think this is a great teaching tool in many respects, but why are you ignoring the fact that some of the male Panthers were rapists and woman beaters? I know this isn't a positive or attractive aspect, but ignoring it is an insult to women.


I disagree with key parts of the article's interpretation of the black panther's history.

  • The black panthers do indeed differ from the "nonviolent" wing of the civil rights movement. It was not a clear cut line, but there is still a distinction between the MLK type that, while expressing understanding for violence, does not condone or encourage its use even in self defense, and the Malcom X / Carmichael / Black Panther idea of self defense. And this doesn't even factor in the fact that from the state's perspective, self-defense against its agents of force is in fact violence, since in political theory, all use of violence is the prerogative of the state. (See hobbes and the so called monopoly on force.)

  • While the black rage the black panthers embodied is understandable and a conservative backlash might have been inevitable, their radical rhetoric and that of the black power movement certainly played very well into the hands of conservatives a la nixon and reagan.

  • In the end, there was no way the Black Panthers could've won. One way or another, the United States was going to squish it like a bug. And it did.


In 2012 Seth Rosenfeld wrote a decisive history "Subversives: The FBI's war on Student Radicals and Reagan's rise to Power." This book was a bombshell because of the revelations about Richard Aoki (page 418) "It was January 28 1969, and this was the latest action of the Third World Liberation Front, an extraordinary coalition of militant minority student groups demanding that the administration establish an ethnic studies college...But one of the strike's most militant leaders had a long- and until now secret-history of working as a paid FBI informer. His name was Richard Aoki...In 1966 Newton and Seale were conceptualizing the organization that would become the Black Panter Party for Self Defense. In October they took a draft of their ten-point political program to Aoki's Berkeley apartment to discuss it over beer and wine. Aoki soon gave the Panthers some of their first guns...."

Now it is important to sit with this issue for a moment. The FBI helped to birth the Black Panther Party, why? People like to talk about the FBI repression of the Black Panthers and there were plenty of martyrs created, but how intent was the FBI really at trying to stop the Black Panther party while simultaneously helping to write their platform and get them guns?

I think it is important to really dig into history and start parsing away at the standard narratives. Our culture and our political life are being messed with by an elite that has every intention in leading us around in circles. Identity politics divides the people, creates endless navel gazing and focus on victimization rather than a clear focus on issues and values that unite across these identity lines.


I rather think that George Washington and a few others back in 1776 did not subscribe to the political theory that violence is the sole prerogative of the State. King Charles 1st lost his head through believing in that notion, back in 1649.


I was there at that time too. Maybe we met.


What's missing:
October 1966
Black Panther Party
Platform and Program
1. We want freedom. We power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2.We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our Black community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American Society.We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.
6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9. We wantall Black people when brought to trial to be tried in a court of their peer group or people from their Black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of Black people as to their national destiny.

This was written in the North Oakland Service Center in about twenty minutes by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.


In Huey Newton's "Revolutionary Suicide," there's no mention of Aoki. So I just have to wonder what the point is of trying to smear? the Black Panther Party with COINTELPRO associations. Not that COINTELPRO wasn't going on but how much of Aoki's claimed role is hype? Just which Black Panther Party members was Mr Rosenfield quoting in 2012?


You are right, and upon further thought, I would like to withdraw the poorly worded and poorly thought-out first point that you brought up. The Black Panthers, unlike, say, the fringe SLA, were defensive in their use of violence or threat of it.

That said, I still stand by my other two points.


Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.

Severities should be dealt out all at once, so that their suddenness may give less offense; benefits ought to be handed ought drop by drop, so that they may be relished the more.

When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.

Niccolo Machiavelli


It's difficult to separate some of the negative so-called "facts" from the effects of COINTELPRO and their planted stories and agents. The weight of the constant attacks from the Government clearly caused many divisions that might not have been there otherwise (and subsequently hurt them greatly as some of their best leaders like David Hilliard left). The COINTELPRO attacks are well documented in Newton's dissertation - but the chauvinism is also well documented in Elaine Brown's book.


Rosenfeld was not interviewing other Panthers, he was going through FBI files. He did in fact talk with I believe two retired FBI agents who were Aoki's handlers. Aoki's role as an FBI plant does not really become public until 2012. I see Newton's book was written in 1972. The Black Panthers, from my perspective, represent an acceleration in identity politics, a next step in creating a multi-cultural, fractured body politic. This I suspect is the goal of the banker elite.


The first African Americans allowed to enter the FBI Academy were in 1962 so they weren't exactly on the leading edge of integration and equal rights. Who knows what Hoover thought, but he seemed to mirror the Southern belief that blacks weren't the equal of whites intellectually and his treatment of the Panthers was consistent with Southern racist beliefs. I'm not saying the man supported lynching, but I believe he was clearly a racist and actively discriminated against African/Americans because of these beliefs which were prevalent in Washington D.C. at that point in time. It was still very much a Southern city in those respects and that's where Hoover grew up. He treated King just as badly and he was a leader for nonviolent protesting like Ghandi was against the Brits. So his bureau, and it was his in body and soul, used their power to crush African American leaders of all stripes and clearly outside of the Constitutional limits he was bound to follow. He just had so much information about the powers that be in his secret files that no one in Washington D.C. wanted to take him on. Presidents actually feared what and who he could expose. He was not a good man.


Because truth is poison to the powers-that-be. It’s not only in the US, but also in other major countries where squashing the struggle for justice and equality necessitated ignoring, distorting, erasing, and manufacturing facts to justify fascistic rule.


You don’t have to be so brutally honest. :slight_smile:


No worries; I was just looking at the irony between what Hobbes said, what the USA seems to think today which seems to be much the same as Hobbes, and what the inventors of the USA actually practised and indeed claimed to be right i.e. that a government that does not behave itself should be removed, which precedent had been set in England between 1641 and 1649.. All I know of the Black Panthers is what appeared on the British TV news of the day, so I am not fit to comment on what they did and didn't do.