As the debate over gun control heats up across the country, the National Rifle Association has tried to portray itself as the supreme defender of the Second Amendment.
But less than 50 years ago, the NRA supported gun regulations, backing a California measure that made it illegal to carry loaded firearms in public.
The reason: The law was aimed at crushing the Black Panthers.
In the face of rampant police brutality, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense emerged in the late 1960s to protect poor people of color in Oakland, Calif. The Party organized police patrols and rallies of armed citizens to confront law enforcement — and cited the Constitution and California law to defend their actions. “They used the Second Amendment to build political power,” says Joshua Bloom, a fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies.
“What the Panthers do is build upon American tradition in the Second Amendment, but also an African American tradition,” adds Waldo E. Martin Jr., a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Even in the period of nonviolent civil disobedience, especially in the South, African Americans owned guns to protect themselves.”
Bloom and Martin are co-authors of the new book, Black Against Empire, which not only explores the Panthers’ well-known advocacy of armed self-defense, but also the Party’s social programs, domestic and international alliances and sophisticated political philosophy.
“There is an attempt in popular culture, and in some political treatments, to dismiss the Panthers, to belittle them, to caricature them,” says Martin. “We see what they’re doing as profoundly serious, profoundly important, and demanding the most serious scholarly and intellectual treatment.”
Relying on extensive archival materials and oral histories from the Panthers themselves, Bloom and Martin spent more than a decade researching and writing this 560-page book. The result is the first comprehensive overview of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was established in 1966, when community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton decided to stand up against the abuses of the local police in Oakland. Drawing a parallel to the colonized people of the Third World, the Panthers called the police an imperial, occupying force and advocated for black self-determination.
This not only meant confronting law enforcement, but encouraging social uplift as well. In 1967, the Panthers published the Ten Point Program and outlined their desire for freedom, full employment, decent housing, education, exemption from military service and fairness in the justice system.
But it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — when cities across the country erupted into violence, opposition to the war in Vietnam raged and frustration over continued economic and political inequality mounted — that the Black Panthers flourished.
“What we are trying to do in this book is to capture a different time and place when millions of people thought revolution might happen,” says Martin.
As the authors argue, the Panthers tapped into this urban anger more effectively than any other group at the time, allowing them to grow from a small, local organization to one with dozens of chapters nationwide and international recognition.
“One of the ways in which people think about the late 1960s is that it’s the ‘bad’ movement,” Martin continues. “Civil Rights is the ‘good’ ‘60s, and by the time you get to the late ‘60s, that’s when things start falling apart. We think about the late ‘60s as positive political development pushing us leftward, pushing us in a more progressive direction.”
One example of this was the Boston chapter of the Black Panther Party. Established in Roxbury in 1968, the Boston chapter became well known for its robust “survival programs” that offered free breakfast to school children and free food, clothing, health care, sickle cell screening and drug rehabilitation for adults.
But it never gained the high profile status that other chapters like those in Chicago and New Haven did because it was never the target of police raids — something Bloom says he and Martin have never understood.
A “source of a lot of their strength,” according to Bloom, was the Panthers’ alliances with other domestic and international groups. The Panthers gained the favor of moderate blacks by offering programs such as free breakfast for students, free ambulance and first-aid services and free busing to prison to help families stay in touch with incarcerated family members.
They also worked across racial lines, with groups such as the Mexican American Brown Berets, the Chinese American Red Guard and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and forged partnerships with white anti-war organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Peace and Freedom Party.
In addition, the Panthers set up an embassy building in Algeria and met with national representatives from China, Korea and several African nations.
Even the federal government recognized these robust networks as the strength of the Party, and tried to undermine them as a way to destroy the Panthers.
“FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was clear that the main challenge in dismantling the Party was driving it away from its black moderate and white liberal allies by basically making it look like a separatist and criminal organization,” says Bloom.
Overt violence in the form of chapter raids and assassinations of top leaders also threatened the Panther’s existence. But Bloom and Martin argue that it was not these external threats alone that led to the decline of Panther influence in 1971. Instead, it was a changing political climate — the end of the draft, the release of Huey Newton from prison and greater economic and political opportunities for African Americans — that meant the Panthers’ revolutionary message no longer resonated the way it once did.
While the lifespan of the Black Panther Party was brief, Bloom and Martin say that they are the only revolutionary group in recent American history — and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, even though many of the grievances that motivated the Panthers still exist.
“What the Party did was develop cultural technology that generated a source of power through disruption, and that built a revolutionary movement,” says Bloom. “The reason there isn’t a revolutionary movement today is that people haven’t done something similar.”