For many Americans, the name “Black Panthers” brings to mind young, stone-faced black men in berets and black leather coats and carrying rifles. Those images were either exhilarating, terrifying or world-changing, depending on who was looking.
Fifty years after the group was founded, the Panthers remain a flashpoint in the struggle for black equality in the USA. While it’s true that the party failed to live up to its ideals during its more than 10 years of activism, it’s equally true that its efforts led to greater equity and strength in the black community.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966. It was founded to monitor police violence in black communities, a seemingly intractable issue that Black Lives Matter and other groups continue to organize around today.
“We took no crap, so to speak, from what we used to say is the racist pig power structure,” Seale said in a recent interview.
What the Panthers actually stood for, as well as the group’s many projects and its eventual slide into violence and disarray, are the subject of a new documentary airing on PBS starting Feb. 16.
Sometimes controversial but always stunning in its use of archival footage, modern interviews and the music of the time, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, was written, directed and produced by Stanley Nelson, who has made films about such touchstones as the Freedom Riders and the murder of Emmett Till.
The documentary has been criticized by former Panthers as either too soft or too hard on the movement that at one point had thousands of members in more than 21 communities.
Roots on campus
The Panthers grew out of the generally pacifist civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was part of an African-American culture of self-discovery and self-determination that was flowering in many parts of the country at the time.
“It’s hard to think back to 1966, when you never saw a black man confront a white person, anywhere — not on the street, not on TV, not in the North or the South. You never saw the aggressive attitude that the Panthers had. For better or worse, it’s so much a part of our culture today,” Nelson says.
“It was very much the hip-hop attitude, but the Panthers personified it 50 years ago,” he says.
It’s not widely known that the Panthers trace their origins to a fight to make education at a small Oakland junior college more relevant to a student body that was more than 45% black.
At the time, in the early 1960s, Seale was working in anti-poverty programs and studying part time at Merritt College in Oakland. Every year, the college celebrated “Pioneer Day,” honoring the history of settlers who came West in the 1800s. But Seale and others noticed a glaring omission in the story of the settlement in the American West.
Source: USA Today | Elizabeth Weise