Black Panthers

A militant black activist organization established in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party put forward an analysis of institutional racism in the United States that had conspiratorial overtones, while at the same time it was the subject of conspiracy theories told by white conservatives who feared that the party constituted an armed conspiracy against U.S. institutions.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966 in North Oakland, California. In the aftermath of the recent uprisings in Watts, Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit, Newton and Seale had come to question the effectiveness of the civil rights movement. Examining the situation in their own backyard—an exodus of manufacturing jobs to the Oakland suburbs and even overseas (replaced by jobs in the commerce and finance sectors that required high levels of education and skill) and a shortage of affordable housing (from 1955 to the early 1960s, over 7,000 low-income housing units were destroyed, and few of them were replaced)—they began to believe that the movement was not properly addressing these issues of economic change and inequality and thus questioned how best to proceed.

For many black nationalists, the answer to this query was a call for racial separatism, while traditional liberals continued to press for greater integration and the passage of new legal civil rights guarantees. It was within this volatile ideological milieu that the BPP called for “revolutionary inter-communalism” (Newton, 9), a distinctively “socialist and Marxist” (Newton, 27) ideology that rejected both the concept of separatism as well as the gradualism that accompanied liberal calls for change, and placed the civil rights struggle in a more global context. Stating that since the United States was no longer a nation but an empire, they argued that the sovereignty of all countries had been called into question. “Their self-determination, economic determination, and cultural determination,” Newton explained, “has been transformed by the imperialists and the ruling cycle.” These transformations and phenomena required the Panthers to call themselves “intercommunalists” (rather than “internationalists”) because “nations have been transformed into communities of the world” (Newton, 29). Such a focus led to attention on the inequities of capitalism on the local level, as the Panthers saw African American neighborhoods as such communities within the U.S. empire. Party members established armed police patrols (which the Panthers are perhaps best known for), free breakfast programs for children, health clinics, escort and transportation services for senior citizen housing project residents, and clothing and shoe programs for community members across the country. These programs were seen as explicitly protecting the community from the dangers of imperialism, providing a local wall of self-defense against the larger forces that maintained the U.S. empire.

As one might expect, such a sweeping ideology lent itself to conspiracy theory, particularly as the BPP continued to face hostility from the very forces it wished to overthrow. By 1970, the BPP was referring to the United States as “a barbaric organization controlled and operated by avaricious, sadistic, bloodthirsty thieves” (qtd. in Foner, 268). There was, as the New York Black Panthers explained, a “Government Conspiracy” (qtd. in Foner, 208) that sought to eliminate all of those who dared to question the inhuman capitalistic system. Not surprisingly, it was those institutions that the Panthers interacted with on the local level that were most often implicated in these conspiratorial theories. Police officers and court officials were tangible symbols of “the most ruthless system in the world,” a system that attempted to cover up instances of cruelty, inequality, and outright brutality through the propagation of the “big lie” of U.S. freedom and equality. Such actions showed that “[t]he ‘Amerikkan system of justice’ is a hideous sham and a revolting farce” (qtd. in Foner, 203). In the face of such a wide-ranging conspiracy, the Panthers felt that they had little choice but to topple these institutions wholesale.

Eldridge Cleaver led a life of transformations: youthful years of crime and imprisonment; a decade as a famous African American activist and writer; a period of exile; and his last years as an outspoken and conservative Christian.

Eldridge Cleaver led a life of transformations: youthful years of crime and imprisonment; a decade as a famous African American activist and writer; a period of exile; and his last years as an outspoken and conservative Christian.

Yet there was strong evidence to support the Panthers’ turn to conspiracy thinking, primarily in the shape of the governmental response to the party. Seeing the Panthers themselves as leaders of a grand conspiracy against the United States government, such organizations as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Justice Department, and even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) launched an assault on the Panthers that would be enough to make any group fall victim to paranoia. On 8 September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and called for the bureau to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the BPP (Newton, 1; 9). By June 1969 the FBI was investigating all forty-two Panther chapters and approximately 1,200 members and sympathizers in order “to obtain evidence of possible violation of federal and local laws.” This effort included the examination of every aspect of Panther affairs, from financial records to the publication of Black Panther newsletters and flyers. The FBI even conducted a survey to determine “how many members are on welfare”. The Panthers also found themselves the target of numerous cointelpro (the infamous FBI counterintelligence program) investigations. Of the 295 documented actions taken by cointelpro to disrupt African American groups, 233 were specifically directed toward destruction of the Party (Newton, 53). And when such covert counter-intelligence programs could not fully curtail the activities of the BPP, the government had little trouble resorting to overt violence, as seen in the 1969 murder of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, at the hands of the FBI and the Chicago police force (Jones, 372-373).

Such acts of violence and intimidation weakened the infrastructure of the BPP across the country, and the party, by the early 1980s, ceased to be a vital political force on the national scene. However, the party left a legacy that, throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s, influenced such groups and individuals as the white radical Weathermen, the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization, and even academics and students who called upon their universities to institute black studies programs and departments. Perhaps most important, the BPP, by calling attention to the government-mandated attacks against it, made it clear that it was not only outsider groups that relied heavily on conspiracy thinking. Such thinking was now something practiced by our own government, a revelation that led many U.S. citizens to take a more cynical and pessimistic view of the U.S. state.

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