The Black Panther Party: What White America Still Doesn’t Understand

The Black Panther Party has been an ongoing discussion during this Black History Month, ever since Beyoncé made that “controversial” performance at the Super Bowl that seemed to hurt the feelings of so many white Americans. Beyoncé and her dancers were wearing Black Panther-style black berets and uniforms, at one point forming a giant “X” in the middle of the football field. It was clear that she was highlighting the Black Panther Party and movement with the performance, after all, it his Black History Month. And the song she performed, “Formation,” is an unapologetic anthem for black people, specifically black women.

So many white people in America became outraged and highly offended, even to the point where Saturday Night Live had to react to the controversy by producing a satirist skit, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” It accurately captured the absurdity of the drama.

Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is going to premiere tonight on PBS. The documentary takes a deep inside look at the BPP movement, with interviews from journalists, former BPP members and white supporters, as well as detractors. Anyone looking to learn more about the BPP should absolutely tune into the documentary. But I hope to highlight some other key points that you may not know, as well.

“The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm; the great weakness of the party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm,” says party member William Calhoun. “That sometimes can be very dangerous especially when you’re up against the United States government.”

The Black Panther Party started to gain popularity in Oakland, California in 1966, with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It was originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Members put together many social programs for the community, like the Free Breakfast for Children Programs. They were arming themselves, in response to the harsh police brutality and unlawful behavior of police officers. This is what most people tend to think of when they hear the Black Panther Party being mentioned – militant black men with guns wearing black leather jackets. Their demands for education, employment, fairness, and freedom are often ignored, in favor of them being viewed as violent and angry. But few ever take the time to consider what type of environment black people had to be in, in order to create this movement in the first place.

“That is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party,” Ericka Huggins says, who is a former member of the Black Panther Party. “We know the party we were in and not the entire thing. We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.”

The Black Panther Party made their original Ten-Point program public on May 15, 1967:

1. We want freedom. We want 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 Capitalists 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 the 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 want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury 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.

Towards the end of 1968, the Black Panther Party consisted of 38 chapters and branches, with over 5,000 members.

The role of black women within the BPP is also something that is not touched upon very often. Black women were leading the the survival programs (things like free groceries, health clinics) as well as many of the greatest initiatives of the party, but they were often erased from the movement, dealing with male members who felt that racism was more important than sexism. However, the Black Panther Party newspaper began showcasing black women as revolutionaries, women like Angela Davis, Erika Huggins and Kathleen Cleaver. And women did hold positions of leadership within the BPP.

The notion of the party being “anti-white” is completely absurd and a fallacy. The New Black Panther Party, however, does not share the same sentiments as the original BPP. Thew New BPP does carry more hatred for white people. The original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the New Black Panther Party are two radically different things, and if you simply want to highlight the ladder and ignore the former, you’re part of the problem. When there are mass shootings and killings brought on by racist white people, so many are willing to label those instances as “just a few bad apples” or “isolated incidents.” But are minorities given the same treatment?

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a Stanley Nelson film, debuts tonight at 9:00 p.m. on PBS.

[Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]