The Black Panther Party’s Two Histories: Black Vs. White

Black Panther Party history varies depending upon which side of the racial divide one falls. For many African Americans, the Black Panther Party was the answer to many of problems that persisted during the final years of the American Civil Rights Movement and the decade that followed. Still today, many black Americans give the group’s members credit for risking their lives to stop the police brutality that remained common in the late 1960s. Many white Americans, on the other hand, saw, and still see, the Black Panther Party as a dangerous entity that used violence as a means to an end. How can two groups in the same nation regard the Black Panther Party so differently?

The 1960s was a time of activism by both blacks and whites as the country’s youth stood together in support for an end to the Vietnam conflict, nuclear disarmament, and, yes, even civil rights. During that tumultuous decade, the fringe moved to the forefront of American society, and groups like the Black Panthers began getting attention from national media outlets. The media coverage, along with the group’s candidates for political offices across the country, drew the attention of the Washington establishment, and the Black Panther Party was suddenly on the FBI’s radar.

Black Panther candidate in Alambama

For blacks in the 1960s, the FBI’s sudden interest in the Black Panther Party’s activities was just another instance of powerful white people attempting to silence the members of the country’s African-American population. The federal government’s increased attention on the group’s movements pushed more and more black Americans to join the ranks of the Black Panther Party. Between 1969 and 1970, the group reached its peak of power with thousands of members across the country.

While African Americans were uniting behind the Black Panther Party, Washington and the media were telling white Americans to be afraid of the group’s radical blacks without ever being told the reasons for the Black Panther Party’s activism. In events similar to those in recent years, urban blacks found themselves the targets of majority-white police departments. Blacks who tried to assert the rights granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 found themselves arrested on trumped-up charges and tried in front of all-white juries.

Meanwhile, most white Americans remained unaware of the plight of urban blacks. During the 1960s and 1970s, all of America was dependent on national media for information, and national news organizations of the time were run by white people who were influenced by members of the establishment. According to a 2008 academic paper entitled “Black Panther Party: 1966-1982” written by Dr. Michael X. Delli Carpini, government agencies worked to “undermine public support for the party.”

As airing coverage that supported “radical” movements like the Black Panther Party did not appeal to the market these outlets wanted to reach, which was white America, the media did not resist governmental influence. In attempts to appeal to the targeted demographics, media coverage of the Black Panther Party was limited to incidences of violence and portrayed the group’s members solely as dangerous revolutionary socialists.

Black Americans living in urban areas saw a much different scene than the one that appeared on television screens across the country. They saw their communities in decline, ignored by municipal governments and dependent upon the decisions made by white politicians. They saw underfunded schools struggling to retain teachers, where their children never learned about their own people’s history. They saw families unable to feed their children, with nowhere to turn for help. At the same time, white America saw blacks living in urban ghettos portrayed as lazy and violent. Tired of the media’s portrayal, the Black Panther Party became determined to show the rest of the country the reality faced by members of these black communities.

Black Panther leaders discuss education in Indiana

White Americans had no problem feeling compassion for the poor in Appalachia, who President Johnson brought to the nation’s attention during The Poverty Tours in 1964. However, those same Americans never developed similar compassion for the country’s urban black population, even with the efforts of the Black Panther Party. Today, the country remains divided along a racial line, because many white Americans refuse to believe reports of incidents in black communities. Until white America stops, educates itself, and attempts to develop compassion for all of the country’s citizens, support for groups like the Black Panther Party will continue in hopes of illuminating the continued plight of African Americans.

[Photo by Richard Sheinwald/AP Images]