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The lingering public discussion about Beyoncé’s performance at Super Bowl 50 has catapulted the Black Panther Party back in to the national spotlight. Subsequently, it’s introduced this revolutionary organization to a new, unfamiliar generation. Better known today for their style rather than their principles, the Black Panthers remain an undeniably important part of American history. Controversy will forever surround the organization; militant demeanor, challenging law enforcement status quo, and fighting for equal rights -- intermixed with internal struggle, individual failures, and a United States skeptical of organized, black, men and women with power and influence.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was officially founded in California in 1966. Contrary to other civil rights leaders of the time, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the BPP did not strictly adhere to non-violent tactics. This characteristic of their legacy is often whitewashed by supporters and exaggerated by detractors. Some will write the group off as violent radicals, but Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale would contend that the BPP represented all minorities among the international working class.
Afros, black leather, and fists in the air – these are iconic images, but akin to summarizing the Irish with a shamrock and a pint of Guinness. Let’s dig deeper. The “10-Point Program” created by the BPP exemplified the organization’s dedication to bettering the community.
The BPP sought to combat police brutality and racism, and simultaneously provided necessary resources to neglected urban communities. Their civic contributions included free health clinics, free breakfast programs for school children and public education about legal rights. As noted in Kinka Sokoya’s dissertation (Ed.D., The George Washington University, 2014), the BPP ‘s influence has contributed to “the formation of Black student organizations on campuses, particularly Black student unions, establishment of Black studies departments, an increase in African American faculty, and changes in curricula.”
The BPP has been pigeonholed as Marxist, had shootouts with law enforcement, and been labeled “without a doubt, the greatest internal threat to the country,” by J. Edgar Hoover in 1969. Their impact has been robust, controversial and multifaceted; however, our lust for sensationalism often blinds us to the beauty of practicality. These men and women organized themselves to solve problems that were not being addressed by the establishment. These men and women fought to gain what they had been unjustly denied in an effort to improve the quality of life in their communities for future generations.
*Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.