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Cities: Atlanta

The Black Panther Party in Georgia

Huey P. Newton, the national leader of the Black Panther Party, makes remarks at an Atlanta press conference in this WSB clip filmed on September 8, 1971. The Black Panther Party, originally called “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” was founded in 1966 by Newton and Bobby Seale. Here, Newton announces his intentions of establishing an urban base for the Party in Atlanta.

This organization used a panther as its symbol because of its powerful imagery, and because it connected positive connotations to the color black.  The panther had also been the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a voting rights group from Alabama. The phrase “self-defense” was employed in the Party’s original name to distinguish its position on using violence defensively from the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that characterized other Civil Rights Movement organizations.

The Panthers had not collaborated closely with other Civil Rights Movement organizations. However, perhaps they wanted to come to Atlanta in order to address issues of poverty and economic disadvantage that had plagued urban blacks. They may have also aimed to establish an urban southern base to make their presence known in areas besides the West. Both Newton and Seale attended Merritt College in Oakland, California, where they first became involved in politics: Newton believed that blacks were oppressed politically and economically. He also argued that they should empower themselves through self-defense and education. A local chapter he founded with Seale became the catalyst for a national movement.

Although the Panthers have been stereotyped as angry, militant, and anarchic, Newton and Seale intended to level the playing field for African Americans socially, politically, and economically. The ten-point platform detailed by the Black Panther Party states:

1) We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.           

2) We want full employment for our people.

3) We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.     

4) We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.

5) We want decent 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 completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.

7) We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.

8) We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.

9) We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.

10) We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people's community control of modern technology.

The positive aspects of the Black Panther Party were often ignored by the American government and downplayed by the media.  From black leather jackets to loaded automatic weapons, the Party’s powerful iconography intimidated the public, including middle-class and working-class African Americans.  However, the Panthers made significant social and political contributions to local communities, known as “community survival programs.”  For example, Party members instated a breakfast program for underprivileged black children, provided a free ambulance service, and launched a sickle-cell anemia testing and awareness program for needy African Americans.

The year 1974 marked the beginning of the Panthers' dissolution. Internal conflicts led to the Party’s expulsion of most of the original leadership, including Seale. During this time, Newton entered self-imposed exile, in part to retreat from the mounting demands of the people. Despite these alterations, the Party continued to thrive until Newton’s return from exile in 1977. By that time however, both internal conflicts, and the FBI’s efforts to dismantle the organization through continued harassment, arrests, and the use of informants in the COINTELPRO program, led to the Party's eventual demise.             

The Panthers' influence is still felt in American society. In fact, their breakfast program served as a model for the National Breakfast Program established in 1966 through the Child Nutrition Act, a part of the Great Society. No finite evidence suggests that the Panthers directly influenced healthcare for African Americans. However, programs to reduce deaths from sickle-cell anemia have catalyzed research on other diseases and chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, that disproportionately affect African Americans compard to other segments of the population. Finally, the Black Panther Party's outspokenness on local and national issues and its commitment to using the legal system to create social change encouraged other African Americans to participate directly in the political process by voting and running for elected offices.

One meaningful consequnce of the Panthers' history is that it underscores the importance of thinking beyond the South when discussing the Civil Rights Movement. Whereas organizations such as the SCLC, SNCC, and the Deacons for Defense and Justice were composed of a significant number of southern, rural, Christian blacks, the Panthers especially reached out to urban African Americans whose needs sometimes differed from the concerns that these organizations addressed. Like the Deacons for Defense and Justice in the southern states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the Panthers were willing to use violence to defend their homes and families against police brutality and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, like the members of SNCC and CORE, young people were sometimes more attracted to the Panthers than to older, more established groups because of their energy, their hip and Afrocentric style, their impatience with the slow pace of change, and their grass-roots strategies.  

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Discussion Questions

1. Given that the Panthers led positive initiatives in poor, urban African American communities, why did many media images stress the angry and militant aspects of the group?

2. Did the Panthers attempt to build coalitions with other movement organizations, especially in the South?  Why or why not?

3. What strategic importance did the the South hold for the Panthers' expansion? What made Atlanta an urban space different from cities like Oakland in the West, Chicago and Detroit in the Midwest, and Baltimore and New York in the East, where Panther chapters rapidly grew?

4.  Look at a few of the posters of the covers of the Black Panthers' newspaper. Discuss how they demonstrate the ten-point platform and consider how and why certain segments of American society--the police, the wealthy, and the poor--are depicted in these images.

Take it to the Streets!

Organize your class into teams of four or five students each. Ask each team to take photographs, using an inexpensive disposable camera, representative of different issues that face your community: housing, education, health, employment, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, pollution, political corruption, immigration, domestic abuse, or prejudice, such as homophobia, racism, and misogyny. Using the Panthers' Free Breakfast or Sickle Cell Programs as a guide, create an agenda with your team members that begins to resolve these problems in your community.   

Writers: Morgan Copper, Nicka Grimes, Naomi Pate, Chip Spearman in Professor Barbara McCaskill's AFAM/ENGL 3230 class (Survey of African American Literature) at The University of Georgia, Spring 2007.      

Editors: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks and Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                               

Researchers: Morgan Copper, Nicka Grimes, Naomi Pate, Chip Spearman, Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                              

Web Site Designer: William Weems

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