The real party of people that inspired the upcoming superhero movie
Black Panther is not the first super-hero movie starring an African-American. That honour goes to Blade: Vampire Hunter. By all accounts, that wasn’t actually too shoddy a film. Black Panther is, however, the first one which stars an African-American and is also written and directed by an African-American. The hype around it is undeniable, and it’s making an incredible impression on critics who’ve seen pre-release screenings. At present, its Rotten Tomatoes rating is higher than Casablanca. We’re in a fascinating cultural moment and Black Panther is a key symbol of that.
When asked about what inspired the film, director and writer Ryan Coogler cited the recent Black Panther run penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is seen as one of America’s foremost public intellectuals on issues of racial injustice. The Black Panther may be a comic-book superhero, but he shares a name with another group which Coates has an intimate connection with: the Black Panther Party. Coates’s father was a famous Black Panther Party organizer and his mother was active in groups around the party.
This militant group, founded in 1967 by devotees of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights movement, was dedicated to social and economic equality for all Americans, seeking a horizon beyond the hypocrisy of 60’s liberalism and the hateful reactionism of that era’s conservatives. However, their historical memory has been so mixed that the original Black Panther character temporarily went by the Black Leopard. The film has stirred up a discussion about this party’s history. Sadly, most of said discussion is void of fact, either blindly covering up the Black Panther Party’s ideals or accusing them of violent thuggery comparable to the KKK. None of this is true and it’s worth correcting the record.
Although the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had been passed and segregation phased out by the rise of the Black Panther Party, institutional racism and grinding poverty remained. Furthermore, although liberals were keen to abolish segregation in the South, they were only too happy to allow redlining, police brutality and broader discrimination in their own communities. Furthermore, economic inequality trapped poor African-Americans along with other marginalized communities and working-class whites. The Black Panther Party didn’t arise in the Deep South, but in nominally progressive places like Los Angeles, Illinois and Oakland.
To address these problems, the Panthers adopted a multi-pronged strategy. Most famously, they went armed. The Black Panther Party organized community patrols which both acted against crime and discouraged violence by racist cops against the people. They did good work; running education programs, handing out free meals to the poor and organizing charity and economic activity. Politically, they published the famous “ten points." These included full employment, decent housing for all, fair trials by their peers, proper education, self-determination, an end to police brutality and an end to the exploitation and robbery of the black working class by business. These demands have been echoed in the platforms of movements from the Rainbow Coalition to the present Black Lives Matter.
Unfortunately, the unfair vision of gun-toting, leather-jacketed hooligans intimidating the police and extorting people has been popularized in the media. Yet, The Black Panther Party was an intellectually sophisticated and politically engaged group. Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s ideologist and editor of its
newspaper recounted in his book Soul on Ice that he started life a petty criminal based on blind resentment of whites. However, in prison he spent his time educating himself and coming to understand that it was not individual evil but systems of oppression at fault.
The Black Panther Party studied the works of post-colonial theorists like Frantz Fanon as well as American sociologists like Michael Harrington, and avidly followed the new ideas and experiments coming out of Vietnam, Ghana, China and other recently decolonized revolutionary countries. They developed their own intricate analysis of American society. Many of their members, most famously Angela Davis and Kwame Ture, are now recognized as first-rate intellectuals.
Another accusation against the Black Panthers is that they were racial extremists – some kind of inverted KKK. It was certainly a movement for African-Americans, granted. But when Huey Newton, the movement’s leader, was asked what whites could do to help the Party, he asked for them to found a White Panther Party. One was duly formed, and struggled in solidarity with the Panthers. Fred Hampton, the head of the Chicago branch, was explicit about this. He famously stated “we’re going to fight racism not with racism, but with solidarity.” The Panther Party believed that the problem of racism was directly tied to broader issues which caught up all of the underclasses together. Forming a united front of the downtrodden was a key part in the emancipation of the people. Towards this end, he built a strong multiracial alliance in Chicago. This included the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil rights group.
Interestingly, it also included the Young Patriots, a coalition of Confederate flag-toting “hillbillies” from the poorest quarter of Chicago. The Young Patriots were formed in response to the disdain which the new immigrants from the South and the Great Plains faced at the hands of the city, as well as their extreme poverty. The Patriots fully endorsed the Panther program, and Hampton was working on creating a united front with them and various radical labour and community groups when he was assassinated.
He was drugged by a police informant. His home was then raided and he was shot at point-blank range, still sleeping. His murder was avenged by the mostly-white Weathermen anti-war group with a series of raids against Chicago police. Later released documents obtained in court by the Black Panthers and the Socialist Workers Party revealed, among other things, that the FBI specifically undertook illegal covert operations to undermine Hampton’s efforts.
This ties into the Panther Party’s reputation as violent. It is true, after all, that the Black Panthers always went armed. Carrying weapons was a key part of their ideology, but in terms of self-defence. If one can’t trust the police, then one must defend oneself with other means. Many contrast this militant stance with the Civil Rights movement’s pacifism and accuse the Panthers of terrorism, but that’s not a good read on the Civil Rights movement. Robert Williams, a key organizer, wrote extensively on the role armed self-defense played in keeping the movement from being destroyed by force. Even the Freedom Riders were often supported by armed groups exercising their constitutional rights.
Furthermore, Martin Luther King’s personal pacifism was somewhat discredited by his assassination at the hands of a violent white extremist. In the aftermath, there was a natural swing towards self-defence. The Panthers had a constitutional right to carry guns as a well-regulated militia for citizen self-defence.
California specifically tightened its gun laws in the 1980s with the backing of the virulently pro-gun National Rifle Association as a means of damaging the Panthers.
Most disturbingly, the FBI ran the illegal COINTELPRO program with the aim of fomenting factional disputes and violence. As mentioned before, Fred Hampton was drugged by a police informant. The FBI also created false accusations, published damaging fake profiles and doctored photographs in the media, running major psychological warfare against the members of the group. Self-defence is a constitutionally protected right in America, and the FBI proved why.
The Black Panther Party was a unique organization. Despite standing first and foremost for the oppressed African-American population, it also stood as a serious champion of inter-racial solidarity against oppression and injustice. It lasted ten years at most and struggled against immense persecution. By the end, its leaders were dead, marginalized or exiled. Its cultural and political influence remains though, and it paved the road for modern social organization. Even though the Panthers were a short-lived movement, they still stand as a first-rate reminder of the potential which exists for change. So when you go out and see Black Panther, remember its roots.