February was an interesting month for the Black Panther Party. With Beyonce’s controversial performance at the Super Bowl and the digital and physical release of Stanley Nelson’s somewhat controversial documentary “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” the day before the birthday of co-founder Huey P. Newton, attention is once again focused on what was once the greatest threat to the U.S. ruling class.
Unfortunately the debate has focused on negative, and often times false or misleading, aspects of the BPP. Neither of these attempts give full context to the historic contributions of the BPP nor correctly examine the driving ideology of the party.
One important step in this direction would be properly shedding light on the co-founder and chief theoretician of the BPP, Dr. Huey P. Newton.
Huey Percy Newton was born February 17 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana. It was in college that he founded the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in October of 1966. Inspired by the previous anti-racial violence groups like Robert F. Williams’ NAACP chapter in Monroe, NC, and the Deacons for Defense, ideologically Newton explains that the Party wouldn’t even exist without Malcolm X:
“We continue to believe that the Black Panther Party exists in the spirit of Malcolm . . . words on this page cannot convey the effect that Malcolm has had on the Black Panther Party, although, as far as I’m concerned, the Party is a living testament to his life work . . . Malcolm’s spirit is in us.” (Newton, Revolutionary Suicide , 2009 Penguin Deluxe Edition p. 118).
Originally an organization based on providing protection to the Black community from the racist police in Oakland, the first program of the BPP was based on a bare necessity of politics. As Newton stated, “politics is merely the desire of individuals and groups to satisfy their basic needs first: food, shelter, clothing, and security for themselves and their loved ones” (“In Defense of Self Defense II,” Huey P. Newton Reader )
None of these things were being provided for Black people in late 1960s Oakland, or much anywhere else in the U.S. at the time. The program called for freedom, employment, and end to robbery by outside communities, housing, education, exemption from the draft, an end to police brutality, freedom of Black people from all incarceration and a retrial by their peers, and ultimately a UN plebiscite to determine the national destiny of colonized Black people democratically.
Newton ended up in prison after an altercation with a police officer which ended up with one dead. During this time, the Party developed a “revolutionary nationalist” position, adopting socialism and being influenced heavily by Fanon, Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Kim Il Sung. The ever famous Free Breakfast program is but one of the many Service to the People programs of the Party. These programs, which ranged from the breakfast program to free busing to prisons for visitation to a free health clinic, were for “survival pending revolution.”
Newton saw that revolution was a process not an event, and that the Service to the People programs were for addressing immediate needs of the masses and to build their consciousness, as he saw it an actual execution of Mao’s “mass line” in the U.S.
The Party developed strong ties with white radicals, student movements and liberation movements of other oppressed nationalities. Among the groups the BPP formed ties with were the Peace & Freedom Party, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, I Wor Kuen, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. The BPP even influenced a group of young white radicals to form a White Panther Party; Newton stated once in an interview that whites couldn’t join the BPP but if they wanted to help they could form a White Panther Party.
As Newton languished in prison, the FBI ran the legendary program of repression against the BPP known as COINTELPRO. Amazing leaders, like the charismatic Chicago deputy chairman Fred Hampton, were gunned down and whole chapters of the Party ended up falling apart.
Newton was released in 1970, and he had to deal with serious issues in the development of the Party, primarily between Newton and Black Panther newspaper editor Eldridge Cleaver. COINTELPRO exploited the differences between Cleaver and Newton in the background with a phony letter campaign that led to Newton having to expel Cleaver after he made interparty proclamations on a TV show without consulting with the rest of the BPP Central Committee. It was at this time Newton introduced his idea of “Revolutionary Intercommunalism.”
According to Newton, nations no longer exist, as the U.S., the giant multinational imperialist state was really a far reaching empire that really dictates what the world does. Nations now are but communities. Under this theory, the world existing under the hegemony of U.S. empire, exists under reactionary intercommunalism. Newton said that to strive for a socialistic, rather than reactionary, interplay of these communities is Revolutionary Intercommunalism.
With that, the BPP, committed to Revolutionary Intercommunalism, had to emulate those “communities” that have begun to build socialism and “seize power from the ruling circle and expropriate the expropriators, pull them down from their pinnacle and make them equals, and distribute the fruits of our labour that have been denied us in some equitable way” (Quoted from Erikson and Newton In Search of Common Ground in Newton, War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America ).
Along with Intercommunalism, it was also during this time in 1971 that Newton gave his historic address on the emerging LGBTQ and women’s liberation movements.
Addressing the blatant sexism and homophobia that existed in the BPP, even his own, Newton articulated the need to be inclusive in the revolutionary struggle against imperialism:
“Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite.” Understanding the level of oppression that women and homosexuals go through, and understanding that oppressed heterosexual men’s hang ups are based on a conditioning by the ruling elite, Newton said it was necessary to struggle against this and be secure with ourselves as revolutionaries in order to not give into bourgeois insecurities. He even showed an understanding of the transgender struggle by saying (of gays in general) that “ we must understand it in its purest form: that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.”
Though following all of this amazing ideological and philosophical development the BPP began to stagnate and Newton fell into drug use and problematic behavior, which indeed should be examined, we should not forget his genius and contributions to the Black liberation movement and revolutionary socialism as a whole. To ignore such contributions gives rise to such assumptions that the BPP was “reverse racist” or that they can be used merely as a militant motif to promote Black Capitalism. The BPP is neither of these, and the genius of Huey P. Newton should never be ignored.