Black Panther convention, Lincoln Memorial, June 19, 1970.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The significant racial challenges in our own time, including the continued killing of unarmed people of color by police, makes the Panthers’ complicated history particularly significant. A little-known lie helped fix the party’s image in the public imagination as a violent, anti-white hate group.
We may be in danger of replicating the same error with regards to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense sought to address the police violence and nagging inequalities that punctuated African Americans’ everyday lives. To accomplish their goal, the founders drafted a ten-point program that laid out the Panthers’ blueprint for change.
Far from being anti-white, the party addressed issues of poverty and inequality that most acutely but not exclusively affected communities of color. Newton and Seale were particularly concerned about police brutality, a major problem not only in Oakland but throughout the entire nation. Citing the Second Amendment, point seven of the Panthers’ program directed black people to “arm themselves for self- defense.”
In order to model the type of defensive posture they envisioned, the party, taking advantage of California’s open-carry law, which at the time permitted the public display of weapons, initiated armed patrols to keep watch over the police. In addition to guns, the Panthers carried law books for the dual purpose of shining a spotlight on police misconduct and informing those being stopped or arrested of their Constitutional rights. All of this this took place less than four months after the United States handed down its decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona mandating that police advise suspects of their Constitutional rights. At the time of the Party’s founding, however, this still was not common police practice.
The Panther patrols proved an irritant to local law enforcement. Amidst significant outcry, chiefly by police, Piedmont Republican State Representative Don Mulford proposed a bill to abolish California’s open-carry law. While Mulford argued that the change was necessary as a matter of public safety, the Panthers contended that the bill was designed specifically to deny people of color the right of self-defense. As the bill made its way through committee, incidents of police brutality continued including the killing of a twenty-two-year-old unarmed robbery suspect named Denzel Dowell in April of 1967.
In a bold move designed to highlight their opposition to the Mulford bill and protest the Dowell killing, the Panthers staged a demonstration at the state capitol in Sacramento on May 2, 1967.
The Panthers planned on a peaceful protest, but the demonstration did not go as planned. Once inside the capitol building, the Panthers claimed, they were misdirected onto the floor of the house chambers by members of the press. They inadvertently disrupted a session of the legislature—a felony offense under California law. Unaware of this violation, Bobby Seale read a statement that questioned the legislature’s motives in disarming blacks at “at the very time that racist police agencies throughout the country intensify the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people.”
After Seale read his statement, the Panthers were temporarily disarmed by capitol police and then allowed to leave. Television cameras were on hand at a local gas station a few blocks away when police caught up to the armed caravan of twenty-four men and six women to arrest them.
The incident made national news. Reporters depicted the Panthers as a violent anti-white hate group, inviting further scrutiny of state, federal, and local law enforcement. Denied a fair hearing in the mainstream media, George Dowell, who had accompanied the Panther protest, laid out the basis for the Panthers’ actions in the pages of the Black Panther newspaper.
“We are tired of police brutality,” he wrote. “We want something done about it. If they won’t do something, we will.”
This is where the traditional story ends. However, what took place after the confrontation is indicative of the larger problems the Panthers faced and how they parallel the situation black people face today.
With the Panthers already facing felony charges, the rules committee of the legislature held hearings to determine what if any additional charges might be added. They were guided by reports that the Panthers had threatened violence. Their chief accuser, twenty-two-year old capitol security officer Thomas McKay, initially told investigators that before disrupting the legislature the Panthers accosted him at a local service station, threatening the life of an unnamed legislator.
“This big fellow,” McKay claimed, “grabbed hold of my coat and says, ‘We’re going to get you white boy’ . . . . “I said to him, ‘I’m just a flunky I just work here,’ ” McKay continued. Although none of the Panthers actions supported McKay’s account, officials pursued this angle.
When authorities probed further, however, they determined that the tale shared by McKay was false and he was also arrested. But the disparity in the treatment and punishments meted out to the Panthers as opposed to McKay dramatically illustrates the very legal injustice that motivated the formation of the party in the first place.
On the same day the Panthers were scheduled to appear in court on the felony charge of conspiring to disrupt a legislative session, for instance, McKay faced the misdemeanor charge of making a false report to police. After his arrest, McKay was released on $276 bail. Bail for the Panthers was set at $2,200—virtually guaranteeing their imprisonment as they awaited trial. Most importantly, while the charges against McKay bolstered the Panthers claims that they had come simply with the intention of reading their protest and had been misdirected by the press to the house chambers, neither the rules committee nor the police sought to revisit the case against them.
The jailing nearly crippled the party, but more importantly set off a series of events that eventually lead to bloodshed. Local police compiled lists of known Panther vehicles and commenced a campaign of harassment that culminated in the wounding of Panther co-founder Huey Newton and police officer Herbert Heanes and the killing of Oakland police officer John Frey in a shootout the following October. Initially charged with murder in the case, Newton was later freed on appeal, too late to stop the war of attrition between the Panthers and law enforcement.
If legislators, not just in California but nationally, had not been tone deaf to the demands of the Panthers and others, it is possible that history may have unfolded differently. Significantly, one of the other bills to be considered on the same day as the Mulford bill was house bill AB1615. Proposed by Democrat Alan Sieroty of Beverly Hills, it was also inspired by the Panthers and the Miranda decision. If passed, it would have required police to hand those being arrested a simple statement, both in English and Spanish, of their legal rights. The bill received a favorable report in committee in June 1967 and was eventually sent on to the governor for approval a month before the shootout that resulted in Officer Frey’s death. Governor Ronald Reagan vetoed that bill in September 1967.
This history offers an intriguing parallel to our current moment. The activism of Black Lives Matter proponents today, including the expansive use of social media, is designed to focus the public’s attention on the continued unequal treatment of people color and especially the wave of police violence against them.
As in 1967, some politicians and police today have largely chosen to ignore the chorus of protesters asking for even the most basic reforms, in favor of more stringent forms of law enforcement, such as the discredited and abusive practice of “stop and frisk.” These measures have only exacerbated the problem. “Repression,” party members were fond of saying, “breeds resistance.”
One of the lessons to take away from the formation of the Black Panther Party is the need to acknowledge—and also act on—the concerns of citizens brutalized by those sworn to serve and protect, and dehumanized by a criminal justice system which functions today much in the same way it did fifty years ago.
Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University and former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. He is the co-editor of a new book, The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution (Nation, 2016). A public school activist, he is a contributing writer to The Progressive.