By Maura Mulholland
The 1960s were a time of upheaval in U.S. history. The decade seared the idea of freedom into the American psyche, with the hippies, feminist movement, and civil rights campaigns enjoying immense public attention. But many of these attempts to rectify the wrongs of the American condition failed to achieve their loftiest goals, and more extreme groups rose to spread their own truths and directly address the problems they saw in the world.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) emerged in 1966 in Oakland, California. It was the brain-child of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, two students at Merritt College. The organization formed around the ideas of socialism and Black nationalism, particularly opposed to the scourge of police brutality on the Black community. The BPP had many enemies during this era, largely because of their focus on armed self-defense against oppressive figures. Many felt this outlook was extreme, but the BPP saw it as the only way to establish Black communities as an independent force, and to reverse the sidelining of Black opinions and narratives in the media and government.
While the Black Panthers were admirable in their concern and advocacy for the Black community, there was and is a great deal of controversy surrounding the philosophies and actions of the group. One frequent accusation is that the Panthers were unfair and sexist toward the Black women in their midst, perpetuating misogynoir. While early publications of the BPP were centered on the Black male experience, by 1968 two-thirds of the Party was made up of women, and their leadership pushed a more egalitarian “womanist” narrative. Throughout the 1970s, the Panthers worked to promote women to leadership roles within the organization.
The ideas that the Black Panthers pushed brought into the mainstream continue to power progressive activism today. Their unflinching focus on racism and police brutality in the North, which was largely ignored by traditional Civil Rights groups, inspired the formation of modern groups like Black Lives Matter. In addition, the Panthers dedication to mutual aid as the foundation of both community and organization has been copied by a wide array of modern activists. The Black Panthers’ community work has been replicated nationwide, with the installation of community fridges, mutual aid funds, and survival networks in cities all over the country. While the Black Panthers were often portrayed as violent radicals, their contributions to modern activism and neighborhood charity provide a more balanced perspective on their racial platform.