The Black Panther Party (BPP) is a group that most people today would recognize, with their characteristic black berets and leather jackets, along with their imposing logo of a fearsome panther ready to strike. The BPP took Civil Rights to another level based on a grassroots uprising of mixed ideologies. Communism, anarchy, Black power, and frustration led to the party’s formation in 1966. But who were the Black Panthers? This article will take a brief look at prominent members of the party and what their roles were.
What Was the Black Panther Party?
In 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. The two were already political activists but were frustrated with what they perceived to be an inability of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement to support Black people outside of the American South.
Newton and Seale also saw the brutality of the police against Civil Rights activists as a long-standing tradition in America, and in defense of these activists, the pair gathered together poor, disenfranchised African Americans and formed the BPP.
The group was influenced largely by Malcolm X and some teachings of the Nation of Islam. As the BPP saw it, nonviolent protest would not truly liberate African Americans. In addition to Malcolm X, the group took inspiration from the Communist Revolution of China and the teachings of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. They also incorporated an anti-colonialist ideology into the organization based on Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox
Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The Black Panther Party canvassed their neighborhoods and developed a Ten Point Platform as the basis for their organization:
We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
We want full employment for our people.
We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.
We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We want 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.
We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.
The BPP went about fulfilling these points in a variety of ways—namely, armed self-defense against the police and programs that sought to enact change in their communities. Despite being a paramilitary organization, the BPP provided programs called “Survival Programs,” which gave Black communities free food, adult education, sickle cell anemia screening, legal aid, and transportation services.
Despite their advocating for social reform and their community work, the BPP’s Communist and militaristic ideology led them to be investigated by the FBI and countless other law enforcement agencies for several years.
1. Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown was born in North Philadelphia to a single mother. Brown and her mother experienced significant economic hardship, but Brown was involved with classical piano and ballet in high school. Brown went on to attend Temple University, but left soon after, moving to Los Angeles to pursue a music career.
It was in Los Angeles that Brown was introduced to the Black Liberation Movement and quickly became involved in it. She was active in the movement and worked for a Black newspaper called Harambee. While she was involved with Black Liberation, Brown did not attend a Black Panther meeting until after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Brown’s activism as a member of the Black Panthers took off quickly, as she helped set up several new community programs, the first of their kind in Los Angeles. Brown was integral in establishing the Free Legal Aid Program, the Busing to Prisons Program, and the Free Breakfast for Children Program. She also began rising in the ranks of the party.
Soon after joining, Brown was made editor of The Black Panther, the party’s publication, in Southern California, and then moved on to the Central Committee within three years of joining. Brown joined the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party as the Minister of Information in 1971 and, in 1974, was tapped to succeed Huey Newton as leader of the entire party.
Brown served as Party leader from 1974 to 1977, overseeing the campaign for the successful election of Oakland’s first Black mayor and starting the Panther Liberation School. However, she left the role and the party in 1978, citing poor treatment of women in the organization, and moved back to Los Angeles.
Elaine Brown continued to advocate for prison reform and resources for impoverished Black children, even running as the Green Party candidate based on some of these issues in 2008. Though she dropped out of the Presidential election, Brown still lectures on prison reform nationwide.
2. Fred Hampton
Fred Hampton was born in 1948 near Chicago, Illinois. He was a gifted academic and athlete but ultimately discovered his passion for activism while studying law at Triton Junior College.
Before joining the Black Panthers, Hampton was a leader in the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for their Youth Council in the suburbs of Chicago. However, seeing the brutality of the police and the national rise of the BPP, Hampton joined the Party and quickly rose through the ranks to become the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of Black Panthers.
While in leadership, Hampton helped establish several programs, including a Free Breakfast campaign, while also organizing rallies. One of his most notable accomplishments in the party was his ability to negotiate a peace pact between two rival gangs in the city. However, as he climbed in the ranks of the organization, he increasingly became a target for FBI investigation.
On December 3, 1969, an undercover FBI agent within the BPP’s ranks slipped a sleeping pill into Hampton’s drink. Later that night, the FBI raided Hampton’s home and opened fire, immediately killing his security guard. The shooting continued as the officers raided Hampton’s bedroom where he lay, unconscious, in bed next to his nearly nine-month pregnant fiancée.
After most of the gunfire had ceased, agents found Hampton to be wounded, not dead, and proceeded to murder him with two shots to the head. The rest of the seven Black Panther members found in the apartment were arrested on charges of attempted murder, armed violence, and a plethora of weapons charges.
However, the case was dropped when it was discovered that the Chicago Police, upon entering the home, fired 99 shots, while the Black Panther members had fired only one shot in return. Less than a month later, Fred Hampton Jr. was born to Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri).
3. Eldridge Cleaver
Eldridge Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas in 1935 but grew up in Los Angeles, where he was in and out of jail for several petty crimes throughout his adolescence. His conduct continued and eventually saw him convicted of assault to murder in 1957 when he was 22 years old.
While serving his sentence, Cleaver began reading the works of several scholars, including Karl Marx, Malcolm X, Thomas Paine, and Voltaire, among others. This inspired Cleaver to write a memoir, Soul on Ice, which would be published two years after his release from Folsom Prison in 1966.
Soon after his release, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. He became the organization’s first Minister of Information and also married a fellow member, Kathleen Neal, a year after joining. Cleaver became a prominent party member and ran for President as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate in 1968.
That same year, Cleaver was also involved in a shootout between police and BPP members. He was wounded and charged with attempted murder and fled the country to evade the charges. Cleaver lived in exile in several countries–Mexico, Algeria, Cuba, and France–and meanwhile, a rift was created between Cleaver and Newton, the BPP’s founder, over the goal of the organization.
Cleaver saw the BPP as an international revolutionary organization, while Newton thought the group should be aimed more toward community programs. This led to Cleaver’s expulsion from the party, along with his denunciation of it upon arriving back in the US in 1975. With this rebuke, the attempted murder charges of 1968 were also dropped.
In 1986, Cleaver attempted to run for the Senate in California on the Republican ticket. He lost, and this would be his last foray into public life, as he died at the age of 62 in Los Angeles in 1998.
4. Ericka Huggins
Ericka Jenkins was born in 1948 in Washington DC. While attending Lincoln University, she met her husband, the Vietnam veteran John Huggins. In 1963, Huggins attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and, inspired by the march, began her lifelong activism.
Huggins joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 in Los Angeles and quickly became a leader of the chapter alongside her husband. However, three weeks after the couple’s daughter was born in January 1969, John Huggins was murdered. Ericka Huggins moved back to Connecticut to be with her late husband’s family and assumed a leadership position in the New Haven chapter of the BPP.
During the same year that her husband was killed, Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale were arrested and tried for the kidnapping, torture, and killing of party member Alex Rackley on the suspicion that Rackley was an FBI informant. Huggins was imprisoned for two years while awaiting trial, but the charges were ultimately dismissed after a jury deadlock in 1971.
After her release from prison, Huggins became the director of the Oakland Community School, which served as a model for the later charter school movement in the United States. She also joined the Alameda County School Board and continued her activism for prison reform and LGBTQ+ issues to this day.
5. Kathleen Cleaver
Kathleen Neal Cleaver was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1945. She was raised in various international locations due to her father’s position in the Foreign Service. Upon returning to the United States, Cleaver attended Oberlin and Barnard College. Her first job upon graduation was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in New York City, where she met her future husband, Eldridge Cleaver.
The couple moved to San Francisco and married in 1967. There, Cleaver became the first woman in the Black Panther Party’s leadership as the Communications Secretary. When her husband fled the country to avoid criminal charges, Cleaver joined him and lived in Cuba, Algeria, France, and North Korea.
When the Cleavers arrived back in the United States, Kathleen Cleaver earned a scholarship to Yale University, where she obtained a degree in history in 1984. She and Eldridge Cleaver divorced in 1987, and Cleaver went on to receive a law degree from Yale Law.
Since earning her J.D., Cleaver has held professorships and served as a law clerk for the US Court of Appeals. She is now a senior lecturer at Emory University Law School.
6. Huey P. Newton
Huey Percy Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1947 but was raised in Oakland, California. Newton graduated high school without becoming literate but taught himself to read and soon earned a Bachelor’s degree and a PhD from the University of California Santa Cruz.
Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, with Newton serving as the Minister of Defense. Under his leadership, the Party gained international notoriety, which was most characterized by Newton’s invitation to and warm reception in China in 1970. The Party based its philosophy on many teachings, but chiefly among them were the practices of communism and necessary violence.
Soon after his return to the United States, Newton was forced to flee to Havana, Cuba, to avoid several charges, including assault and murder. However, after three years of self-exile, Newton returned to the United States and stood trial for one assault and one murder but was acquitted on both charges.
Newton’s 1971 split in ideology with Eldridge Cleaver created a rift within the Party that led to many years of violence and the development of different factions. While infighting was an issue, outside violence had been escalating for nearly 20 years with the Black Guerilla Family, a Black Power prison and street gang.
In 1989, Newton was shot and killed by Black Guerilla Family member and drug dealer Tyrone Robinson while Newton was exiting a drug den located in a neighborhood he had once frequently organized Community Programs.
Newton’s last words were, “You can kill my body, and you can take my life but you can never kill my soul. My soul will live forever!”
7. Bobby Seale
Robert George Seale was born in Liberty, Texas in 1936. His family moved around Texas several times until they finally settled further away in Oakland, California after World War II. Seale first joined the Air Force but then attended Merritt College, where he joined the Afro-American Association and met Huey P. Newton.
In 1966, Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party with Newton and became the Party’s first Chairman. Seale was repeatedly charged with murders and assaults in several cities, including Chicago and New Haven, Connecticut, alongside Ericka Huggins.
In the early 1970s, Seale was released from prison for the final time and helped to expand the reach of the Black Panther Party. He played an integral role in establishing the free breakfast program provided by the party in several cities. He also ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973. Though he lost, Seale was the runner-up out of nine other candidates.
Following the devolution of the Black Panther Party, Seale began working with the Afro-American Studies Department at Temple University in Philadelphia. He moved back to Oakland in 2002 to support young activist activity and still gives lectures internationally on his time in the BPP, as well as community organizing and racial justice.