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Black Panthers: A legacy of militancy

In October 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. Forty years later, the flame of freedom and liberation continues to burn bright.
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During the 1960s, young people on the East Coast and in the South, hoping to gain basic civil rights and access to public accommodations, marched, demonstrated and sat in.

But on the West Coast, a new, more militant, brand of protest erupted. There, young people, sick of poverty, police brutality and overall inequality, picked up guns and demanded to be heard. They called themselves the "Black Panthers."

In October 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. They were founded upon the principles of a 10-Point Platform and Program, whose demands for “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace” remain as salient and urgent for African Americans today as they were 40 years ago.

With a policy of militant self-defense for poor and minority communities against the U.S. government and a plan to reshape the democracy into an experiment in socialism, the group elevated mass organizing and community-based programs to a new level.

They sold the Chinese Communist Party Leader Mao tse-Tung's Red Book to buy shotguns. They organized sickle-cell anemia testing and voter registration drives, and established a free breakfast programs that once fed 10,000 children a year.

During their glory, the gun-toting, beret-and-leather-wearing Black Panthers made an indelible mark with their clinched fists thrust skyward as they shouted "Black Power." Some of the institutions they challenged buckled under the sheer force of their political demands as they defended their right to bear arms to protect Black communities.

Their trademark and stylish leather coats, Wayfarers shades and berets were mimicked throughout the halls of education institutions nationwide as young college students rose up to protest unfair treatment and demand rights.

Along the way, the Black Panthers, which in 1968 grew from a small ban of 400 to a national force of 5,000, caught the attention of the FBI, which spied, infiltrated, sabotaged and eventually toppled the group from within with its counterintelligence techniques, know as COINTELPRO.

Back then, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover publicly called the Panthers the "greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

The defense of their position proved a deadly proposition against a constant barrage of police raids, alleged assassinations and sabotage that would be documented in papers obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

In December 1969, Chicago Police shot to death local Panther leader Fred Hampton, 21, who headed five breakfast programs on the city's Westside, helped create a free medical center, and worked to support blood drives and eradicate gang problems. Open gunfights between the Panthers, the police and rival groups erupted in the streets.

Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but the case was later overturned.  Seale and other party members were indicted in Chicago for protesting during the Democratic national convention. They were bound and gagged during trial. Various other members, including the Black Panther's first female chairman, Ericka Huggins, were arrested on a variety of conspiracy and murder charges. Some fled abroad.

By the early 1980s, the Panther's had disintegrated. As Eldridge Cleaver, a former panther and author of "Soul on Ice," explained in an interview a year before his death: "As it was, [the U.S. government] chopped off the head [of the Black liberation movement] and left the body there armed. That's why all these young bloods are out there now; they've got the rhetoric but are without the political direction... and they've got the guns."

Newton, according to fellow panther David Hilliard, became despondent and succumbed to cocaine and heroin addiction. He was shot dead on the streets of Oakland in a drug dispute in 1989.

Seale long ago quit the party. But he says now, in radio interviews marking the Panther Party's 40th Anniversary, that  Panther Party members "had a right to bear arms to protect ourselves" and won 95 percent of the criminal cases against them.

But even now, there are original Black Panther members, such as Newton's widow, Fredrika Newton, and Hilliard, director of the Huey Newton Foundation, for whom the flame of freedom and liberation continues to burn bright.