Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers


Power to the People

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale

The following is an extract from Power to the People by Stephen Shames and Bobby SealePower to the People contents page

What Was the Black Panther Party?

The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary political organisation. Although its members were leaders of the Black Power movement, they were not black nationalists. Their “black pride” was not based on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community how to take control of its own destiny. The Black Panther Party worked for economic justice and power for all people.

Bobby Seale explains, “The Black Panther Party was an ‘All Power to All the People!’ organisation. It was a powerful grassroots activist organisation that formed coalitions seeking to further our civil human rights and achieve real freedom and justice for all the people. These were the political revolutionary objectives of my Black Panther Party.”

In their landmark book, Black against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. wrote:
What is unique and historically important about the Black Panther Party is specifically its politics. . . . They created a movement with the power to challenge established social relations. . . . From 1968 through 1970, the Black Panther Party made it impossible for the U.S. government to maintain business as usual, and it helped create a far-reaching crisis for U.S. society. . . . At the center of their politics was the practice of armed self-defense against the police. . . . The Panthers’ politics of armed self-defense gave them political leverage, forcibly contesting the legitimacy of the American political regime.{2}

Many scholars have characterised the Black Panther Party as the most influential black movement organisation of the late 1960s. Professor Judson L. Jeffries has called the Panthers “the most effective black revolutionary organisation in the 20th century.”{3} Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Héctor Tobar called the organisation a “serious political and cultural force” and “a movement of intelligent, explosive dreamers.”{4}

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The Legacy of the Panthers

The Panthers remain cult heroes today, a half century after their founding. They left a legacy of hope to black people in America—both youth and adults. Their courage, discipline, and dedication to serving the community continue to inspire.

Their survival programs provided a model for political action. We can thank the Panthers for shaming the federal government into action by feeding tens of thousands of children while the richest nation in the history of the world let them go hungry. The Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program preceded the government’s school breakfast and lunch programs.

Many of the free medical clinics they started are still operating today. The Panthers were among the first to bring national attention to sickle-cell anemia, a disease that primarily affects black people.

The Panthers founded their own school to educate children of Panthers. Their charter school was cited as excellent by the California State Legislature and became a model in poor communities.

The Panthers’ efforts for community control of the police, including their failed referendum to establish such control in Berkeley, paved the way for community policing.

The Panthers electrified a generation of black youth. The Black Panther Party gave purpose to aimless, angry young people who loitered on street corners. The Panthers molded them into disciplined, hard workers who served their community and showed respect for their mothers, fathers, and elders in general. The Panthers provided a model for how to reach these disaffected kids. By comparison, our underfunded, piecemeal efforts to reach youth today often end in failure.

The Panthers were ahead of most of their contemporaries in regards to equality for women and gay rights. As Ericka Huggins observes:
Another thing that is part of the legacy of the Black Panther Party is that we were not afraid to look at race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. All of it. Huey wrote in support of the woman’s movement and the gay liberation movement. Who the heck—what black man, what white man, what any man was talking like that in 1970? Huey talked about it in terms that anybody could understand. We had our own gender issues, not so much sexual, but gender issues within the Black Panther Party. But, we worked that too. We really were ahead in terms of thinking and acting. {10}

The Panthers’ voter registration drives and Bobby Seale’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1973 led to the election of Oakland’s first black mayor four years later. Even before that, Huey Newton’s 1968 Peace and Freedom Party campaign led to Ron Dellums’s election to Congress in 1970. Dellums finished his illustrious career in the House of Representatives as chairman, and then-ranking member (senior Democrat), on the Armed Services Committee. The number of elected African American officials at all levels nationwide in 1968 numbered in the hundreds. Today, tens of thousands of black elected and appointed officials serve our nation, including the president of the United States, the attorney general, and sheriffs in Mississippi and Alabama. Numerous former Panthers have held elected office in the United States, including Charles Barron (New York City Council, then New York State Assembly), Nelson Malloy (Winston-Salem City Council), and Bobby Rush (House of Representatives, from Illinois).

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This Book

Bobby and I created this book with the future in mind. We believe that a look back at the role of the Black Panther Party during the turbulent 1960s will help us better understand the present, and perhaps facilitate a brighter future. This book tells the story, in pictures and words, of the heroic men and women of the Black Panther Party who tried to bring a dream of freedom and justice, both political and economic justice, not only to African Americans, but to all Americans—in fact, to all the poor and oppressed people of the world.

Power to the People is a photography book coupled with a bit of oral history from people who were there. It deals with the vision and legacy of the Black Panther Party. This book is not meant to be a comprehensive or scholarly history. Charles E. Jones, in his book The Black Panther Party Reconsidered and his essay in my first book on the party, The Black Panthers; Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin Jr., in Black against Empire; and others have done an excellent job putting the Panthers into context.

My photographs deal with aspirations and vision. While I am not ignoring some of the negative aspects of the Black Panthers, that is not what is most important about them. To err is human, and the errors of the Panthers pale in comparison to those of the United States government at home and abroad during this period. They also are minuscule in comparison to the virulent racism and violence born out of the enslavement of millions of Africans. This racist strain continues to haunt us as we struggle toward our multiracial future. Building a wall will not keep the badness out. The bad is already here and has been since the beginning—as is all that is good about our country. We must continue to dream and organise, as the Panthers did, to ensure that the good triumphs, so we and our children enjoy a better future.

Bobby and I hope this book will be a tool to help you learn things you did not know about the Black Panther Party. The Panthers have a great deal to teach us: about their vision of community, about service, about ethnic pride and love, about coalition politics, about freedom and justice, about their Ten Point Program. We hope what you discover in this book motivates you to act.

I will leave the last word to Bobby, because he always says it best:
At this time more than ever we need activists who are motivated and dedicated to organising people, raising consciousness and instilling self-respect. . . . We especially need creative Black youth who know our history and who understand that Black Unity is the catalyst to help humanise this racist world. We need socially conscious activists who will work toward the . . . economic empowerment of our people. We need activists who cross all ethnic and religious backgrounds and colour lines who will establish civil and human rights for all. . . . We must create a world of decent human relationships where revolutionary humanism is grounded in democratic human rights for every person on earth. {13}

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Text copyright © 2016 Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale

NOTES

{2} Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: Universityof California Press, 2013), 9, 14, 13.

{3} Quoted in Jordan Green, “The Strange History of the Black Panthers in the Triad,” Yes! Weekly, April 11, 2006.

{4} Héctor Tobar, “‘Black Against Empire’ Tells the History of Black Panthers,” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2013.

{10} Also see The Black Panthers, photographs by Stephen Shames, essay by Charles E. Jones (New York: Aperture, 2006), 144–45.

{13} Bobby Seale, introduction to Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton
(Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991).