The importance of the Black Panther Party for the emancipation of Afro-Americans in the 1960/70ies

Term Paper 2007 24 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. The situation of Afro-Americans in America in the 60/70ies
2.1 Social structure and Racism
2.2 The Civil Rights Movement
2.3 Black Power

3. The Black Panther Party
3.1 The founders
3.2 The beginnings
3.3 Theory
3.3.1 The theory of violence by Frantz Fanon
3.3.2 The theory of violence by Mao Tse-tung
3.3.3 The concept of self-defense
3.3.4 The Black Panther Party and Marxism – Leninism

4. The importance of the Black Panthers in the fight against racism
4.1 Ten-point –programme
4.2 Activities
4.3 Political support
4.4 The decay and downfall of the Black Panthers

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

America in the sixties was above all a time of protest in which the minorities including Afro- Americans as well as women began to plead for equal rights. Many organizations were founded during this time and every movement applied its own methods in order to achieve its goal. The Black Panther Party was one of these organizations which developed out of the Black Power Movement, a radicalised development in the Civil Right Movement, which was until then famous to use non-violent methods of resistance in order to achieve their aims. This essay will deal with the importance of the Black Panther Party for the emancipation of Afro-Americans during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, which success the Party could achieve to end the discrimination of blacks and which impact the party or their leaders still might have today. In the first part the social situation of Afro-Americans in the sixties will be described in detail and in which areas racism became obvious. Next there will be a historical overview of main events during the Civil Right Movement and especially of the different positions that began to develop within the movement. In particular, the importance of Malcolm X for the Black Power will be mentioned. Black Power is famous as a slogan and an idea but also resulted in a movement. The second part of this essay will deal with the development of the Black Panther Party. Here it is important to know from which social background the founders came from and which kind of people they wanted to address with their ideology. Furthermore, I will focus on the theories on which the ideologies and strategies of the Black Panther Party are based on. While the second part concentrates mainly on the theory behind the party’s activities the third part gives an idea of their actions and campaigns and as well as of important events that marked the history of the Party and demonstrated the great impact of the Black Panther Party on Afro-Americans. The last chapter describes the loss of the party’s influence, their division and the dissolution of the party in the beginning of the 1980ies. Finally, I will give a comment on the importance and lasting impact of the Black Panther Party for the present situation of Afro-Americans.

2. The situation of Afro-Americans in America in the 60/70ies

2.1 Social structure and Racism

During the sixties the situation for Afro-Americans in America was determined by bad living-conditions and discrimination. After the Great Migration that covers the time from 1915 til 1950 Afro-Americans mainly moved to the large cities in which they inhabited the city centre, known as ghettos, whereas the white population inhabited the outskirts. The situation in the ghettos was disastrous since there was a high rate of unemployment and underemployment especially for juveniles. In addition, Afro-Americans found an above-average representation in low-paid jobs. In general, 32% of the population living in ghettos was un- or underemployed and 40, 6% of the non-white population lived below the official poverty line in 1960.[1] As a result, there was a high crime rate next to the bad quality of housing, defective health care and a low life expectancy. Even if Afro-Americans were employed their working conditions were worse than those of white Americans who in general suffered less from unemployment and poverty. In 1966 the average income of a non-white family amounts to 58% of a white family’s income.[2] Another example of the unequal treatment of Blacks was their position in the army during the Vietnam War. Many Afro-Americans saw an opportunity to receive a regular income by taking part in the military. However, they hold a lower rank in the military and were therefore involved in direct military action. Consequently, Afro-Americans represent 22% of the killed US-soldiers although they embody 11, 5 % of the whole personnel.

The bad social conditions, repression and racism which were especially expressed in the cruel behaviour of policemen towards Afro-Americans lead to rebellion and riots since 1964. The worst riots took place in Newark and Detroit, the second also known as “12th Street riot” and each lead to further riots in the neighbouring community. Thus Lyndon N. Johnson formed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 in order to explain the mutiny and to provide recommendations for the future. The commissions report also known as Kerner-report described the predominant situation in America as “moving towards two societies, one black, one white –separate and unequal.”[3]

The idea of racism is based on the belief of the white supremacy and the social subsidiarity of the black population. In general, white supremacy is defined as the belief that all members of the Caucasian race are superior to other groups or races in the world. In the United States it has been a means of justifying and protecting the nation as a white Christian country.[4] Racism separated the black and white community since the first slaves were shipped to America in order to work on plantations. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed Afro-Americans from slavery but still they had to face repression and unequal treatment throughout the century which was in particular manifested in the Jim Crow laws which were passed in 1867 and allowed segregation of black and white people in public life if the quality of the segregated institutions was of the same quality following the slogan “separate-but equal”. Those included amongst others that black students were not allowed to attend the same schools as white students. Segregation took place in almost all parts of public life and white supremacy found its representation in the members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Tennessee in 1866 and still exists today. Initially a secret organization of veterans of the Confederate Army it turned to a group using violence in order to restore the white domination over the enfranchised blacks.

Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton described in their work Black Power from 1967 two kinds of racism: the individual racism which is also condemned by many white Americans and the institutional racism which is more subtle, more difficult to prove and for the most part accepted. It is defined as the racial discrimination of governments, corporations and educational institutions and influences the life of many individuals. According to Carmichael and Hamilton repression is active in three areas. In the political area the white supremacy becomes very obvious for it is exclusively dominated by white men who made all decisions that concern the Afro-Americans and the ones who have achieved a higher position cannot represent the interests of the black community because they are bound to the power structure of the white men.[5] In the economic area racism finds it expression in the exploitation of Afro-Americans by hiring them in short-term jobs which are in addition poorly paid as well as in deficits in the formal education. Repression on the social level finds its expression in the notion that the white man distinguishes through his culture and ideals from the non-white man (including Native Americans) who is seen as a savage creature and on the same level as an animal. By viewing Africans and their descendants as lesser beings the system of exploitation maintains while at the same time the United States are portrayed as the bastion of human freedom, human rights and democratic institution, unlimited opportunities and equality.[6]

2.2 The Civil Rights Movement

The question Afro-Americans had to deal with was how to cope with their difficult situation. The history of black resistance in the USA has shown that there was a fluctuation between two options to escape the system of race discrimination. One these options is the integration into the existent social structure and the other one the separation from it. Separatist tendencies increase whenever the effort to achieve integration into the system fails.[7] In the opinion of Booker T. Washington Afro-Americans should accept the differences and accommodate to their situation. He believed that the economic revival would improve the situation for them. A better education would then result by- and- by in equality and peaceful co-existence with the white population. Marcus Gavey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) demanded next to the economic independence political independence from the United States by promoting a collective return to Africa. A further organisation which insisted on the integration and the total equality according the civil rights was the NAACP which fought for the interest of Afro-Americans mainly in court. An important event in the Civil Rights Movement didn’t took place in the court but in Montgomery, Alabama, in a public bus in which Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat that was reserved for white people and was arrested due to the local segregation orders. As a consequence, the Afro-American community boycotted the bus company for about 12 months. As a result the Supreme Court decided that the local laws and orders on race segregation in busses are unconstitutional. With this event blacks gained national attention and new forms of civil disobedience containing non-violent resistance, peaceful protests and direct actions like sit-ins in restaurants or organized freedom rides occurred. Martin Luther King Jr. became thei most popular leader of the movement. His methods and strategy were based on the methods Mahatma Ghandi had used in the struggle for India’s independence from Britain. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement received political support amongst others by John F. Kennedy who promised to pass in a bill to Congress with the aim to ban discrimination in public accommodations. This bill was later known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Movement could achieve several victories during the sixties but the non-violent approach was heavily criticised. The achievements improved the situations of middle-class Afro-Americans but central problems like the forming of ghettos were not improved or solved. Between 1964 and 1968 numerous rebellions occurred in the ghettos which were understood as a rejection of the Civil Right movement which reflected mainly the interests of the middle-class Afro-Americans but could hardly meet the demands of the impoverished people for employment, improved living situation, ending of police terror and the end of the exploitation by whites. As a consequence young urban Afro-Americans rejected non-violence and radicalised. Integration into the existing institutions and civil rights were not any longer their primary goals. Now they demanded independent political and social institutions for the Afro-American community. Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, distinguished himself as a leader of this movement. He was first a member of the Black Muslims, a religious organization whose ideology was based on the belief in the supremacy of the black race who is chosen by God. After his pilgrimage to Mecca he broke up with the Black Muslims not agreeing with their ideologies any longer and believing that rather politics than religion could help to improve the situation of Afro-Americans. As a consequence he founded his own Organization of Afro- American Unity (OAAU) and promoted a socialistic revolution. What distinguished him basically from Martin Luther King Jr. was that he rejected the policies of non-violence and praised instead for Black Nationalism and militant revolution.

Malcolm X was assassinated during a speech he held in Harlem on February 21st 1965 and shortly after the OAAU broke up but the importance of Malcolm X for the black movements maintained.

2.3 Black Power

After the assassination of Malcolm X the Black Power Movement tried to continue his ideas and to meet the demands of the ghetto population. The term Black Power conveys the political belief in self-determination, anti-racism and racial consciousness among Afro-Americans.[8] The slogan was first used by Stokely Carmichael during the March Against Fear in Mississippi in June 1966. He used this slogan to express the ideas which began to develop in the radical part of the Civil Rights Movement. Black Power represented the black self-confidence and the isolation from the white society. It functioned as an appeal to Afro-Americans to unite and acknowledge their heritage, forming own organisations and above all to reject the racist institution and values of the existing society.[9]

Carmichael and Hamilton describe a concept how to put an end to the long-lasting discrimination. The first step is to abandon the hope in the white community and not to rely on their possible support as it has always been done during the Civil Rights Movement. Afro-Americans would have to develop their own power in order to represent their interests which does not mean that some individual Afro-Americans in higher positions can represent the whole black community. In order to gain this Black Power it is necessary to move away from the idea of non-violence. Violence is acted out mainly by the white men and answering with violence is the only effective way to cope with it since

Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetrated against Black people. All of these efforts have been answered by more repression, deceit and hypocrisy. […] City halls turn a deaf ear to the pleas of Black people for relief from this increasing terror.[10]

The situation the Civil Right Movement has achieved at the moment is a coalition between powerful white men and dependent black men but Carmichael and Hamilton want this coalition first to take place when the aim of Black Power –education- is achieved. The interpretation of this slogan is controversial. While many blacks perceived it as a positive expression of national pride, cultural nationalism and autonomy the media and several conservative civil right organizations regarded the slogan as an appeal for separatism and the use of violence.


[1] See Demny, Oliver. Die Wut des Panthers. 1996, p. 15

[2] See Demny, Oliver. p.17

[3] http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/

[4] Encyclopaedia of American History

[5] Demny, Oliver. p. 21

[6] http://concise.britannica.com/

[7] See Spichal, Dieter. p. 65

[8] Encyclopaedia of American History

[9] See Demny, Oliver. p. 32

[10] Spichal, Dieter. Die Black Panther Party. p.44


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Black Panther Party Afro-Americans Survey American History




Title: The importance of the Black Panther Party for the emancipation of Afro-Americans in the 1960/70ies