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Watts, Lowndes County, Oakland: The Founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense

Donna Murch14 October 2016

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October 15th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. 

Donna Murch's
Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, published in 2010 by UNC Press, traces the longer origins of the BPP in southern migration and struggles at public universities in California. Below we present an excerpt from the book which deals with the immediate context surrounding Newton and Seale's formation of the party and its platform.  

Top left to right: Elbert "Big Man" Howard, Huey P. Newton, Sherwin Forte, Bobby Seale Bottom: Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton. via Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the Watts rebellions, the failure of community programs to remedy chronic unemployment and police brutality prompted a core group of black activists to leave campuses and engage in direct action in the streets.The spontaneous uprisings in Watts called attention to the problems faced by California’s migrant communities and created a sense of urgency about police violence and the suffocating conditions of West Coast cities. Increasingly, the tactics of nonviolent passive resistance seemed irrelevant, and the radicalization of the southern civil rights movement provided a new language and conception for black struggle across the country.Stokely Carmichael’s ascendance to the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1966, combined with the events of the Meredith March, demonstrated the growing appeal of “Black Power.” His speech on the U.C. Berkeley campus in late October encapsulated these developments and brought them directly to the East Bay.Local activists soon met his call for independent black organizing and institution building in ways that he could not have predicted. 

In October 1966 several weeks before the Black Power Conference, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton began meeting to formalize the political platform for a new organization they called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Their earlier participation in Merritt College’s Black Studies movement forged networks of allies, as well as opponents, that shaped the local Black Power movement for years to come. After founding the BPPSD, Newton and Seale downplayed their student origins and ongoing campus support in favor of “brothers on the block,” who they celebrated as their base. This choice reflected their desire to not only include but also foreground the young people most excluded from traditional uplift and civil rights politics.

At first glimpse, these two seemed unlikely candidates for leading a nationwide social movement. In 1966, Huey Newton was twenty-five, marginally employed, and a parolee. Bobby Seale was several years older, cycling between day jobs, and working intermittently as a stand-up comic at a local nightspot.While their backgrounds precluded involvement in more traditional avenues of black politics, they became an essential asset in organizing the most disfranchised sectors of Oakland’s migrant community. Drawing on his own experience, Huey Newton developed an expansive critique of the state that spoke to the disappointment and grievances of Bay Area youth. A whole generation found itself displaced and burdened by the false hopes of southern exodus. They traveled to California with their parents to escape the poverty and brutality of the Jim Crow South only to find that the bountiful supply of industrial jobs that drew their families had disappeared. A segregated and hostile school system combined with law enforcement’s systematic campaign of harassment and containment relegated many to life at the social and economic margins.The Black Panther Party channeled migrant youths’ alienation into an organized program of self-defense and community service. 

The emergence of the Oakland-based BPPSD reflected both the particular conjuncture of Bay Area migrant communities and the changing nature of the southern civil rights movement in mid-decade. In the face of the federal government’s failure to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, southern activists developed new strategies for asserting black political rights.In Jonesboro, Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense tapped into a long-standing tradition of armed self-defense to prevent the Ku Klux Klan and other white paramilitary groups from intimidating black citizens. Similarly, in Lowndes County, Alabama, SNCC workers organized a new political party to run black candidates for public office. Although Lowndes was simply an extension of SNCC’s voting rights campaign, the choice of a crouching black panther as their party symbol betrayed a new spirit of militancy. Lowndes workers broke with the earlier wisdom of nonviolent passive resistance by working with the Deacons for Defense, the Nation of Islam, and other volunteers to protect black activists and voters.8 In a fundraising tour in Los Angeles, organizer John Hule explained that African Americans “never had any protection and today we aren’t looking for anyone to protect us. We are going to protect ourselves.”

Significantly, both the Deacons and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) had deep roots in black rural communities, not unlike those that many Bay Area migrants had so recently left. Their vision for black liberation resonated strongly with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other California activists. The midsixties witnessed a proliferation of Panther parties throughout the West Coast, including the Black Panther Party of Northern California, the Black Panther Political Party of Watts, and the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self Defense. These organizations emerged independently, linked only through the shared inspiration of the LCFO. The appeal of panther iconography was inseparable from the existential struggle of migrant youth against police brutality and the new technologies of incarceration that the Golden State pioneered.California led the nation in the scale and infrastructure of youth detention as well as the militarization of domestic policing. This tendency reached a crisis point in the a ermath of the Watts rebellions when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrested over 5,000 people, many of whom were juveniles. The state response to Watts as much as the popular uprising itself did much to radicalize California’s urban communities in its wake.In this moment of crisis, black migrants looked to the South. In the East Bay, black political culture, like churches, music, and almost every dimension of postwar African American life, retained binding ties to a recent southern past.The East Bay’s Black Panther Party adapted the Deacons and Lowndes County’s model of armed self-defense to address the peculiar forms of racial violence and segregation of West Coast cities. Given the parallel migration of white southerners and their heavy representation in the ranks of the LAPD and the OPD, this leap was not a difficult one. 

Oakland — the Next Watts?

Washington policymakers closely watched Oakland in the months after Watts. Following their lead, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles on the city’s social and political life. To readers, it must have seemed surprising to see such a comparatively small city — only the fifth largest in California — receive such extensive coverage. However, it quickly became clear why this industrial suburb of San Francisco had attracted so much national a ention. After Watts, federal policymakers drafted a confidential report examining conditions in cities across the country to see if the urban uprisings would spread. Oakland appeared at the top of the list, and the Wall Street Journal proclaimed the city a “racial tinderbox” on the verge of a social explosion. The question was whether the federal government could provide much needed relief while also financing the growing expenditures on defense. “It reaches to the heart of the ‘guns or butter’ problem that finds President Johnson striving to scale down his costly Great Society plans, many of them designed to aid poor Negroes.” 

Perhaps more than any other metropolitan region, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced the deep contradiction that underlay Johnson’s waning War on Poverty and the military escalation in Vietnam. Northern California’s postwar “Arsenal of Democracy” with its extensive military and defense infrastructure had been reinvigorated in the 1960s as a major point of disembarkation for the Vietnam War.The Oakland Naval Supply Center, Alameda Air Station, and nearby Concord Naval Weapons Station processed seemingly endless supplies of military hardware, weapons, and men. As hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through the Oakland Army Base and Airport, the vast expenditures on defense became a visible part of daily life.Awash in federal research and development dollars, U.C. Berkeley and Stanford provided the intellectual superstructure. In the San Francisco Bay Area, raw martial power and university expertise converged.Through regular demonstrations, Berkeley antiwar activists called a ention to the military-industrial complex in their midst. Starting in October 1965, the Vietnam Day Committee sponsored marches from the Berkeley campus to the Oakland Induction Center to publicize its essential role in the Vietnam War effort.

Within less than a few miles of this military edifice lay ravaged West Oakland, where nearly half of all families lived below the poverty line and a third relied on welfare for their survival.The Wall Street Journal claimed that the unemployment rate among black residents was five times that of the national average.In response, local activists demanded federal work relief to meet these “Depression-like” conditions. “What we need here is jobs, jobs, jobs, not training for no jobs,” explained one resident. Instead, they were told the money simply was not there. 

In conjunction with the vigorous black and white student movements sweeping Bay Area campuses, this situation represented potential social dynamite, and Oakland city leaders were acutely aware of their vulnerability. In February 1966, Ramparts journalist Warren Hinckle enumerated their fears of “outsiders,” “intellectuals,” and “agitators,” all framed by the larger fear of Oakland as the next Watts. “Oakland’s leaders see a twofold spectre haunting their grimy city: the fear of an explosion from the ghetto within, and an invasion of ‘outside agitators’ from the sprawling, adjacent Berkeley campus of the University of California.”Despite these anxieties, Oakland never erupted in spontaneous rebellions, or at least not in the way that was expected. Poverty officials gladly took credit, but the truth lay elsewhere.As a more cohesive migrant community than Watts with a vibrant tradition of radicalism, Oakland instead gave birth to an expansive social movement that permanently transformed not only the East Bay but the larger world beyond. It drew its slogans and symbols from the vanguard of the southern civil rights movement and its urgency from the looming social crisis in California cities.

Lowndes County 

In the summer of 1965, Stokely Carmichael joined together with grassroots activists in Alabama to form a third party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, with the emblem of a large, crouching black cat. Local ballots displayed symbols as well as names of political parties, because of the high rate of illiteracy among voters. Lowndes County represented one of the most daunting citadels of white supremacist rule in the Deep South. Situated between the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Montgomery, the Lowndes establishment faced no organized opposition since the end of Reconstruction. “One of the poorest counties in the nation, it was feudal. About eighty families owned 90 percent of the land,” Carmichael explained. “Of a population of fifteen thousand, twelve thousand were African, not a one of whom could vote.”The omnipresence of the Klan and white control of the local Democratic Party made voter registration impossible.

Initially, the title of “Black Panther Party” had not been chosen by SNCC but by the white-dominated local media. In a widely circulated article published by the New Yorker in October 1966, Carmichael complained about the racial logic that underlay the media’s designation of the LCFO as the “Black Panther Party.” He pointed out that local newspapers never referred to the Alabama Democratic Party as the “White Cock Party,” despite their choice of the racialized symbol and slogan, “White Supremacy for the Right.” “No one ever talked about ‘white power’ because power in this country is white,” Carmichael wrote. “The furor over that black panther reveals the problems that white America has with color and sex; the furor over ‘Black Power’ reveals how deeply racism runs and the great fear which is a ached to it.”

Despite its complex origins or perhaps because of them, the idea of a “black panther party” proved compelling to many in northern and western cities. It embodied a graphic image of resistance that resonated far beyond the LCFO’s stated aim of black electoral representation. Cofounder John Hule explained its message: “The black panther is an animal that when it is pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death. We felt we had been pushed back long enough and that it was time for the Negroes to come out and take over.”Although the LCFO’s goal was to elect black officials in a county that was over 83 percent African American, the political symbolism of the panther took on a life of its own. Across the country, activists appropriated the idea and adapted it to the specific needs of their local black freedom struggles.

Word of the Lowndes County Panthers spread to Oakland through a number of different channels.Prior to the Students for a Democratic Society–sponsored Black Power conference at U.C. Berkeley in early November, a local SNCC support group circulated flyers throughout the Bay Area with the panther logo. Both Newton and Seale claimed one of these pamphlets as their initial inspiration.However, an even more direct link was through Mark Comfort, a fellow activist who traveled to Lowndes in spring 1966 to set up security and self-defense forces for the LCFO. Comfort was a military veteran with a long history of community organizing in Oakland. Like many of his peers, he was also a southern migrant, born in Oklahoma in 1934.A tall and commanding figure arrayed in a black beret and gold earring, Comfort had become a central figure in Oakland grassroots politics by 1966. For several years, he had worked with Youth Corps and the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination, an interracial civil rights group composed largely of university students and members of the Bay Area branches of CORE. In spring 1964, the Ad Hoc Committee took on the Oakland Tribune, charging the newspaper with discriminatory hiring practices.In December, the group staged a large demonstration blocking access to the Tribune Building (the “Tower of Power”), and police arrested eighteen demonstrators. For his part in this action, Mark Comfort was sentenced by the court to six months in jail for “maintaining himself as a public nuisance and refusing to disperse at the scene of a riot.” In a pa ern that proved prophetic, the criminal justice system forced the civil rights group to redirect its e orts from direct action protests to defending its members in court. 

After the Ad Hoc Committee dissolved, Comfort founded his own organization, the Oakland Direct Action Committee (ODAC). Drawing on his earlier experience, he set up a headquarters in East Oakland to launch a sustained organizing campaign among local youth. In a 1965 interview with Berkeley’s Spider Magazine, Comfort described how ODAC sought to immerse itself in the lives of residents. “We went into the community — some people came down from campus for a couple of days and did block work, but no one has been back because it’s hard, going from door to door talking to people, and a lot of people don’t like to do it because it’s a long, drawn out process. But it’s very important, because how are we going to know exactly what is happening in the black community unless you talk to the people to find out exactly what they would like to see done.”Instead of relying on student volunteers or paid staff, Comfort brought in young people from the surrounding area. The neighborhood was in the same district as Castlemont, where Ford Foundation–sponsored programs focused their efforts a few years earlier. With input from local youth, ODAC established clubs with colorful names like the Alm Boy Dukes and the Enchanted Maffions to rival the lure of local streets gangs.

Comfort’s work with East Oakland teenagers attracted the attention of the federal Economic Development Administration representative Amory Bradford, who solicited his assistance in establishing more effective job-training programs.Although Comfort was well-respected by federal officials, he had a number of powerful enemies, including Oakland mayor John Houlihan and publisher William Knowland. Picketing the Tribune and giving interviews to Wall Street Journal reporters earned him substantial enmity, and Comfort became well-acquainted with the problem of police intimidation. Law enforcement regularly surveilled the ODAC office and harassed its members. Comfort remained convinced that if action was not taken immediately Oakland would erupt in violence.

In May 1966, Mark Comfort led a California delegation to Lowndes County to protect voters and civil rights workers during the first county election since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He was not alone. Across the United States, a spectrum of radical groups expressed interest in adapting the concept of the “black panther party” to their own local communities.Along with activists from New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit, Comfort approached Carmichael about starting their own regional panther parties. Without hesitation the chairman of SNCC responded, “We ain’t got a patent. Feel free. If local conditions indicate, go for it.”Comfort took the idea back to the West Coast, and over the coming months, it spread like wild fire. Nearly a dozen new parties emerged across California, all with similar names.In the San Francisco Bay Area, two groups competed for recognition. Both of them had their origins — and antagonisms — in campus struggles.

In Defense of Self-Defense

The year 1966 had been difficult for Huey Newton. He had recently been released from the California Youth Authority after serving a six-month sentence for stabbing fellow black teen Odell Lee.Although Newton had renewed his friendship with former Merritt classmate Bobby Seale, he struggled with a sense of malaise that plagued him through much of his teenage years and young adulthood, later describing the years prior to the founding of the BPPSD as difficult ones of great “inner turmoil.”In March, police arrested Newton again after an altercation with a Berkeley police officer. While hanging out with a group of friends in a café along Telegraph, Bobby Seale climbed on a chair to recite Ronald Stone’s poem, “Uncle Sammy Call Me Fulla Lucifer.” “You school my naïve heart to sing red-white-and-blue- stars-and-stripes songs and to pledge eternal to all things blue, true-blue-eyed blond, blond-haired, white chalk white skin with U.S.A. tattooed all over.”When officer Eugene Sabatini attempted to take Seale into custody for disturbing the peace, Huey Newton hit him in the face and fled. The City of Berkeley later charged Newton with felonious assault, which he subsequently plea-bargained to a misdemeanor with a promise never to return to Telegraph.

In the coming months, Huey Newton worked intermittently with Merritt student activists, but a confrontation with the Soul Students Advisory Council soon led him to abandon the black student movement altogether. Newton and Seale both expressed frustration with RAM, SSAC, and the Afro-American Association over their chronic unwillingness, or inability, to translate ideas into action. In the words of Bobby Seale, “Huey was one for implementing things.”They continually harangued their enemies as “cultural nationalists,” their pseudonym for those who fetishized African language and custom, refused alliances with all whites, and failed to make distinctions of class.Although they stressed cultural nationalism as the core ideological divide, in reality their most poignant source of conflict with other Black radicals was their peers’ resistance to carrying loaded guns. In his autobiography, Newton described how he and Bobby searched for a program to mobilize the community. Ultimately, they found this through addressing police violence and advocating the right to bear arms.

In early 1966, an opportunity presented itself to make this vision concrete. Soul Students’ negotiations with Merritt College’s administration had bogged down. Newton proposed sponsoring a rally in support of the Afro-American Studies program in which SSAC members would strap on guns and march outside the campus on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. In keeping with the minister’s philosophy of self-defense, Soul Students’ first priority should be recruiting and broadening support from the “lumpen proletariat” — the hustlers, unemployed, and “the downtrodden” populations surrounding the school.According to Newton, this action would politicize the broader community, call attention to police brutality, and intimidate the administrators into taking the activists’ demands more seriously.His fellow students refused, and Newton’s relationship with the organization quickly soured. It deteriorated even further when the SSAC’s membership accused him of stealing after discovering that he and Bobby Seale used money from the SSAC’s treasury for bail and legal costs for the Sabatini case.After breaking with the Merritt student organization, Newton approached the skeleton branch of the West Coast Revolutionary Action Movement with a program of armed self-defense. To the earlier idea of carrying weapons, Newton added a new one — patrolling the police. RAM also rebutted him, dismissing his plan as “suicidal.”Bobby and Huey interpreted their cowardice as a fatal flaw that would make it impossible for these “intellectual” groups to ever garner a mass following.

Newton and Seale lambasted the Merritt activists for their self-satisfaction and failure to effectively reach out and organize those with the greatest potential for social change. “We just went to the streets, where we should have been in the first place — those four or five years that preceded this showed us that,” Seale later wrote. “Before Huey decided to leave college, he wanted to implement things there, and educate those on the college level to the necessity of bringing the brothers on the block to the college level.”Now, he turned this strategy on its head. Whereas before he tried to bring “the streets” into the school — as in his proposal to have an armed march outside Merritt — he now sought to bring the school into “the streets.” Like Prometheus’s gift of fire, Newton brought new skills and knowledge from the university with him into grassroots struggles.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense

As Newton searched for a medium to “capture the imagination” of Oakland’s black community, he turned to the law library at the North Oakland Service Center, a poverty program that employed Bobby Seale. Drawing on his training from law school, Newton poured over the California penal code and soon discovered an old statute that legalized carrying unconcealed weapons. After spending the summer discussing the right to bear arms with “brothers on the street,” Newton and Seale decided that they needed a concrete program to present to people before starting police patrols. On October 15, 1966, in less than twenty minutes, Seale and Newton drafted the “Black Panther Party and Program” in the center.

The Ten Point Program took its form from the Nation of Islam, its content from the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and its collectivist ideology from the East Bay left .The program consisted of ten insistent demands, followed by firm explanations of belief. Newton and Seale appropriated the structure from the “Muslim Program,” a statement published weekly in Muhammad Speaks in two parts: “What Muslims Want” and “What Muslims Believe.” The semblance of form and the difference of ideology were instructive. The first point was the same — “We want freedom” — but the Panther leaders replaced Elijah Muhammad’s “We want a full and complete freedom” with “We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.”This statement placed the new party firmly within a Black nationalist tradition, but like the Afro-American Association’s public rhetoric, it also revealed the transnational influence of decolonization. Points Six and Eight, which demanded that all African American men be exempted from military service and freed from “federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails,” closely paralleled the Nation’s demand for tax exemption and release of “all believers of Islam now held in federal prisons.”While Newton and Seale drew on the Nation’s manifesto, they replaced its separatist pronouncements on racial mixing, religious orthodoxy, and territorial partitioning with the Party’s humanistic appeals for decent housing, employment, and education. The single point that remained identical was Point Seven, “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.” Along with this platform, Huey and Bobby established a basic structure for the Party with Newton serving as the “Minister of Defense” and Seale as the “Chairman of the Black Panther Party.”

The connections between the “Muslim Program” and the Ten Points revealed the wide reach of the Nation and the diffusion of its ideas and political strategies. Its connection to the Panthers was not hard to trace. Like Donald Warden and other AAA members, Newton briefly attended the local mosque in West Oakland. The writings of Malcolm X and C. Eric Lincoln’s Black Muslims in America also strongly influenced him.As the largest and oldest Black nationalist organization, the NOI provided a shared language and political culture that informed a broad range of Black Power activism in California, from early student groups like the Afro-American Association and Soul Students Advisory Council through the BPPSD. Although the Panthers adamantly opposed the racial and religious nationalism of the Nation, the Party still bore the imprint of its organizing and rhetorical strategies.

Moreover, the Ten Point Program expressed the grievances of the East Bay’s migrant community by identifying the barriers they faced to full citizenship and human self-realization. Bobby Seale described the gritty materialism that underlay what appeared to be a reformist program: “Huey understood that you answer the momentary desires and needs of the people, that you try to instruct them and politically educate them . . . and . . . the people themselves will [wage] a revolution to make sure that they have these basic desires and needs fulfilled.”This strategy could be seen clearly in their program’s focus on material essentials. Point Two, calling for full employment, for example, addressed rapid deindustrialization following World War II that had dashed the rising expectations of southern newcomers. For the younger generation who came of age in the early 1960s, unemployment was particularly brutal and had led to a near subsistence living standard that exacerbated constant conflict with the police.The Panthers continual rhetoric of “survival” spoke directly to these primary needs, and laid the groundwork for the Party’s mass appeal. Although the BPP’s Ten Point Program fell squarely within reformist and rights-based political tradition, its aims were much more ambitious.

Historian Paul Alkebulan christened Malcolm X “the ideological patron saint of the Black Panther Party.”While the former minister had tremendous impact on every member of California’s Black Power generation, the BPP set about translating his legacy into concrete action. Panther Landon Williams explained, “We felt ourselves to be the heirs of Malcolm and I remember Malcolm saying we demand to be treated as a man and a human being in this society right now, and we will have it by any means necessary.”Malcolm X’s secular nationalism, which emerged fully after his split from the NOI, reoriented Black radical politics toward urban ills faced by migrants pouring into northern cities.Police brutality, substandard housing, and gerrymandering called for immediate intervention, rather than abstract promises of future territorial separation.His urgency inspired the early BPP and led them to search for new means of building a mass movement. Huey Newton pointed to the unfulfilled thrust of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity combined with his insistence on the right to bear arms as an ever-present influence on the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. 

From LIVING FOR THE CITY: MIGRATION, EDUCATION AND THE RISE OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY IN OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA by Donna Murch.  Copyright © 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by permission of the publisher. 

In September 2017, Verso will publish
Revolution in Our Lifetime: A Short History of the Black Panther Party by Donna Murch.

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