Black Panthers 50 Years Later: What They Wanted Is What We (Still) Need
Courtesy of Ebony Magazine
Two generations ago, a group of young people stood up and demanded education, housing, food, jobs and health care. It was a transformational move, still worthy of celebrating
Drafted by founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, the Ten-Point Program and Platform (commonly referred to as “The Ten-Point Program”) was the governing document of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and articulated what Seale described as “the 400-year-old crying demands of us Black Americans.”
EBONY assembled 10 of today’s sharpest academics, activists and scribes to consider the modern-day resonance of the program.
1.“We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.”
In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey introduced the theory of self-determination as a basic tenant for liberation for Africans worldwide. In the Americas and the Caribbean, his prescription was for a people not yet a generation away from slavery. But he was also talking to continental Africans, whose freedom from colonialism was some 50 years into the future. “Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom,” he wrote.
These ideas appealed to Garveyite Earl Little, father of Malcolm X. Naturally, the notion became foundational to the worldview of Malcolm himself. Even as the charismatic leader evolved beyond the Nation of Islam, he continued to preach the autonomous political and economic philosophy of Black Nationalism. The Black Panther Party, largely inspired by these teachings, made “freedom” the first principle of the their 10-point plan.
But what does 21st-century self-determination mean? Independent nationhood is no longer the call. As a new generation of organizers and movement thinkers re-imagines Garvey’s freedom principle, his philosophy remains critical: “Let us in shaping our own Destiny set before us the qualities of human justice, love, charity, mercy and equity.” It’s important that he used “equity” and not “equality,” that he used “justice” and not “rights.” It’s important that between the bookends of justice and equity he placed the words “love,” “charity” and “mercy.” This deeply human call puts self-love and self-care at the center of a radical movement for true freedom—the guiding principle the Black Panther Party rested all others upon.
—dream hampton is a writer and activist.
2. “We want full employment for our people.”
Black workers in the United States face the same dual crisis of high unemployment and low-wage work they did when the Black Panther Party released its platform 50 years ago. The Black unemployment rate is twice that of White workers at nearly every level of education. Black households earn only 59 cents for every dollar of White median household income. This gap has expanded since 1967, when it was $19,000; as of 2014, the gap was approximately $25,000.
When the Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, almost 25 percent of American jobs were in manufacturing and public sector employment was on the rise. Since then, massive deindustrialization has coincided with the decline of unionization rates and, more recently, cuts in public sector jobs (e.g., police, teachers). This has eroded the two primary channels to middle-class incomes for Black workers. Furthermore, a new challenge has arisen since the Black Panthers issued their bold platform: rapid technological change. Although “automation” was a growing concern to the 1960s economy, today it’s computers, robots and artificial intelligence (self-driving cars or automated checkout kiosks at the supermarket or fast-food establishments). Thus, the party’s demand for guaranteed full employment or a guaranteed income from the federal government is, in many ways, even more relevant today than it was 50 years ago. The Black Panthers were prophetic in understanding how the dynamics of racial capitalism would continue to exploit African-American people unless employment and income were fundamentally guaranteed.
—Dorian T. Warren is the Center for Community Change board chair and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he recently co-authored Rewrite the Racial Rules, a report on race and the economy. Follow him on Twitter:
3.“We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black Community.”
The Black Panther Party was founded in the wake of uprisings, and my organization, Hands Up United, came together the same way. For the Panthers, it was the Watts riots of 1965; for us, the events following the 2014 death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of police. The party would eventually align itself closely with Marxist doctrine, and its Ten-Point Program may be the greatest example of that. The 1966 document was a callout of the U.S. government that would later expand into a sharp critique of what was argued to be an even more dangerous system: capitalism.
Just as the organization’s early activism around police violence expanded into other ways of meeting the needs of underserved Black communities (with the groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children Program and People’s Free Medical Centers as the most noteworthy examples), we walk in its tremendous footsteps via programs that provide food, books, job training and internships to those who suffer so greatly at the intersection of racism and economic disparity. We, the poor who organize the poor, understand the anti-capitalist approach to liberation may be one of the most important and overlooked parts of the party’s legacy.
-—Tory Russell is a founder of Hands Up United. Follow him on Twitter: @VanguardTNT.
4. “We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.”
“White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community,” professed the Black Panther Party in the third demand of its Ten-Point Program. Indeed, African-Americans have been denied access to safe, affordable and quality housing for centuries via forced migration, redlining, segregation and gentrification—the reasons why, then and now, Black people must find ways to purchase and develop real estate.
Cities such as Oakland, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Chicago are now home to “trendy” urban areas where many Black professionals struggle to afford rising rents, and other Black poor and working-class people find themselves displaced.
Yet hope is on the horizon. A movement is afoot across the country to reclaim our cities, towns and neighborhoods and keep or place Black families in safe and secure housing.
Brioxy, the organization I represent, is the first social capital network designed to invest in the work of innovators of color so that they can then invest in our communities by purchasing homes, launching businesses that hire Black people and create pathways to affordable housing. There are also cooperatives, land trusts and homebuying programs that are giving people the opportunity to redefine success not as getting out of the ’hood but investing back into it.
Although our communities may be capital- and resource-starved, we are not deficient in innovation, creativity or brilliance. We echo the Panthers’ demand and continue in the spirit of self-determination by using the resources we have to build the nation we need.
—B. Cole is the founder of Brioxy. Follow on Twitter:
5. “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.”
When I was just 2 years old, my parents enrolled me at al-Karim, a small African-centered school in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., that emphasized giving students a sense of identity and responsibility to our community. There, I learned that Black was indeed beautiful, and that I came from a lineage of builders, thinkers and social innovators—ancestors who discovered science, technology, engineering, arts and math. My teachers were unapologetic about the richness of our history and culture, which had a tremendous impact on my self-confidence.
That is the approach to education the Black Panther Party wanted for all Black children, and it is the foundation of what I do as the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy. Our middle school is in a neighborhood notorious for its poverty, crime and low graduation rates, yet it has some of the most brilliant, beautiful and resilient kids I have ever met. Their uniforms are in royal colors of black and purple because we want them to see themselves as the descendants of kings and queens. We teach our scholars to see the world through a lens that centers Black experiences. They read challenging books such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, explore the Black Lives Matter Movement via historical analysis and examine the connections between American colonialism and modern-day gentrification. They are constantly exposed to dynamic speakers and mentors who look like them, leaders who have made major contributions in every industry. As the Panthers understood in 1966, when we teach our children who they are and what they can be, they have the power to change the world.
-—Nadia Lopez is the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y.,and the author of The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World. Follow her on Twitter: @thelopezeffect.
6. “We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.”
It was 2000, three years after Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, former Black Panther and political prisoner was released from incarceration. His attorneys, including Johnnie Cochran, had fought tirelessly to prove that he had been targeted under COINTELPRO, the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program. They would finally prevail in 1997—when his conviction was vacated because a witness had lied about being a government informant, and because the prosecution was aware of that fact but failed to disclose it to the defense—after he’d spent nearly three decades behind bars. As a young activist and writer living in California, where G (as I knew him) was imprisoned, I’d visited and written him, carved out a friendship. But now he was back home in Morgan City, La.
I turned up at his doorstep with my infant daughter, and we talked for hours about his past life in the military. He’d enlisted with encouragement from members of the Deacons of Defense and Justice, a group of African-American veterans who organized against the Ku Klux Klan, and urged him to go to Vietnam and learn the meaning of battle. G would go on to be decorated with multiple medals: not one but two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star.
When Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale included an anti-military statement in the organization’s platform, they did so just two years following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon Johnson broad power to toss more American bodies into the inferno that was the Vietnam War. More than 7,200 Blacks were killed during that conflict. Many survivors, like G, returned from serving their country only to have to then battle American racism.
When G came home, his activist elders encouraged him to join the Los Angeles chapter of the party, where he would put his skills to use. “Sandbags saved my life,” he told me that early fall day. They kept him from drowning when the floods came to the bayou, when the bullets rained down in ’Nam and again in 1969, when the LAPD embarked on a shoot-to-kill mission against the leadership of the L.A. chapter of the organization by the law enforcement tactical unit we now call SWAT.
I know many of us join the service because it enables us to attend college or it has presented more opportunity to demonstrate and be compensated for the range of skills we bring to bear. I only hope those who choose to enlist do so remembering that our duty to our ancestors, our children and ourselves is to transform the institutions we become a part of; and in transforming them, ultimately, we transform humanity. It is possible. I live with the full memory of the work done by Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, solidier and revolutionary.
-—Asha Bandele is the award-winning author of The Prisoner’s Wife and four other books. Follow her on Twitter: @ashabandele.
7. “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.”
This tenet was the Panthers’ clear and powerful response to state violence. When we look at the activism that has followed modern-day stories of police killings (including Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice) and Black death at the hands of vigilantes such as George Zimmerman acting as law enforcement without the badge, this particular statement of the party’s platform has even increased resonance.
The Black Panther Party not only bequeathed the activists who would come later the language to demand that police brutality against citizens cease, but it also modeled the value of unity as an operating tool to challenge and fight back against White supremacist systems of power. Released in September 2014, the Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda to Keep Us Safe is a policy document in the tradition of the Ten-Point Program, calling for an end to police violence and providing alternative solutions for community policing.
Like the Panthers of yesteryear, organizers like me consider unjust police violence state-sanctioned abuse, and some cases, murder. And we are prepared to fight—and fight until it ends.
-—Elle Hearns is a Black Lives Matter organizer in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @SoulFreeDreams.
8. “We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.”
To many people, including Blacks and radical activists at the time, the call for releasing all prisoners was the most controversial tenet of the Black Panther Party’s original Ten-Point Program. After all, how could we justify releasing criminals into society?
For the Panthers, however, it was impossible to separate “criminals” from the circumstances that criminalized them. Racist police forces, unjust laws, unfair trials and biased juries all made it impossible to determine whether someone was truly guilty or simply the victim of a rigged system. Even those who were guilty, they argued, had their hands forced because of the oppressive conditions of capitalism and White supremacy. Essentially, the question was, How can you blame someone for becoming a thief when he or she doesn’t have a fair shot at an honest job with honest pay?
Today, many of us continue to build on the organization’s progressive anti-prison work by advocating for prison abolition, or the elimination of incarceration as our society’s primary mechanism of punishment.
To achieve this, there must be a wholesale shift of economic priorities. As long as the nation invests in building prisons, it will continue to find reasons to fill them. Instead, we must place resources in many of the things that the party demanded: education, employment, housing and health care. In doing so, most crime is diminished at its root.
We must also find ways to decarcerate, or empty out the already-overcrowded prisons. It is a bold idea but one believed achievable by releasing nonviolent offender, and carefully relocating others into more formal and supervised settings where they can get drug treatment, mental health support, job training and other services that ease societal re-entry. For the most violent offenders, we must develop spaces that simultaneously protect society and heal those offenders but don’t replicate the counterproductive conditions of many modern prisons.
Prison abolition requires new thinking. As opposed to time behind bars, punishment such as fines, restitution, community service and probation would be considered. Excarceration, or decriminalizing such offenses as marijuana possession, gambling and prostitution, would also help move us toward a prison-free society. Most important, we must radically shift our values so that we no longer equate justice with punishment and punishment with confinement. By daring to imagine a world that seeks healing rather than revenge, we just might achieve the radical abolitionist vision of the Black Panther Party.
—Marc Lamont Hill is a distinguished professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College, the author of Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond and co-author, with Mumia Abu-
Jamal, of The Classroom and the Cell. Follow him on Twitter: @marclamonthill.
9. “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.”
When it comes to the issues of crime and punishment, the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program stated what many African-Americans know well and far too many others have experienced firsthand: Justice for Black people in the courts is often elusive, and the racial makeup of juries is a significant factor. Attorneys rely on the distinct experiences and the lenses of jurors to win cases. When jurors have biases against Black people, it sets the stage for convictions whether they are deserved or not.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Batson v. Kentucky ruling, in which the highest court in the land declared the intentional exclusion of potential jurors based on race to be unconstitutional. Yet research shows us that African-Americans continue to be excluded from jury pools across the nation.
Current discussions on criminal justice reform and voting rights are directly related to the Black presence on juries. For many jurisdictions around the country, jury pools are selected from lists of registered voters. Thus, legal challenges to voter participation in states such as Wisconsin, for example, could result in a decrease in potential jurors of color.
As the contemporary examination of the impact of mass incarceration on Black communities continues, it is important that we remember the wisdom of the Black Panther Party and understand the significance of having access to the most basic element of justice in the United States: access to a fair trial.
-—Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is the senior community organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Criminal Justice Practice. Follow him on Twitter:
10. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.”
As the line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest goes, “What’s past is prologue.” This may have never been more true than for the legacy of the Black Panther Party; the organization’s historic activism has taken on new relevance in an era of widespread social activism across the globe, from Egypt to Oakland, from France to Ferguson.
But the Panthers’ prophetic role comes into focus only when we set aside our stereotypes. To fully appreciate the organization and its wide-ranging work requires reimagining it against the grain of what proved to be deadly FBI counterintelligence surveillance and disinformation. There is a tendency for historical reflections on the Panthers to amount to little more than simplistic pronouncements on whether they were “good” or “bad.” We should be curious enough, however, to see beyond our own romantic, narrow lenses that reduce these complicated people who were the Black Panther Party to Blaxploitation cutouts.
The party prized community-based efforts as a key facet of any campaign for freedom. Before cell phone videos became a 21st-century tool against state brutality for today’s activists, the Panthers’ rifle scopes bore witness when they policed the police. Decades prior to the Occupy Movement establishing its People’s Libraries and demanding “healthcare for the 99%,” the Panthers launched a national network of People’s Free Medical Centers, identifying racial health disparities as a symptom of yawning inequality years before the connection between healthy bodies and just societies became conventional wisdom.
This moment of reflection occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party is also an opportunity to bridge a generational divide. Its activists were not mysterious or unknowable figures; they were young people with heart fires burning for justice. They were the DeRay Mckessons, Arielle Newtons, Bree Newsomes and Alicia Garzas of decades ago.
The Panthers inspired generations of activists who followed them up to the present, and our familiarity with this newer generation of leaders helps us to better understand the far-reaching aspirations of those who came before them. We remember them not to dwell in the past but to move forward toward a better future.