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Black Panthers

Black Panthers, U.S. African-American militant party, founded (1966) in Oakland, Calif., by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Originally aimed at armed self-defense against the local police, the party grew to espouse violent revolution as the only means of achieving black liberation. The Black Panthers called on African Americans to arm themselves for the liberation struggle. In the late 1960s party members became involved in a series of violent confrontations with the police (resulting in deaths on both sides) and in a series of court cases, some resulting from direct shoot-outs with the police and some from independent charges.

Among the most notable of the trials was that of Huey Newton for killing a policeman in 1967, which resulted in three mistrials, the last in 1971. Bobby Seale, one of the "Chicago Eight" convicted of conspiracy to violently disrupt the Democratic National Convention of 1968 (later overturned), was a codefendant in a Connecticut case charging murder of an alleged informer on the party. He was acquitted in 1971. A third major trial was of 13 Panthers in New York City accused of conspiring to bomb public places. They were also acquitted in 1971. The results of these trials were taken by many observers as confirmation of their suspicions that the Black Panthers were being subjected to extreme police harassment. Another incident that supported this view was the killing in a raid by Chicago police of Illinois party leader Fred Hampton and another Panther in 1969; review of this incident revealed that the two Panthers had been shot in their beds without any provocation.

While controversy raged over the civil liberties issue, the Panthers themselves were riven with internal disputes. A major split took place, with Newton and Seale (who in 1972 announced their intention of abandoning violent methods) on the one side and Eldridge Cleaver (formerly the chief publicist for the party, who continued to preach violent revolution) on the other. Cleaver headed the so-called international headquarters of the party (until 1973) in Algeria. In 1974 both Seale and Newton left the party; the former resigned, and the latter fled to Cuba to avoid drug charges. During the late 1970s the party gradually lost most of its influence, ceasing to be an important force within the black community. The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Dallas, Tex., in 1989, is not related to the old group.

See H. Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (1994); J. Bloom and W. E. Martin, Jr., Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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