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How the Black Panthers Worked


Details of a Downfall
Founders of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton (R) and Bobby Seale sit together at party headquarters in San Francisco. Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive /Getty Images
Founders of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton (R) and Bobby Seale sit together at party headquarters in San Francisco. Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive /Getty Images

It's never a good omen for a political group when the FBI director positions you right in the government's crosshairs. In 1969, J. Edgar Hoover reportedly saw the Black Panthers as, in his words, "the greatest threat to the internal security of our country" [source: Blake]. He created a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO expressly to bring about the group's demise. Ironically, it was the feel-good breakfast program that most irked Hoover, because it was seen as an organizing tool that simultaneously brought racial discrepancies to the attention of up-and-coming generations [source: Elder].

COINTELPRO placed FBI informants on the inside to incite discord between members and leaders, which helped to eventually tear the party apart. Infiltrators also had a hand in encouraging violence that would eventually be used as fodder for police raids. One of the most controversial COINTELPRO raids resulted in the assassination of rising party leader and Illinois NAACP branch head Fred Hampton, only 21 years old. Working on an informant's tip, the FBI and Chicago police raided his home and shot Hampton to death while in his bed. No one was ever convicted of wrongdoing, but his family was paid a significant settlement by the city, state and federal governments [source: Blake].

Further violence in the form of a 1969 shootout between 200 L.A. police and six party members continued to see the party butt heads with the government. Fortunately, no one died in that altercation, but it was heavily publicized [source: Elder].

Although many members continued to fight for the cause, some leaders became abusive of their power and openly promoted violence. Nineteen-year-old Alex Rackley, with the New Haven chapter, a suspected FBI informant, was tortured and murdered by other party members. Ideological disagreements (some wanted to concentrate on the social programs, others on the revolutionary struggle) split the party and membership began to dwindle. A couple of party leaders, including Seale, unsuccessfully ran for office in the years following the scandals, but the party eventually collapsed in the later part of the 1970s [source: Weise].

Former leaders followed their own career and life paths in the years after the Black Panthers stalled. Founder Newton went on to earn a Ph.D. in social philosophy, but his demons caught up with him and he was killed in a drug altercation gone bad in 1989 [source: Duncan]. After being released from prison, Seale adopted a nonviolent stance on social change, and has since become a published author, family man and advisor to political activists [source: Biography].

Kathleen Cleaver earned her law degree from Yale University after returning to the country following years in exile. Her Panther-related activities continued long after the group disbanded, as she helped get the now late party member Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's murder conviction overturned after he served 27 years in prison. She is now a law professor at Emory [sources: Hello Beautiful Staff, African American Registry].

Today, a number of civil rights groups in the U.S. and elsewhere employ some of the same tactics and beliefs as the Panthers, including the well-known organization Black Lives Matter. Others, like the New Black Panthers, have been dubbed "a racist and anti-Semitic" hate group, and firmly disavowed by the original Panthers [source: Evans].


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