How the Black Panthers Worked

The Making of a Militant Image
Two Black Panthers are met on the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento by Police Lt. Ernest Holloway. Holloway told them they could keep their weapons if they did not disturb the peace. Earlier, party members had invaded the Assembly chambers and had their guns taken away. Bettmann/Getty Images

The Black Panther "look" is one of the most widely recognized in the world. When Beyoncé and her backup dancers donned black leather berets, afros and military-inspired accessories at Super Bowl 50, there was zero confusion about who they were channeling, especially in the wake of several highly criticized police shootings of unarmed black men. Long before the internet and social media made it possible for the instant and viral spread of indelible images, the Black Panthers created a group persona that both scared and inspired, depending who you asked.

Militancy was a major component of the Black Panther image, made evident by the group's armed patrol of streets and devout opposition to gun control laws. Photos depicting founding members decked out in black leather, black turtlenecks and holding guns, were popular. The image was further cemented in 1967 when several Panthers walked onto the floor of the California Assembly, black leather-clad, with loaded guns in hand. They were protesting a bill created expressly to threaten the open-carry law and therefore inhibit the group's ability to patrol [source: Blake]. Not surprisingly, the bill passed.

This highly publicized event was hardly the party's first or last brush with the law. In 1967 founder Newton was arrested and convicted of killing a police officer, but was released on appeal in 1970, likely thanks to public pressure and the well-known "Free Huey" campaign. (Incorrect deliberation procedures were blamed for the overturned conviction.) Teenage Black Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton was killed in a skirmish with police during one of the group's patrols [source: Biography]. Numerous police raids and other altercations sent dozens of Panthers to jail, or caused them to flee the country altogether.

Still, despite the militant persona often associated with the party, founder Seale claimed that their goal was not about inciting gun violence. Rather, guns (whether carried or depicted in imagery) were used to empower people struggling against a system that oppressed them [source: Weise].