Book review: The Black Panthers Speak, edited by Philip Foner

This is an anthology of the writings of the Black Panther Party, one of the most militant and confrontational movements in US history. The BPP was organized by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, two students at Merritt Junior College in Oakland, California. In October 1966, they studied Marxist writings; Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; and the works of Malcom X, in order to deal with the problems working-class Black people faced in the cities of America, primarily police abuse of residents.

Newton and Seale drew up the party’s Ten Point Platform and Ten Point Program, outlining the issues that Black people confronted: employment, housing, education, community control over police, along with the exemption of Black men from the military draft, release of all Black men from incarceration, and an UN-supervised plebiscite, wherein “black colonial subjects” would express their will.

Dealing with the problem of police abuse in Black communities, Newton, with the title of Minister of Defense, and Seal, Chairman of the BPP, protested the deaths of Black men, and monitored police patrols in Black neighborhoods, with weapons and law books to ensure Black residents knew their rights; the Panthers compared police forces to an enemy occupying army, like US forces in Viet Nam. The BPP compared the condition of Black people in the United States to the non-white people around the world-in Latin America, Asia, and Africa-struggling against colonial occupation.

The BPP advocated armed self-defense; to protest a gun-control bill in the California legislature, in May 1967, Seale led a troop of Panthers, armed, into the Assembly chamber, issuing a statement against laws that would leave Black residents, “disarmed and powerless” against police abuse and terror.

Along with self-defense, the Panthers organized free breakfast programs for school kids, where the Panthers gave lessons in Black history; other programs included clothing distributions, free clinics, classes on Black history and politics, transportation for families of prison inmates, drug and alcohol rehab programs, and tests for sickle-cell anemia.

The law enforcement agencies of the nation, including the FBI, sought to bring down the BPP, through direct assaults and, through the FBI’s COINTEL program, undermining the organization, trying to instigate divisions with the party. IN police raids, several BPP figures were killed, such as Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton.

The issues the Black Panther Party dealt with-police community relations, poverty, unemployment, health care, foreign adventurism, repression of dissidents-continue with us today. The Panthers raised issues of self-defense of marginalized communities who can’t trust the police and see them as part of the problem; with the rise of rightist militias raiding statehouses and treated leniently by police, it’s just like the Klan in the ‘Sixties being treated like patriotic Americans expressing their grievances.  (There remains a bias, possibly cultural, to be mild with right-wing extremists, but come down hard on left-wing militants.) Today, as with the Panthers in the ‘sixties, there are organizations on the left training with firearms.

The Panthers, with their free breakfasts and health clinics, were an example of Mutual Aid programs instituted by local communities by neighborhood activists who saw a need for their communities and filled them-much like the mutual-aid work, like food distributions and checking on neighbors, that have been present during the COVID-19 crisis, with people looking out for each other since our own government has failed to do so.  These are things for us to consider as we work to heal our nation.

people doing group hand cheer
Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on