Violence in the Founding Ideology of the Black Panthers (by Aaron Rosenthal)

OVERVIEW:

Students should gain an understanding of the Black Panther’s use of violence as a response to the failures of the nonviolent civil rights movement. The Black Panthers use of violence should be analyzed and discussed as a political and social tool for empowerment with precedence in American history.

FRAMEWORK:

This brief introduction to the founding of the Black Panthers is intended to expand students’ knowledge of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s by examining movements outside of the non-violent civil rights movement. Students will be expected to access their general knowledge of the non-violent civil rights organization, the American Revolution, slave rebellions, and the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. The goal is to establish a precedence in American History for violence by politically oppressed individuals, then frame the founding of the Black Panthers in a similar manner of political and physical suppression to that of Indian Americans, Slaves or the Colonists.

The lesson begins with a brief introductory exercise to discuss how violence was used in the United States before the civil rights movements. Then, there is a short lecture on the political climate in the mid 1960’s and how the foundation and ideology of the early Black Panther Party fit into the climate. The students will then examine four primary sources which discuss or relate to the founders use of violence in the Black Panther Party. Within the context of the lecture, the students will then be asked to reflect, using textual evidence, on how violence integrated into the Black Panther Party’s view of the political oppression of Blacks.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING:
Viewing the lack of substantive reform caused by the legislation from the non violent civil rights movement, the founders of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, utilized violence by casting black communities as colonies inside a white supremacist nation in order to immediately assert political power, create empowered identities and gain public support.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS:

1. In American History, what was the social-economic and political position of groups or individuals who used violence?
2. What was the Black Panther Party?
3. How were the Black Panther’s actions a response to the failure of the nonviolent civil rights movement?
4. How did the Black Panthers politically view the struggle for civil rights for blacks?
5. How did violence fit into the early ideology of the black panthers?

INTRODUCTION:

By the mid 1960’s, dissatisfaction was growing inside Black communities, especially those of urban Blacks. Despite the major legislative advances from the nonviolent civil rights movement, few civil rights laws were enforced and the condition for Blacks remained consistently poor. “None of them came close to addressing the economic inequities that insured Blacks’ low social status and they did not attempt to avert the widespread police brutality that permeated Black communities”1 remarks historian Curtis Austin on the civil rights laws. One UCLA study observed the Black experience as a “lack of opportunity and the realization that opportunity was not forthcoming in the near future”2 African Americans continued to live in poor neighborhoods with little socio-economic prospects.

Even the legislative reforms did not place power in the hands of African Americans. Raymond S. Franklin, a historian who focused on racism and class, viewed the politics of the 1960’s as ostracizing blacks from the power structure: “Coalition politics involve an arrangement whereby the white liberal segments of the power structure act as proxy representatives of Negroes with the purpose of extracting from a hostile society”3By participating in the “white power structure”, Blacks were incapable of fully controlling their fate. Furthermore, the basic concept of integration began to be viewed as detrimental to the Black Community: “Integration moreover, speaks to the problem of Blackness in a despicable way. This [integration] reinforces, among both Black and White, the idea that ‘white is automatically better and ‘Black is by definition inferior”4

Inside this politically tumultuous climate, two individuals, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, began canvasing the ghettos of Oakland, California, asking individuals what an organization could provide for Black inner city communities. Drawing upon their own personal experiences and their findings, the two founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party (BPP) became famous for its open use of guns and violent rhetoric. Specifically, the BPP’s neighborhood patrols which combatted police brutality by sending BPP members with guns onto the streets to warn police of civil rights’ offenses became notorious. By publically policing the streets of ghettos and confronting the police, the BPP intended to send a clear message to the oppressed, to those suppressed both physically, mentally and economically, and to members of the Black Community that individuals had an immediate ability to confront racism: “The Panthers also recognized that the organization of Black people around the idea of self-defense, in turn allowed members of these communities to articulate empowered identities and space within oppressive situations.”5 The utilization of weapons was one of the few means African Americans possessed to attract attention to their cause and to gain immediate progress.6 The neighborhood patrols were a fraction of their goals; the party also made contributions to the community, creating breakfast programs, free health clinics, and educational classes.

The Black Panthers identified the problem in American society as the failure of the country to live up to its own ideals. Malcolm X, one of the most influential political activists to the BPP, captured this idea: “of all the imperialist nations, the United States was in the advantageous position of being the only one that had the potential to experience bloodless revolution. If whites simply obeyed and enforced their own laws, this feat could be achieved.”7 The BPP realized that if the white power structure would not enforce their own laws, the BPP could, and they hoped to demonstrate this to the public. 8

Confrontation played a major role in the ideology of the Black Panthers. The BPP cast urban Black communities in Oakland, New York, and Los Angeles and other locations as colonies within a white supremacist imperialist nation: “Many Prominent members of the BPP argued that Black communities were colonies within the United States, often equating Black oppression with the oppression of colonized people around the world”9 By portraying Blacks as a suppressed colony, the BPP intended to create a history which justified and warranted a violent response. Historically, Blacks were violently suppressed. The Black Panthers intended socio-economic revolution; violence was one of the few means to immediately ideologically and physically fight the oppressive power structure.

MATERIALS:
1. Black Panther Ten Point Program
2. Black Power Mixtape: Angela Davis Interview. The activities will specifically focus on 1:29-5:15.
3. Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Black Panthers Speak. Specifically page 20 for the activities.
4. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth . Specifically page 51-52.

ACTIVITIES:
Activity 1: At the beginning of class, have students pair up into groups of two to four. Each group should discuss and brainstorm three or more ways in which self-defense or violence was used before the 1960’s by individuals in American History. Furthermore, the groups should analyze the positions of the individuals or groups in society who used violence and their relationship to the force or people they were fighting against. Students should be particularly guided toward examining the American Revolution, Slave Rebellions, the Civil War, the American Indian resistance towards Westward Expansion, Lynching, and actions of the Ku Klux Klan. To prompt students towards these topics, the teacher may ask the following questions before splitting into groups or to groups struggling to come up with relevant ideas:

1. How was violence used in the founding of the United States?
2. Were there any notable rebellions during the 1800’s? How did underrepresented groups such as Native Americans and Slaves attempt to gain political power?
3. What were some means by which Whites maintained racial segregation in the South?

After five to ten minutes, the class should come together as a whole and have each group share one of their ideas. The teacher may wish to remark or call attention to topics which particularly pertain to suppressed individuals attempting to assert political power through violence, such as the colonists. Furthermore, it should be discussed how violence is widely accepted as justified or rational in many situations. Discussion can certainly lead to different and pertinent topics. However, students should gain an understanding of violence or violent rhetoric as a part of politics as a means for marginalized groups to more quickly access the current power structure.

Activity 2: Upon completion of a short lecture which should mirror the introduction of this lesson, have every student begin by reading the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program. Before introducing the next primary sources prompt the students to consider:

1. How did violence fit into the larger goals of the Black Panther Party? Was violence the end goal or a means of awakening a consciousness in Black people? What was the consciousness?
2. What similarities and differences are drawn between Fanon’s work and the excerpts from The Black Panther?
3. How do the Black Panthers view the position of Black Americans in the United States? What similarities do you see to the people who historically used violence in the United States?

Next, show the brief video of Angela Davis, a prominent associate of the Black Panther Party. Finally, have the students read excerpts from The Black Panther, the newspaper created and circulated by the Black Panther Part, and the short excerpt from the Chapter “On Violence” form Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a reading which was widely circulated among Black Panther Party members.10 Be sure to briefly introduce the origins of these primary sources.

Upon completion of the readings, the class should discuss the above questions. The teacher can prompt general discussion by questioning what is surprising in the source? Why is it surprising? Other possible guiding questions include:

1. Was the purpose of the Black Panthers to simply utilize violence?
2. Why does Angela Davis claim to not understand the idea of using violence? How does this relate to the treatment of urban Blacks?
3. How does Fanon’s Work compare to the descriptions from the Black Panther? How is violence viewed as a constructive method? What does Fanon mean by “Violence is cleansing force.”?

Either as a homework exercise or an assignment to be turned in at the end of class, students should be asked to write two paragraphs using textual evidence from the Ten Point Program and one of the other primary sources and describe the position of African Americans in the United States as portrayed in the readings. They should also elaborate on how Black Panther members viewed violence as a means to help alter their position in society as well as how the violent rhetoric of the BPP responded to the failures of the non-violent civil rights movement. If time permits allow a handful of students to volunteer, or select a few to share their paragraphs.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:
Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.

Courtright, John A. “Rhetoric of the Gun: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Modifications of the Black Panther Party.” Journal of Black Studies 4, no. 3 (1974): 249-267.

Franklin, Raymond S. “The Political Economy of Black Power.” Social Problems 16, no. 3 (1969): 286-301.

Gatchet, Amanda Davis, and Dana L. Cloud. “David, Goliath, and the Black Panthers: The Paradox of the Oppressed Militant in the Rhetoric of Self-Defense.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 37, no. 1 (2013): 5-25.

Kirkby, Ryan J. “‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: Community Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971.” Canadian Review of American Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 25-62.

libcom. “The Black Panther: newspaper of the Black Panther Party | libcom.org.” libcom.org. http://libcom.org/history/black-panther-newspaper-black-panther-party (accessed March 6, 2013).

STANDARDS:
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and
media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or
solve a problem.
3. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
4. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

1Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006. 2
2Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall 69
3 Franklin, Raymond S. “The Political Economy of Black Power.” 287-8.
4Franklin, Raymond S. “The Political Economy of Black Power.” Social Problems 16, no. 3 (1969): 288.
5Gatchet, Amanda Davis, and Dana L. Cloud. “David, Goliath, and the Black Panthers: The Paradox of the Oppressed Militant in the Rhetoric of Self-Defense.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 37, no. 1 (2013): 8.
6Kirkby, Ryan J. “‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: Community Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971.” Canadian Review of American Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 32.
7Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall 10
8Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall 12
9Gatchet, Amanda Davis, and Dana L. Cloud. “David, Goliath, and the Black Panthers: The Paradox of the Oppressed Militant in the Rhetoric of Self-Defense.” 12.
10Courtright, John A. “Rhetoric of the Gun: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Modifications of the Black Panther Party.”Journal of Black Studies 4, no. 3 (1974): 253

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