Fall of the Black Panther Party

C. Alexander Haywood | 5/11/2011, 5 p.m.

"So the concept is this basically: The whole Black nation has to be put together as a Black army. And we gon' walk on this nation. We gon' walk on the racist power structure. And we gone say to the government: "Stick em' up motherf****r, this is a holdup. We've come for what's ours"--an excerpt from the 1995 DVD "What We Want, What We Believe: the Black Panther Party Library.

It's been more than three decades since the collapse of the Black Panther Party (for Self Defense), as it was originally titled. After a historic campaign of militant demonstration and persisting community activism, the grassroots alliance that was, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described, "The greatest threat to the internal security of the country," finally crumbled under the relentless pressure of external opposition in 1970.

"Do you want to know why we aren't still around like the NAACP and all those other Uncle Tom Negroes?" asked Roland Freeman, former leader of the Panther's Los Angeles Chapter. "It's because we didn't want integration, we wanted progress, and integration aint' progress. We wanted our communities to be self-sufficient, self-aware and armed. Not walking hand and hand with the enemy."

Freeman added that Huey Newton, the Panther's founding member, went public with his decision to disband every segment of the party, without informing with his estranged brethren.

"He didn't tell us nothing [Newton]," griped Roland Freeman, former leader of the Panther's Los Angeles Chapter. "From what I knew, we were supposed to establish a new extension underground in Dallas, Texas, because things were getting too heated on the streets. But that never happened."

Newton's knee-jerk reaction to the government's ever-looming presence, prompted other key members of the panthers to break ranks, in an attempt to establish their own power base.

"When the split came, all the comrades (who) were revolutionary in their ideals and admirations for the Black Panther Party were on one side; and the other side with Newton and Hilliard represented the dictatorial power," former field marshal of the panthers Donald L. Cox said in an interview in the What We Want DVD. "[Newton's way was] you do what I say or you're going to get your head knocked in. That was the split."

A number of Panther leaders, including Newton and chief of staff David Hilliard, turned their focus to community service as well as self-defense, while former minister of information for the Panthers, (Leroy) Eldridge Cleaver, and others, embraced a more confrontational strategy.

Cleaver's faction proceeded to buck the powers that be--namely police, or "pigs" and they were often tagged by this splinter Panther group--with streaks of arbitrary violence and engaged indiscriminate battles with rival organizations.

Cleaver's rash approach to Black justice culminated with the death of Panther Bobby Hutton, or "Lil Bobby," the party's treasurer, who was gunned down during a haphazard ambush attempt on the Oakland Police by Cleaver's fraction of the party in 1968. The strain between he and Newton grew more severe, when he publicly criticized his estranged comrade for adopting a "reformist" rather than "revolutionary" agenda, and he also called for Hilliard's permanent removal.