Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panthers

NOTE: See Josh Bloom’s comments. Other comments are welcome. They are moderated to avoid spam and trolls, but serious engagement with the issues is welcomed.

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panthers, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., has received wide praise for its depth and scope of research on the politics of the Black Panthers. Based on more than a decade of work, the book was originally published in 2013 and was republished with a brief new preface in 2016. Its sources include nearly all the issues of the Black Panther newspaper, hundreds of contemporaneous and radio interviews, and dozens of interviews with participants. It stresses the changes in Black Panther ideology and practice over time. The book moves roughly chronologically through movement history, with the first three chapters devoted to events through 1967, three chapters devoted to late 1967 and 1968, seven chapters that focus primarily on the peak year of 1969, and two chapters that trace the unraveling that began in 1970. Within these rough chronological sections, however, the narrative moves back and forth in time to trace different threads. In my review, after summarizing the main arguments, I want to focus specifically on the role of repression in the Party’s rise and demise.

The key argument of the book is that the Black Panthers succeeded briefly (1968-1970) in gaining widespread support for a politics that defined Black people in the US as an internal colony and the Black movement as an anti-imperialist anti-colonial struggle in alliance with other anti-imperialist struggles, particularly the [North] Vietnamese resistance to US neo-colonial aggression. They advocated armed self-defense: they did not initiate conflicts with police, but would use weapons to defend themselves if the police entered their premises without warrants or hassled them inappropriately on the street. At the same time, beginning in early 1969, the Black Panthers devoted substantial resources to a free breakfast program for children and other services of direct benefit to low income Black urban communities. Unlike many other Black nationalist groups, including SNCC after 1966, they avoided anti-White rhetoric and formed alliances with predominantly-White anti-war groups like the Peace and Freedom Party and the SDS, as well as with other insurgent minority groups. The anti-imperialism frame made the alliance logical from both sides. Bloom and Martin stress that, despite stereotypes of anti-war activists as White, the earliest draft resistance was among Blacks, including SNCC and Muhammad Ali, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking against the war by 1967.

The book stresses the changes in the Black Panther Party (BPP) over time. Originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, it began in late 1966 when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (who had been involved in prior Black radical groups) hit on the strategy of openly and legally carrying loaded weapons and challenging police abuses. This attracted a great deal of popular support among poor Black people in Oakland. The BPP broke into national prominence in May 1967 when a group of Black Panthers openly (and legally) carried weapons into the California State Legislature to protest a vote on the Mulford Act which outlawed open carry. After the Mulford Act passed and openly carrying weapons became illegal in California, Newton and Seale developed theories of Black self defence and armed resistance, drawing on writings of Malcolm X, which they felt were confirmed by the Newark and Detroit riots of July 1967. In October 1967, a confrontation between Huey Newton and a police officer left the officer dead and Newton wounded. Newton was charged with murder. His defense was political: it did not matter exactly what had happened in the confrontation, but Newton was a political insurrectionary and the trial was a political trial. At the same time, the BPP formed a coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, which  had refused to meet the demands of the original group of Black radicals they sought to work with and knew they needed Black participation to be legitimate. For their part, the BPP knew they needed non-Black allies, rejected separatism and analyzed the Black struggle as linked to other anti-imperialist struggles. “Free Huey” became linked to opposition to the Vietnam war among radicals.

The FBI did not even mention the Black Panthers in its 1967 reports and in early 1968 mentioned it only once. At that time, the FBI called civil rights organizations, including Martin Luther King Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) dangerous “Black hate” organizations and devoted significant effort to trying to stop King and the SCLC. By 1968, King had spoken out against the Vietnam War, had become estranged from most White politicians, and was considered a radical extremist by a majority of White Americans. At the same time, SNCC was advocating Black Power, waves of Black urban insurrectionary riots had occurred each year since 1963, and the politics of nonviolence and integration were losing appeal among Black Americans. Then King was killed in April 1968 and a huge wave of Black protest riots ensued. After King was killed, White politicians quickly remade their discursive image of King into a peaceful and non-threatening proponent of brotherly love to be used as an ideological weapon against Black Power. King’s murder also led to the collapse of support for the politics of integration among Black Americans. Black Power quickly became the dominant Black ideology, especially among northern urban Black young people. The Black Panthers quickly became the main symbol of Black Power and standing up to police oppression. The Black Panthers also quickly rose to the top of the FBI’s list of dangerous organizations. Nearly simultaneously, the anti-war movement persuaded President Johnson not to seek a second term, the Democratic Party was divided between anti-war and pro-war factions, and the anti-war movement on college campuses escalated, with ongoing alliances between the Black Panthers and leftist anti-war organizations united by a broad general ideology linking anti-imperialism and Marxism.

1969 was the year of both the most extreme repression against the Black Panthers and also the year of its greatest growth. Early in 1969 the Black Panthers initiated its program of free breakfasts for children, which was widely popular among Black urban residents and attracted many new members. As 1969 wore on, the Panthers were growing rapidly as an organization that simultaneously  provided real services to their communities and was engaged in violent conflicts with the police. It had widespread Black support, even among non-members.

Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968 and issued directives to repress the Black Panthers after he took office in January 1969, although the first police raids on Panther offices began in December 1968. Throughout 1969, the FBI and local police engaged in a large number of overtly repressive actions, in which they broke into Black Panther offices without warrants, destroyed property, engaged in gun battles with the Black Panthers, and arrested them for resisting arrest. Documents later released showed that the FBI was concerned about the popularity of the Black Panthers, and in its raids confiscated and destroyed food intended for the breakfast program and other property and money intended for Panther social service actions. In a number of cases, Black Panther offices were bombed, probably by police. On the Black Panther side, Huey Newton issued a directive to the Black Panthers that all members must arm themselves and must engage in armed defense if the police sought entry to their offices or homes without a warrant; any Panther who failed to offer armed resistance was to be purged from the Party.

In the most extreme and widely-publicized instance of overt police repression, Fred Hampton was assassinated by police in December 1969 as he slept (probably having been drugged by the police informant) after police broke into his home without a warrant; another Panther was also killed in a fight with police. The Black Panthers captured the media narrative in this incident, and it was condemned by nearly all Black organizations, including the NAACP and other moderate organizations, as well as many White organizations. There was an immediate outpouring of support for the Black Panthers among Blacks, even among organizations and people who opposed their ideology, and also among liberal to left Whites. This and other incidents of obvious overt and aggressive repression can be said to have backfired, and increased rather than reduced the support for and strength of the Black Panthers.

The seven chapters of the book that center on 1969 are a rich compendium of the different threads of Panther politics and activism that I cannot do justice to. These include deep discussions of the Panthers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, including issues of the boundaries of armed struggle, the role of wealthy donors, debates about bail funds and bail jumping Panthers and their conflicts with Oakland, including conflicts over wealthy donors,  bail funds, and bail jumping; of the San Francisco State protests and alliances and of the alliances with other ethnic groups elsewhere. There is also a chapter devoted to international relations centering on Eldridge Cleaver, who had gone into exile, and Panther recognition by Algeria and China as an anti-colonial liberation movement. The full picture is one of complexity, conflicts between different Pather formations that were about both organizational and personal jockeying for position and about central issues of political analysis and practice, and internal contradictions that even in the heyday seem to point to the impending  unraveling of the movement.

Because the Black Panthers period of greatest growth in 1969 coincided with the period of greatest violent repression, Bloom and Martin discount repression as a factor in the decline of the BPP. Instead, they attribute the decline of the Black Panthers after 1970 to a loss of allies as the US involvement in the Vietnam War and the draft declined, Black electoral victories and affirmative action provided opportunities for Black moderates, and the US improved its relations with China and Algeria, countries that had provided international support. Their emphasis on loss of allies as the most important cause of decline is in tension with other materials in the book that give clear evidence of internal organizational conflicts over strategy after the mid-1970s that could be read as embodying the inherent contradictions and conflicts in the Party from its beginnings.

At its peak in the early 1970s, the Black Panthers had broad support and allies among both moderate Blacks and White liberals and radicals. It was recognized internationally as a voice, perhaps the voice, of the Black American insurgency. But then the organization began to unravel. Bloom and Martin trace the threads of the unraveling. The short version includes internal contradictions about the logic of self-defense, an above-ground if militant strategy that claimed liminal legality, versus guerilla warfare, an underground strategy of armed attack. FBI repression shifted from overt violence to infiltration, dirty tricks, sowing dissent among members, and disinformation campaigns. Bloom and Martin emphasize the loss of allies as the central cause of decline, and assert that this loss of allies was due to elite strategies that gave them some benefits, including political opportunities and chances of economic and educational advancement through affirmative action to middle class Blacks, poverty programs to meet some people’s dire economic needs, a reduction in US involvement in the Vietnam War that reduced the impact of the draft on young American men, and shifting US support for post-colonial nations along with a more open policy to China that weakened international support for the Black Panthers. These were surely factors, but it is hard to imagine the Black Panthers surviving the internal factionalism and ideological disputes that the book describes, and it is hard to discount the impact of the FBI’s less overt repressive tactics in fueling some of that factionalism.

As a side note, the Black Panther name and image had its origins in SNCC’s work in Mississippi in 1966. SNCC encouraged the formation of Black Panther parties around the US in 1966 and 1967. There were originally two groups in Oakland with the Black Panther name, and independently-founded groups in Los Angeles and many other cities. Between 1968 and 1971, most groups using the Black Panther name were under the leadership of the Oakland Black Panthers and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as other Black Panther groups either affiliated with “the” Black Panthers or were intimidated into changing their names. The proliferation of groups claiming the Black Panther name after the mid-1970s is consistent with its diffuse origins.

I first listened to the book in audio–it was an engaging book to listen to–and then took notes from the ebook version. The book is long and rich on details, so it is not a fast read, but it is a fascinating and important and quite readable analytic history of an important Black organization and the larger political context in which it was embedded.

Edit: Readers may be interested in some extended interviews with Josh Bloom I found on line that continue the discussion of revolutionary black politics. Here is one. and here is part 2 of that interview.

8 comments

  1. Dear Pam,
    Thanks for sharing! It’s gratifying to see you read Black against Empire closely.

    Regarding the role of repression, you argue that: “it is hard to imagine the Black Panthers surviving the internal factionalism and ideological disputes that the book describes, and it is hard to discount the impact of the FBI’s less overt repressive tactics in fueling some of that factionalism.” I agree that the internal conflicts, exacerbated by repression, drove the Party’s demise. In the first paragraph of the conclusion I write: “The Party, racked by external repression and internal fissures, quickly and disastrously unraveled.” (390) The question is whether repression and internal organizational fissures alone were sufficient to explain the demise of black revolutionary politics. I argue they were not: “Had government hiring and university enrollment remained inaccessible to blacks, had black electoral representation not expanded, had affirmative action programs never proliferated, had the military draft not been scaled back and then repealed, and had revolutionary governments abroad not normalized relations with the United States, revolutionary black anti-imperialism would still be a powerful force in the United States today.” (14) That is not to say that Black Panther Party as an organization was invulnerable. To the contrary. But the contours of the political environment which supported a broad revolutionary black anti-imperialist insurgency changed, undercutting the efficacy of such political practices. As “allies became less open to the Panthers’ revolutionary position in 1970 and 1971, repressive action by the state became increasingly effective.” (397) In the 1970s, “all revolutionary black organizations in the United States declined.” (390) Not just the Black Panther Party organization.

    So the argument is not intended to downplay the significance of repression or factionalism in the decline of the Party, but to emphasize the way that repression interacts with broader political reception of a movement’s practices. Think about the intense repression the Civil Rights Movement faced five years earlier. In that case repression failed to undermine the movement.

    I also shift the crux of the analysis from organizational strength and integrity towards the dynamics of insurgent practice. Lots of different groups and individuals took up Civil Rights insurgent practices in the early 1960s. And the Black Panther Party was far from alone in taking up revolutionary black politics in the late 1960s. In each case, the efficacy of the practices depended upon historically specific political cleavages. In both cases, the movements declined as the cleavages upon which they depended were sutured by concessions. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow was dismantled in direct concession to the movement. In the case of the Black Panthers, authorities made concessions to constituencies who supported the Party in the face of repression.

    Josh

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read my essay, Josh. I want to reiterate how impressive the book is. As your comment indicates, the book really takes seriously the issues of politics and practice.

    The next step of this specific discussion is whether the unraveling of the BPP is the same as the demise of Black revolutionary politics–I know you would agree with me that they are not the same–and the relation between the two. Your book does not really have evidence about whether Black revolutionary politics collapsed and, if so, where the Black revolutionaries went next after the BPP fell apart. My essay does not tell readers that your book does deal with what happened to some people, especially in Oakland, where there was a shift toward community organizing and electoral politics. I have not done the research and am thus not qualified to comment on everything that happened in the 1970s and 1980s, but I doubt very much that revolutionary consciousness went away. Your book stresses that the breakfast programs and other self-help programs of direct benefit to Black communities were powerful attractions of the BPP, and this impulse toward building Black institutions and power bases seems to have continued, as far as I can see. What declined were the provocative confrontations with police, which were just getting people killed. Your book does a great job of talking about the difficulty of maintaining the distinction between armed self defense and a guerrilla war, and I think you case materials can be read as evidence that the distinction ultimately could not be maintained, and that armed self defense was not an effective long-term strategy, nor were the conditions ripe for a guerrilla war. Some people did go down the violent path, and they faced the ramped up and extreme repression of intense policing and rising incarceration. Everybody in the 1970s and 1980s recognized the potential for insurrectionary Black riots, and they still happened sometimes, along with violent politically-motivated confrontations with police. But mostly they lost.

    I do think that your point about allies getting what they wanted and reducing their support for revolutionary politics is important, but even there I found your discussions of the motivations of those other groups to be superficial. This really should not be offered as a criticism, as you’d have to write three other books to document what was going on with each of those groups. The real meat of the book is what was going on with the BPP, not what was going on with all the other groups. What you know is when the BPP got support and when it didn’t.

  3. Thanks, yes, these are important questions. Surely, black anti-imperialist ideas were prevalent in some circles well before the rise of the Black Panther Party and continue to be very influential in some circles today. And “riots” or punctuated violent urban rebellions also pre-dated and continue after the Party. But my argument concerns insurgent politics, i.e. political mobilization that sustains disruption from below as a source of power. [See my article “Dynamics of Opportunity and Insurgent Practice” (ASR 2015) for a more technical discussion of “insurgent practice.”] By the mid-1970s revolutionary black anti-imperialist politics had declined as a form of insurgent mobilization.
    Besides the Black Panther Party, there were a number of other revolutionary black organizations that mobilized in the late 1960s. Think of the League of Revolutionary Workers, the Revolutionary Action Movement, or the Republic of New Africa. All such organizations that I am aware of declined sharply by the late 1970s. While, as you point out, my book is about the Black Panther Party and I barely mention these organizations, others have studied some of this history. Christian Davenport has an especially rich treatment on the role of repression in the decline of the Republic of New Africa (How Social Movements Die, Cambridge UP: 2015). He uses his own interesting theoretical framework to unpack this, but the evidence is consistent with my argument about the Panthers. Repression did not work initially to quell the RNA, and seems to have contributed to escalation, but in the 1970s the dynamic changed, and repression became much more effective in demobilizing the RNA.
    There are two main kinds of evidence on the changing dynamics of repression in the Black Panther Party presented in Black against Empire. One concerns the role of repression in the mobilization process. As you discuss above, the Party continued to grow during the period of greatest repression in 1969, and the chapters in the heart of the book unpack many of the specific ways that repressive action by the state fed mobilization processes. The other kind of evidence concerns the role of repression in the demise of the Party. Because most rank and file Black Panther members left the Party amidst intra-organizational fights and bad press, rather than because they were jailed or killed by the state, the role of repression in destroying the Party is not simple and straightforward. I argue that in combination with the Nixon administration’s efforts to stabilize and appease the middle (affirmative action, rolling back of the draft and war, international diplomacy) repression worked to make the Black Panthers’ insurgent practices hard to sustain.
    The main evidence I provide to support this analysis is in the details of the process of unravelling. As you say above, what I know from my research is “is when the BPP got support and when it didn’t.” And more specifically, who supported the Party, what they asked of the Party, how that changed over time, and how the different factions of the Party responded to those changes. The internal schisms in the Party developed along a fundamental divide: the national headquarters sought to de-militarize its public image and appease supporters, while the rebelling factions – Geronimo Pratt, NY 21, Cleaver – sought to escalate direct armed struggle without regard to the lack of broad support. The middle ground was no longer viable, an assessment which is consistent with the collapse of the other similar insurgent organizations at the same time. This evidence supports my counterfactual that “Had government hiring and university enrollment remained inaccessible to blacks, had black electoral representation not expanded, had affirmative action programs never proliferated, had the military draft not been scaled back and then repealed, and had revolutionary governments abroad not normalized relations with the United States, revolutionary black anti-imperialism would still be a powerful force in the United States today.” (14) If none of this had changed, my analysis suggests that a lot of supporters would still defend a politics something like that of the Black Panther Party in 1969. Conversely, it is impossible to reasonably imagine a movement like the Black Panthers thriving today. Armed black revolutionaries advocating the killing of police and the violent overthrow of the U.S. government today would be readily marked as terrorists, and killed by the state with impunity.
    In any case, I agree that there is a limit to how much can be done in a single book. Black against Empire is a narrative analysis presented to a broad general audience, rather than a technical analysis presented for an audience of specialists. I appreciate you taking the analysis seriously despite the broad readership the book has attracted.

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