21 October 2016
On the 50th anniversary of its foundation, Dorian Warren explores the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party and its legacy for recent black insurgency in America.
Their Ten Point Platform advanced a series of radical demands ranging from armed self-defence against police violence to universal healthcare, housing and education for the poorest sections of the black community.
While Martin Luther King argued for tactical non-violence and political integration, the Panthers carried guns and were resolutely internationalist, drawing on Malcolm X, Mau and the African liberation movement. They ran community programmes, free breakfast for children programmes, health clinics and raised funds for legal aid and prison reform.
Their image still looms large. Panther iconography – the leather jackets, berets, shotguns, formations and fists raised in defiance is burned into the consciousness of America and the world. They cultivated their own independent media, working with French New wave director Agnes Varda, publishing the party paper, bypassing hostile, mainstream outlets. By the early 1970s they had become the prime target of the FBI’s powerful counter-intelligence programme (COINTELPRO) and the party, now heavily infiltrated and scarred by internecine violence, fell into harrowing decline.
What is their real legacy for today’s activists, as black protest against police violence sweeps across the United States?
Producer: Simon Hollis. A Brook Lapping Production for BBC Radio 4