Forty-six years ago today, in the Anti-Poverty Center in North Oakland, California, two young black American activists composed a “10-Point Program” as a blueprint for their envisaged revolution. Subtitled “What We Want and What We Believe”, this (literal) call-to-arms represented a significant shift in the African American civil rights struggle which not only forsook the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. but upped Malcolm X’s militant ante. In addition to the usual calls for equal housing, employment, education and health care, the 10-Point Program codified a radical new vision for a Black Society free from its white colonial oppressors. Amongst their demands were exemption for all blacks from military service, freedom for all black prisoners, remuneration for the crime of slavery, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite for an independent black colony and the right to bear arms as an act of self-defense from police brutality. This extraordinary manifesto, written by the self-educated Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, heralded the active birth of Black Power and marked the official founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense – arguably the most revolutionary post-1776 American movement.
Inspired by the words and deeds of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Chairman Mao and Che Guevara and equipped with law books, shotguns and a strict uniform code, Newton and Seale mounted an ingenious campaign which quickly catapulted the BPP into a national organisation; within two years, over 2,000 Panthers were mobilized across America – including some of the most impressive rhetoricians of the counterculture: Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, George Jackson and Fred Hampton.
More ominously, by 1969 J Edgar Hoover would declare the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” – and, in their determination to repress the movement, the government turned the Panthers’ credo ‘by any means necessary’ firmly against them. The ensuing onslaught of assassinations, framings, imprisonments and infiltrations would prove too much for the Panthers to weather. But in their 1967-71 heyday, the Panthers were the most genuine and effective revolutionaries in a Revolutionary era. Their legacy is too often unfairly focused on their gun-toting rhetoric and theatrical posturing, but lest we forget how well they “served the people” with their groundbreaking Survival Programs, including: testing for diseases, ambulance services, escorts for senior citizens and the hugely successful Free Breakfast – which fed 10,000 underprivileged black children across America every day before school.