A January 1970 national opinion survey showed 25 percent of African Americans felt their views were accurately represented by the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary communist black militant organization.
By the time the poll was taken, according to journalist Hugh Pearson, Panther confrontations with police through the end of 1969 had already led to nine dead cops and 10 dead Panthers. Also by the end of 1969, Panther co-founder Huey Newton was in prison for killing a police officer, and Eldridge Cleaver (another of the top three leaders) was in exile to avoid prosecution for a shootout with police. Then, just after the poll was taken and to the surprise of nobody paying attention, the murderous communist monarchy of North Korea and the Black Panther Party announced a warm alliance.
So, what were all those Panther supporters in that poll responding to?
Hiding amid the mayhem are some (admittedly complicated and controversial) accomplishments that might attract some sympathy from right-leaning and libertarian Americans. For more of the history of the Black Panther Party, see the comprehensive new profile posted on InfluenceWatch.
Much of the Panther behavior, from beginning to end, was totally indefensible. As the organization was imploding in the late-1970s, it became almost comically gruesome. A team of three Panther assassins once attempted to kill a prosecution witness who was willing to testify that she had seen Huey Newton murder a teenage prostitute. The Black Panther gunmen managed only to kill one of their own when they went to the wrong address and accidentally raided the home of a grandmother who shot back at them.
To cover this up, a second team of killers attempted (and failed … again!) to murder a previously uninvolved Panther who had learned too much about the first fiasco. The second target was a paramedic, whose grave mistake was trying to help one of the survivors of the first assassination attempt. The Panther paramedic was shot repeatedly in the back by the new team of hapless hitmen, who assumed he was dead and buried him in a rock pile outside Las Vegas. In fact, he was paralyzed from the neck down, but otherwise able to tell police all that he knew.
The Original Open Carry Advocates
By 1977 the Black Panthers were nobody’s idea of responsible gun ownership. But it didn’t start out that way.
In 1967 they were the known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. When police stopped to speak to a local citizen in Oakland, California, a carload of Panthers would arrive with lawbooks, loaded firearms, and cameras. They were there to observe the situation and sometimes speak up to remind all involved of the constitutional right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and other civil liberties. In sharp contrast to the deadly firefights between police and Panthers in subsequent years, these interactions did not result in shots being fired.
In addition to a very healthy respect for the Second Amendment that would make Reagan Republicans proud, the Panther policy worked because at the time California law allowed them to openly carry loaded firearms. But California lawmakers responded to the Panthers by abolishing this exceptionally permissive gun policy (particularly by the standard of today’s California) in the summer of 1967. As the bill was being debated in the spring, a group of Panthers registered their protest by carrying their loaded weapons through the state capitol.
As for Ronald Reagan, he was the California governor in 1967. Reagan signed the ban on open carry into law, saying he could think of “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
Opposition to the Welfare State
Although coming at the problem from ideologically opposite directions, Reagan Republicans and the Black Panther Party also shared a common desire to replace the American welfare state and publicly expose its flaws.
Right-leaning and libertarian opponents of the welfare state have financially and ideologically supported a large network of private schools, pro-life crisis centers, food banks, substance abuse programs, and many other faith-based social services. Similarly, the Panthers created their own K–8 schools, free breakfast programs, free health clinics, and more. At one point in 1969 the Panthers were serving 10,000 breakfasts every morning to children in Oakland.
As to motives, the free market and faith-based movements aimed to carve out the largest space possible for voluntary private-sector solutions to social challenges. They created alternative schools and social programs that—ideally—were superior to government programs and to prove the government programs to be less necessary.
Where conservatives hoped to expose statist social programs for getting too involved, the Panthers’ “survival programs” were aimed at demonstrating the government wasn’t doing enough. According to left-leaning historians Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, the Panthers were trying to reveal the “insufficiency of the capitalist welfare state to meet even the most basic needs of its citizens, especially its black citizens.”
Although likely not well known at the time, the Panthers would sometimes rough up or firebomb local businesses that didn’t donate to the breakfast program. But hey . . . these were commies, that’s how they do it!
Leaving aside that violent and mostly hidden rough edge, the Panthers’ public-facing image was one of the demonstrating that private individuals working together could do the work of the welfare state. That’s an accomplishment that might please today’s conservatives, just as it impressed many African Americans back in 1970.