The Black Panthers: Lessons for the fight against racism and capitalism

Huey P Newton - photo CIR Online/CC

After World War Two, the civil rights movement erupted in America.

Black people in the US faced enormous racism and discrimination, especially in the south, a legacy of slavery.

Large numbers of Black people moved from rural areas to cities. In 1940, over half of the Black population lived in cities; by 1970 this had become over 75%. Moving into massive urban areas, in poverty in ghettoes, and becoming part of the urban working class, increased their confidence, strength and collectivity.

With a deterioration in the economy and in the living conditions of working-class people, Black people in the US were inspired by the liberation movements taking place all over the world against imperialism.

In the United States in 1965, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. However, while this was a legal victory, it did not alter the reality of poverty and police brutality within Black people’s lives.

Although segregation laws had broken down, poverty within the Black community had actually increased. Black unemployment was higher in 1966 than it was in 1954, with 32% of Black people living below the poverty line.

One of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, had initially taken the position of mass non-violent civil disobedience – which itself was a radical position in contrast to campaigns purely for legal change. But peaceful demonstrations were savagely attacked by the police and state.

King and class struggle

He drew deeper conclusions about capitalism and the need to fight poverty – famously saying: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” King realised that Black people must join forces with the white working class in America to organise a class-based struggle.

The civil rights movement politicised many young Black people, who were angry at their situation and knew things had to change. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Panther party at a time when many young Black people were rejecting the pacifist response of previous civil rights leaders, and were looking for an alternative to the threat of imprisonment and repression.

Another prominent figure, who we do not learn about in our history lessons, was Malcolm X, who came to struggle from a life of poverty as a teenager. He joined the Nation of Islam, which wanted Black separation. However, Malcolm X drew conclusions about the nature of capitalism and the integral role racism has played within it.

Leaders of the Black Panther Party also began to realise that a struggle against capitalism was required to win better living conditions for Black people. They argued that capitalism was built on a political and economic foundation of racism, and that the Black struggle must be a revolutionary movement to overthrow the entire power structure in order to achieve liberation for all Black people.

One of the most famous quotes from leading Black Panther Fred Hampton was: “We do not fight exploitative capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism.” Bobby Seale concluded that capitalism needed to be overthrown to win better living conditions, not only for Black people but for all working-class people.

The Black Panther Party proposed a ten-point programme, including demands for housing, employment and education, but also “placing the means of production… in the community”.

These ideas were popular amongst young Black people, as they provided some answers to the lifelong oppression Black working-class people experienced. Within two years, the Panthers had developed a new branch in every major city, and they sold over 125,000 newspapers every week.

The ruling class was terrified of the confidence that the Black Panther Party created among black youth.

When Panther members saw police pull over a black driver, they stopped and observed the incident, usually with weapons in hand. At that time, it was legal in California to carry guns within certain limitations, and the Panthers asserted their right to do so, quoting the relevant sections of the law. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he signed the Mulford Act, a bill that prohibited the public from carrying loaded firearms without a permit, which was as a direct response to the Black Panthers.

Police repression

The confidence the Black Panther Party created, and the ideas they put forward, were enough for the ruling class to use extreme police repression. Police infiltrated Black organisations. Over 300 of the Panther’s 1,000 core members were arrested and 39 were shot dead, including Fred Hampton while he was asleep next to his pregnant partner. By 1971, two million Black people were being arrested each year, almost 20% of the Black population at the time.

Even brutal state repression can be resisted by mass movements, and it would have been much harder for the US state to carry it out, had the struggle developed more united working-class support and involvement.

The leaders of the Black Panthers, unfortunately, were influenced by Stalinist ideas and inspired by guerrilla movements. They did the vital work of organising amongst the most downtrodden, but didn’t also orientate enough towards the organised working class. Their leaders later reflected that they relied too much on being a military group, a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ rather than building a base in the working class and aiming to mobilise the mass of working-class people.

The Black Panthers and their struggle – with their bravery, determination and their understanding of the need for a united class approach – are an inspiration to this day as young Black people are still forced to fight racism and police brutality, poverty and economic inequality.

The US ruling class are fearful of such an organisation emerging again. It is vital that a new generation learns the lessons of the need to unite working-class people and fight for a socialist programme that can challenge capitalism and its divide-and-rule tactics.

Only a socialist society, based on public ownership of the huge wealth and resources that exist, with democratic planning, can lay the basis for the eradication of racism once and for all.

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