- The 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party: A Scholarly Commemoration
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), an organization cofounded by Bobby G. Seale and Huey P. Newton in October 1966. Fifty years since its founding (October 2016) and 34 years after the termination of the organization’s last formal program, the Oakland Community School in 1982, the BPP still reverberates in popular culture and the sociopolitical arena. The controversy surrounding Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is but one example of the BPP’s continuing influence on contemporary American culture. After Beyonce’s half-time Super Bowl show where she performed her single “Formation,” in which she and her dancers wore Black Panther–inspired black berets and leather and danced in formation, police officers in Miami, Florida, and Raleigh, North Carolina, threatened to withhold security for the mega-star’s tour in protest. Various law enforcement officials complained that Beyonce’s half-time performance paid homage to what they perceived as an anti-police organization.
The BPP influence is also evident in other musical genres. Hip hop artists, ranging from Public Enemy to Rick Ross, have incorporated Panther lyrical references, sampled speeches of party leaders, and dedicated songs to the organization. The strong, positive public reception to Stanley Nelson’s critically acclaimed documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Hale 2015; Nelson 2016), further reflected current interest in the Black Panther Party. Within American politics, parallels between the audaciousness, defiance, and zeal of Black Lives Matter activists and Black Panther Party members in confronting police brutality also contribute to the presence of the Black revolutionary organization’s enduring legacy. [End Page 1]
During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the BPP energized and electrified millions of people who sought social and economic justice both at home and abroad. Within four years, the organization grew from a small, locally based Oakland group with fewer than 50 members to an international organization with a chapter in Algeria, Algiers, and national affiliates across the country. Over the course of its eventful 16-year history (1966–1982), the BPP produced a celebrated, yet contested legacy. While certainly complicated, the BPP elevated the saliency of armed resistance, which arguably represented an institutionalization of Henry Highland Garnett, Malcolm X, and Robert Williams’s ideas of self-defense. BPP members shared a long and distinguished history of providing material assistance to low-income residents regardless of race. The organization implemented a myriad of community outreach initiatives, including its well-known and highly regarded free breakfast program, sickle cell anemia testing, free medical health clinics, free busing to prison program, free pest control, and a host of other aptly named survival programs.
Moreover, the BPP promoted an adherence to the principle of the human dignity of all individuals, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, which was manifested in the multiracial coalition politics that helped define the organization. Party rainbow coalitions consisting of multiple racial groups existed among many BPP affiliates across the nation (Williams, 2013; Jones, 2010). The BPP served as a model for protest organizations both in and outside the country. Domestically, organizations such as the Patriot Party, White Panther Party, and the Young Lords were all influenced by the Black Panthers. Internationally, citizens in Australia (Black Panther Party), New Zealand (Polynesian Panthers), India (Dalit Panthers), England (Black Panther Movement), Bermuda (Black Beret Cadre), and Israel (Black Panthers of Israel) all formed organizations modeled on and influenced by the Black Panther Party (Jones & Jeffries, 1998, p. 37; Anae, Iuli, & Burgoyne, 2006; Frankel, 2012; Slate, 2012).
The BPP’s notable legacy has led to events related to the observance of the 50th anniversary of its founding across both academic and community settings. For example, in February 2016, Delaware State University sponsored two events as a part of the symposium “Black Lives Matter: 50 Years of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” a screening of Nelson’s documentary and a lecture featuring Bobby Seale, the party’s chairman from 1966 to 1974, and other party members from Baltimore and Chicago, as well as nationally recognized experts on...