Inside the Black Panther Party (2 of 2)

By the late 1960s, many of the Black Panther Party leadership had become entangled in criminal trials or were serving long prison sentences. Some had been killed. The remaining BPP leaders could not agree on how to overcome these issues.

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Logo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.Logo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.

By the late 1960s, internal and external strife were beginning to divide the Black Panther Party (BPP).

In May of 1969, New York Black Panther Party members murdered Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old member of that chapter. His fellow Panthers suspected him of being a police informant and tortured him into an admission. Three party officers—Warren Kimbro, George Sams, Jr., and Lonnie McLucas—later admitted taking part. Sams would later claim that the order to kill Rackley came from Bobby Seale.

In 1966, after the assassination of Malcolm X, the black leader's cousin Hakim Jamal and Ron "Maulana" Karenga (the creator of the Kwanzaa holiday) founded an organization known as US. The organization was a political rival of the Black Panther Party, whose members referred to it as "United Slaves." The FBI agitated this rivalry.

Violence erupted in January of 1969, when the two groups attempted to take control of the Afro-American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Black Panther members John Huggins and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter were killed and one US member was wounded in the resulting shoot-out between the two organizations.

The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) was another Black Panther rival organization spawned in the California prison system by George Jackson in 1966. Jackson, a former Black Panther, rallied inmates throughout the prison system. He believed that the Black Panthers were not radical enough, and didn't adequately represent the imprisoned black man. He vowed to form an organization that would supporting his imprisoned people like a family and become the vanguard in the coming revolution.

Many of the former Black Panther members had, like Jackson, become BGF members in prison and had become disenchanted with Newton for his perceived neglect of imprisoned black people. They also listened to allegations of Newton's mismanagement and murders within the Black Panther organization.

Decline and Fall

Many of the Black Panther Party leadership had become entangled in criminal trials or were serving long prison sentences. Some had been killed. The remaining BPP leaders could not agree on how to overcome these issues. A serious split occurred within the party. Panther leaders Huey Newton and David Hilliard favored a focus on community service coupled with self-defense. Others such as Eldridge Cleaver, the minister of information, embraced a more militant strategy.

Cleaver deepened the schism in the party when he publicly criticized the party for adopting a "reformist" rather than "revolutionary" agenda. He openly called for Hilliard's removal. As a result Cleaver was expelled from the BPP's Central Committee. However, Cleaver went on to lead the Black Liberation Army, which had previously existed as an underground paramilitary wing of the party.

In 1972, Bobby Seale was released from prison following the Alex Rackley murder trial. He ran for the office of mayor of Oakland, and paced a respectable second in the election. His relations with Newton became strained and in 1974 they argued about a proposed movie to be made about the Black Panther Party. Newton allegedly had Seale beaten severely, and Seale went into hiding for a year. Seale would later deny the incident, but he ended his association with the Black Panther Party.   

In August of 1974, Huey Newton shot and killed 17-year-old prostitute Kathleen Smith for calling him "Baby," a moniker he hated. He also pistol-whipped his tailor, Preston Callins, for making the same mistake. Arrested and charged with the murder and the assault, he managed to post $80,000 bond and flee to Cuba with a girlfriend. He remained there until 1977.

These internal political disputes and the costs of so many legal battles were decimating the BPP. Before he jumped bail in 1974, Huey Newton appointed Elaine Brown as the first female BPP chairwoman. Under Brown, the party became a significant force in local politics. Several BPP candidates or BPP-backed candidates, made runs for various offices, culminating in the election of Lionel Wilson as the first black mayor of Oakland.

Some say that by the time Wilson took over the BPP it was already on its death bed, but the influence and numbers of the Black Panthers continued to decline. Only 27 members could claim membership by 1980, and in 1982 the Oakland Panther-sponsored school closed after it had become known that Newton was embezzling funds from the school to pay for his drug addiction.

Like many others in the black community, Huey Newton had become a crack addict. This was in violation of the party's stated rules. Shortly after leaving a crack house in the 1400 block of Ninth Street in West Oakland on Aug. 22, 1989, Newton was fatally shot by BGF member and drug dealer Tyrone Robinson. In 1991, Robinson was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

The year Newton was gunned down, a group calling itself "The New Black Panther Party" was formed in Dallas, Texas. By 1999, Khalid Abdul Muhammad became that organization's chairman. Today, the membership is primarily made up of former members of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Members of the original Black Panther Party insist that this New Black Panther Party is illegitimate and have strongly objected to the new organization's name. 

Another connection to the party comes in the form of 1990s gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed in 1996 in a drive-by. Tupac's mother was Black Panther Aferi Shakur. His biological father was Black Panther Billy Garland. Tupac's stepfather was Black Panther Mutulu Shakur, and his godfather was Black Panther Geronimo Pratt.

In the early 1970s, Pratt was facing a murder conviction and confined in the "High Power" module (2500) of the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail along with other Black Panthers and members of the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Black Guerrilla Family. I was their 2500 module officer and law library deputy. For almost two years, I had daily contact with these dangerous individuals and sometimes discussed their own and rival gang ideologies with them. These inmates were intelligent and diabolically cunning, much higher on the food chain than any Crip.


Inside the Black Panther Party (1 of 2)

Black Panthers' Gun Supplier Was FBI Informant

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