The Black Panther Party: Pioneers of Modern Activism and Self Determination

Din Didic, Staff Writer

Last month marked the 56th anniversary since the founding of the Black Panther Party. Established by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party was intended to popularize the Black Power movement and curb police brutality in Bay Area neighborhoods.


The movement originated after the San Fransisco Police Department murdered a Black teenager, Matthew Johnson. Civil unrest in Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco ensued and both Seale and Newton used public indignation as an opportunity to form the Black Panther Party to oppose police brutality and elevate Black voices.  


Aside from police reform, the Black Panther Party’s dissatisfaction with capitalism was another key facet of the party’s platform, believing the economic system to perpetuate struggle and violence towards people of color, women, and working class individuals. As such, Seale and Newton looked towards socialism and self-determination as favorable facets for social change.


While the organization was originally founded to patrol predominantly Black neighborhoods as a retaliatory response against police brutality, the Black Panthers expanded their mission to provide for underserved, marginalized communities in the Bay Area. Neighborhood watch parties, running local food programs, and operating accessible health clinics were among many notable Black Panther contributions to their communities. 


However, the Black Panthers’ best known initiative was their Free Breakfast Program, which aimed to provide a nutritional breakfast for Oakland’s youth. Shortly after the program was implemented, schools began to notice improved academic performance among the children that participated in the Free Breakfast Program. The success of the program set a precedent for the future of education and child care, becoming the precursor to California’s Universal Meals Program — granting free lunch to all public school students — and the National School Breakfast Program — a program that grants free breakfast to over 14 million school children every year. 


Aside from the Free Breakfast Program, the party  revolutionized healthcare by bringing free healthcare services to the neighborhoods they served. The organization opened clinics for low-income Bay Area communities to receive healthcare and services.


The Black Panthers played a vital role during a Sickle Cell Anemia epidemic in predominantly Black communities by offering free sickle cell tests and screenings, offering services that the government failed to provide at the time. Due to the party’s broad reach and reputation as a vanguard for the underserved and underrepresented communities, the FBI considered the Black Panthers as a threat.  


Much of contemporary American activism is ideologically rooted in the Black Panther movement and the titular party. Dr. Crystallee Crain, a political science professor at California State University, East Bay, believes that the Panthers’ commitment towards “their own community without reliance on the state” and the party’s rhetoric toward self-determination for minorities was an important contribution of the Black Panther Party. 


Although the Black Panther Party was dissolved in 1982, their legacy continues into modernity. “We see it in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, we see it in different ways with the anti-prison movement in California,” stated Crain.  If the group were active today, “I think it would be welcomed, [since] if you look at how activism is being done on the West Coast and in the country, it is all inspired by the Black Panther Party’s activism,” added Crain. 


The Black Panthers outlined the inequalities of society and fought against oppression in ways that were revolutionary and innovative. Founded in Oakland, the Black Panther Party is a testament to the city’s rich history of diversity and its role as the birthplace for many movements aiming to secure equality and justice for marginalized groups.