Decline of the Black Panthers

It was King’s death and the image of brave Panthers seeking to avenge it that cemented the party’s national reputation. For the first time many blacks who had resisted the martial calls of Black Power began to believe that white violence must be met with black violence. Emissaries arrived in Oakland from New York and dozens of other cities, all clamoring to start their own Panther chapters. In a matter of months, party membership went from hundreds to thousands; by late 1968 there would be Panther chapters in almost every major urban area. From a managerial point of view, it was chaos. A Central Committee was supposed to impose some kind of structure, but for the moment, Panther headquarters exercised little sway over these new affiliates.

It was, in some respects, the apex of the party’s influence; looking back, there is no denying that the Panthers’ “heroic” age was already passing. In September, after a two-month trial marked by rancorous demonstrations, Huey Newton was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two to fifteen years. Bobby Seale was indicted for taking part in demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention that August, becoming one of the “Chicago Eight.” Eldridge Cleaver, released on bond after the April shootout, spent the rest of 1968 “campaigning” for president and promoting Soul on Ice. After refusing to appear for a court date on November 27, he vanished; some said he had fled to Canada, others to Cuba. The next month a weary Stokely Carmichael boarded a freighter for a self-imposed exile in Guinea. “The revolution is not about dying,” he observed. “It’s about living.”