Rise of the Black Panthers

Few protest groups in U.S. history have risen to national prominence as quickly as the Panthers: They went from an idea in Huey Newton’s head to the front pages of major newspapers in a scant seven months. Part of this was luck, part the enormous appeal to beleaguered urban blacks of the Panthers’ message to police: Kill a black man, they warned, and retribution will follow. But the crucial factor in the Panthers’ meteoric rise was Newton’s genius for media and street theatrics, as demonstrated from their first confrontations with authority to the costumes they donned, black leather jackets, powder-blue shirts and turtlenecks, and especially the black berets they wore in honor of Che Guevara. Unlike other black-militant groups springing up that year, the Panthers not only sounded badass; they looked it.

In its first hundred days, the party consisted only of Newton, Seale, and a dozen or so of their friends. With little fanfare, they secured their first guns, learned how to use and clean them, opened a storefront office at Fifty-sixth and Grove in Oakland, and began their patrols, cruising the streets until they found a black citizen being questioned by police, typically at a traffic stop. The Panthers would step from their car, guns drawn, and remind the citizen of his rights; when a shaken patrolman asked what the hell they were doing, Newton, who had taken law school classes, told him of their right to bear arms. The Panthers generated curiosity and then, after a tense confrontation outside their office in early February 1967, respect.

An Oakland policeman stopped Newton’s car; Seale and others were with him. At first Newton politely showed his driver’s license and answered the officer’s questions; he had his M1 rifle in clear view, Seale his 9mm. In short order three more patrol cars arrived. A crowd began to form. Up and down the street, people poked their heads from apartment windows. When an officer asked to see the guns, Newton refused. “Get away from the car,” Newton said. “We don’t want you around the car, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” the officer demanded.

“Who in the hell do you think _you_ are,” Newton replied.

At that point, Newton emerged from the car and loudly chambered a round in his rifle. When police tried to shoo away the growing crowd, Newton shouted for everyone to stay put, that they were within their rights to observe what was happening on a public street.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” an officer asked.

“What are you going to do with your gun?” Newton replied. “Because if you shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”

The byplay continued like this for several long minutes. Each time Newton challenged the police, onlookers would clap and yell, “You know where it’s at” or “Dig it!” Newton, it was clear, was acting out the fantasy of every black youth on the street. And, amazingly, he got away with it. The police retired without making any arrests.

Within days, word of these brazen new Panthers spread from Oakland across the Bay Area. The turning point came on February 21, 1967. Another of the new Panther groups, this one based in San Francisco, had invited Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, to announce the formation of a Bay Area chapter of Malcolm’s OAAU on the anniversary of his death; because the San Francisco Panthers disdained weaponry, they invited the Oakland Panthers to provide security. Newton, Seale, and their new recruits, all armed, escorted Shabazz from the airport to offices of the radical magazine Ramparts, where she gave an interview. They emerged afterward into a phalanx of newspapermen, television cameras—and police.

Shabazz had asked that her picture not be taken. When one photographer refused to lower his camera, Newton punched him. Several policemen raised their guns. When a few Panthers turned their back to watch Shabazz emerge from the building, Newton snapped, “Don’t turn your back on these back-shooting motherfuckers!” He chambered a round into his shotgun. A crowd formed. Both Ramparts editors and policemen raised their hands and told everyone to “cool it,” but when one officer refused, Newton barked, “Don’t point that gun at me!” When the officer still refused, he shouted, “Okay, you big fat racist pig, draw your gun! Draw it, you cowardly dog! I’m waiting.” The officer lowered his weapon, defusing the situation, but the incident was caught on television cameras and made a powerful impact when it aired.

This was something entirely new to California and soon to the rest of the country: strong, proud black men with guns facing down startled white policemen. This, it appeared, was what Black Power would mean in the streets. Word of Huey Newton and these fearless new Black Panthers spread like a windswept fog. In the next few weeks the party attracted hundreds of new recruits, some of them gang members and ex-convicts; Newton made clear that the Panthers wanted the toughest, most badass street fighters he could find, and he got them.