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Ruin for the Black Panther Party, 1968-89

In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, proclaimed the Black Panthers the "single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." Pursing the FBI's "counter-intelligence" program (COINTELPRO), the FBI was attempting, in Hoover's words, "to neutralize their leaders, their spokesmen, membership and supporters." Harassment of the Panthers was at a peak in 1968 and 1969. Local police were also watching the Panthers, and they made numerous arrests – arrests that could not be sustained by the courts. Panthers were harassed with high bail and with heavy fees in retrieving their cars from police impoundment.

There were shoot outs between the police and the Panthers. The police killed twenty Panthers, including a Chicago Panther that law enforcement saw as especially dangerous: Fred Hampton. Hampton was a good orator and a capable organizer – smart enough to see that the Weatherman tactics of 1969 in Chicago were suicidal, and decisive enough to throw the Weathermen out of his office. He was having success in Chicago drawing people to the Panthers. Then the police raided his headquarters at around four in the morning, entering the building in a blaze of gunfire, killing the guard who was asleep with his shotgun just behind the front door, and firing a volley of rounds into the bedroom where Hampton was known to be. Hampton was severely wounded but still alive. He died when a couple of more rounds were fired into his head.

Law enforcement violence against the Panthers was ineffective. No organization devoted to political and social change had much of a chance in the world if it could not withstand police harassment. And, despite the police harassment, the Panthers continued to grow.

Huey Newton's conviction was overturned because the judge had failed to instruct the jury on their choice between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, and in August 1970 Newton was released on $50,000 bail.

By 1972, Panther membership had expanded across the nation to 5,000. Joining the Panthers were also whites and Latinos. According to Erika Huggins, the Panther newspaper in Chicago had a circulation of 30,000, and in New York the Panther paper had a circulation of 35,000.

Newton had married a party member, Gwen Fontaine. She had two children from a previous marriage, and it is reported that the two became like Newton's own.

The Panther Party was receiving large donations of money, much of it from people in the entertainment industry. Some saw these donors as supporting the Panthers because it was fashionable, as in the phrase radical chic. Others saw the donors as believing that the Panthers were a force for progress.

Eldridge Cleaver Calls for Revolution

Black Panthers saw themselves as both revolutionaries and as agents of immediate help on specific issues. In Oakland they had a food giveaway program and free breakfasts for children. They helped found a free medical clinic, a legal aid program, school and education programs and a service program for prisoners and for seniors. And they started an effort to help teens, abused children, battered women and homeless people.

Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver while abroad calls for an uprising in the United States. Later he returns, finds God and is sentenced to probation and community service.

Eldridge Cleaver, meanwhile, was in Algeria, where he had fled after a shoot out with the Oakland police in 1968. In Algiers, Cleaver was visited by various people, including Timothy Leary who had escaped from a low security prison in California, and Abbie Hoffman's wife, Anita. Anita Hoffman found Cleaver to be "on a power trip." She disliked Cleaver's treatment of his wife, Kathleen. And she disliked the timidity of white radicals in the face of what she saw as Cleaver's strong-arm tactics. She spoke her mind, which resulted in some people on the Left ostracizing her and Abbie. The "New Left" appeared to be as inclined to squabbling as the old Left of Europe had been.

Cleaver went to Moscow, and there he met with a delegation of Leftists from the US – a delegation organized by a former colleague of his at Ramparts magazine, Robert Scheer. Cleaver was uncomfortable with exile. And he was angry and impatient. According to Elaine Brown, a Black Panther who was with Scheer's group, Cleaver told the group that "Babylon" had to be burned. note65 ┬áBut the Panthers, he complained, were abandoning their duty "to take Babylon down." He called for the bombing of "pig strongholds," the kidnapping of children of the rich, and burning the bastions of Wall Street to the ground. He denounced the Oakland Panther David Hilliard, what he called the "Hilliard dynasty," for having opposed the Weathermen action in Chicago and for convincing people to put down their guns. He said that he wanted whites like the Weathermen to take the first heat of the revolution, and he wanted the Panthers to get rid of the "weak-assed Hilliards." Cleaver wanted the group to go back to the United States and to rally the Left and the Panther Party for revolution.

Elaine Brown argued with Cleaver. She returned to the United States, reported to Huey Newton, and Huey Newton expelled Cleaver from the Panther Party. Cleaver was now without a political base, and he lost heart for revolution.  He went to France and tried to start a business designing clothes. This did not work out, and he wished to return to the United States.

Newton Dismisses Seale

When Newton was released from prison in 1970, he found the Party in shambles, and in his book Revolutionary Suicide, published in 1973, he blamed this on Cleaver. After booting Cleaver out of the Panther Party, Newton turned Cleaver's former position as Minister of Information over to Elaine Brown, with whom he had been having a romantic relationship. Brown was to describe in her book Taste of Power – a Black Woman's Story that she, had learned of Newton's temper, as when he struck in the face for saying "thank you." Don't ever say thank you to me, he told her, pulling her to his face. When you thank me, he said, it means you are "not with me."

Elaine Brown was in effect the Party's second in command. Bobby Seale remained as the Party's co-founder and Party chairman.  Then one evening, at a small dinner party at Newton's place, Newton was angered over Seale having failed to discipline someone. Newton called Seale a punk. Seale tried to fend off the attack by telling Newton that he loved him. Newton ranted on about how it was he, Newton, who had founded the Party and had taken Seale along for the ride. He had his guards beat Seale. He told Seale that he was kicked out of the Party and told Seale to get out. And, without the shoes that he had taken off for comfort, Seale escaped down the hall to an elevator. Bobby Seale then left Oakland, moving to Philadelphia and to the home of his wife's family. And in place of Seale as Party chairman, Newton elevated Elaine Brown to that position.

The Black Panther Party Falls Apart

Newton did not like public speaking. He thought of himself not as an orator but as an abstract thinker – abstractions not going over well in a speech. And Newton was not much interested in the details of Party organization or Party membership. He was close to his body guard and a few others around him, but he did not keep in close contact with people who were doing a lot of the grassroots Party work. Even in Oakland he often did not know who they were. Officially Newton was a member of the Party's Central Committee, as was Elaine Brown, but Newton did not function with others as an equal within the group. Rather than work on consensus Newton focused on obedience to him. After having dismissed Seale from the Party he booted out numerous others who had worked daily for the party, among them was David Hilliard and his brother. Newton emerged from all this trusting few people within the Party.

In 1974 Newton was charged with pistol whipping a tailor and shooting a seventeen year-old prostitute, Kathleen Smith. Elaine Brown used Panther funds to bail him out of jail. Newton jumped bail, went to China, where he was impressed with what he saw, and then he went to Cuba. With him was his wife, Gwen. and her two children. Elaine Brown visited him and heard his complaints about Castro not seeing him, about being unable to obtain cocaine and about the island not having "jack sh..t." Like Cleaver, he wanted to return to the United States.  He spoke to Brown about the Panther Party having to disband one day, to be replaced by an organization that embraces a wide spectrum of people.

The case against Newton for the murder of Kathleen Smith was weak, and Newton returned to the United States in July, 1977, to face the murder charges while he remained free on bail. Newton returned irritated and distrustful. He argued with Brown about maintaining the Panthers. Elaine Brown had engaged the Party in electoral politics. She had run twice for a seat on the Oakland city council, winning 44 percent of the vote in the primary in 1975, with backing from the local democratic machine, headed by Ron Dellums, a local labor union, the Cesar Chavez' Farm Workers and others. She saw the benefit of coalition politics – indeed that coalitions were what politics was all about. Under her guidance, in 1977, the Panthers were supporting a respected local judge, Lionel Wilson, for mayor. Elaine Brown was optimistic about the possibilities of growth for the Party, as she was to describe in her book, A Taste of Power. She told Newton that Party accounts were full. And she tried to encourage Newton to keep the Party going. Apparently Brown believed that the Party needed Newton to keep it together. She told him: "You are the party. You started it." Instead of saying that the Party should be able to get along without him, or that he would help in that direction, he said, "And I'll finish it." He said that he wanted "all the bullsh..t" stopped. Newton said that he wanted to be free of the Party.

Later, Newton called Brown, saying that he wanted to see her again. But Brown did not want to be bothered by him. She lied to him about an appointment, gathered up her things along with her daughter, and fled town, leaving the Party to disintegrate.

Newton was working on a degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and he received a Doctorate of Philosophy in the History of Consciousness, his dissertation titled "War against the Panthers – a Study of Repression in America." From the 1970s, in addition to recreational use of cocaine, Newton had been drinking cognac.

Newton died on August 22, 1989 at the age of 47. He was found in a pool of blood on a sidewalk in West Oakland, shot three times in the head. His alleged killer was a drug dealer who had benefited from the Panther breakfast program for kids. He claimed that Newton had been quarreling with him.

Eldridge Cleaver, meanwhile, had, in the mid-seventies, landed back in the US. He had become a born again Christian and renounced his radical past. He was jailed briefly and released. He became a Republican. In 1979, for the alleged crimes he had committed back in 1968 he was sentenced to probation and work in community service.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.