So how can we learn from the BPP in a way that goes beyond the subjective romanticism many on the left sustain for them, as well as the racist misinformation that many on the right are advancing about them? We can start by celebrating the fact the BPP actually started a year before 1966, not in Oakland, but in Lowndes County Alabama. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO - a project of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee - SNCC) emerged in 1965 to give the African population there an alternative to the racist Democratic and Republican parties. Since 80% of the African people in Lowndes county were unable to read and write, that party became known more by its symbol - the Black Panther - instead of its actual name. And, since the violence from police, the Ku Klux Klan, and the general European (White) community in Lowndes was so pervasive against the African community, the county was known by African people as "bloody Lowndes" thus prompting the LCFO to activate an armed self defense network to protect LCFO/SNCC activists while they conducted their organizing work. As SNCC mobilized people from all over the country to come into Lowndes County and help, a young African from Oakland named Mark Comfort responded to that call. After his stint in Alabama, Comfort went back to Oakland and informed his friend Huey P. Newton of "these Black folks in Alabama named the Black Panther Party with guns!" Newton acknowledges this in his autobiography "Revolutionary Suicide" and Kwame Ture writes in his autobiograpahy "Ready for Revolution" that Newton wrote to SNCC and asked permission to use the BPP name and symbol for the party he would co-found with Seale the following year. Newton was the primary ideologue for the BPP in its early period and the left leaning Marxist/Leninist perspective the BPP flirted with was apparent in the Ten Point Program the BPP adopted upon its inception. This influence is evident in all ten points, but point number three - "We Demand an End to Capitalism's Robbery of the Black Community" - makes the position of the young organization clear. The BPP was still far different from the multitude of European left organizations that existed within the U.S. at that time. Understanding the particular reality of African people within the U.S. as a stolen and exploited people, the Panthers considered themselves "revolutionary nationalists" meaning that on different, and very uneven levels, the BPP saw itself as having a class and nation (anti-white supremacy) analysis, something the White left didn't have then, and still lacks for the most part today. In fact, this nation/class (and now gender) analysis is something the White left still finds very difficult to grapple with. In their never ending quest to dismiss white supremacy, they continue to insist that the problem is simply one of eliminating capitalism. They are not fooling any Brown people with this perspective. We have studied history and we know that white supremacy is the by product of capitalism. We don't need White people to tell us that. Capitalism was built and is maintained primarily on the exploitation of our national homelands e.g. Africa, the Americas, Asia, etc., so we know this better than they do. That's why we completely reject their racist analysis that any form of nationalism is reactionary. Clearly, this is not a dialectic view of history because dialectical materialism demonstrates to us that everything has positives and negatives. Meaning, nothing is 100% positive or negative. So, everything, including something as vile as the transatlantic slave trade, has something within it that has advanced humanity. For example, this system of slavery brought industrialization to the world. So, we know that nationalism, when adopted by colonized people, is a necessary weapon from which to overthrow the psychological shackles of white supremacy. We know that nationalism within this context is not an anti-White philosophy, but as even V.I. Lenin states (correctly) in his landmark book "Imperialism", - "nationalism is the prerequisite for socialism." In other words, our national liberation struggles, whether they be to unite Africa, Palestinian, Filipino, or Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere who are fighting for self-determination, or even the Irish struggle against the British, are necessary fights that properly organized will lead to creating the conditions for socialist construction. So, the BPP had some element of this, although slightly underdeveloped, and the White left gave them hell for it, but the BPP clearly had this position right.
Another area of discussion for the BPP was the early focus on guns and then the so-called survival programs. We support the BPPs adoption of both aspects of their program. Our issue with each was the BPPs lack of emphasis on political education. Yes, we know about the often spoken political education classes within the BPP, but we also know that many of the previously mentioned assessments of the BPP by former BPP members themselves, reveals that this process was uneven and underdeveloped and this reality led to much of the dysfunction that helped open the BPP up to devastation inflicted against it by the U.S. government. For example, the Party repeatedly played right into the hands of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) which caused complete chaos within that organization in particular and the entire Black Power movement as a whole. The BPP focus on exposing police informants was ill-advised because there is really no way to know for sure who is a police informant and it really isn't necessary that you know this. What's important is that our organizations have a clear focus and that we have a strong political education program that each member is dedicated to. If you have this, and your members are steeled in the ideology with an accompanying (and equally as strong) criticism/self assessment process, who is working for the police becomes much less important because you will actually be in a position where everyone will be working to advance your political line so the informants are then forced to do so also. Or, as Kwame Ture often said "our role is to get the police to work for the revolution." Where this failed in the BPP is since there wasn't a clear focus on the BPP's political line and objectives, and consequently, the atmosphere where principled criticism was non-existent for the most part within the BPP, it was easy for police informants, and even people who weren't working for the police, but were just confused politically, to create confusion and derail members. All you have to do is study the Panthers ill-advised attack against the police on April 6th, 1968 - in which Lil Bobby Hutton was murdered by Oakland police, as proof of this problem. Along with that, the Panthers emphasis on the lumpen-proletariat - or the criminal class - was based in romanticism this way. Even Karl Marx spoke of how difficult it is to depend upon the lumpen and certainly basing your organization around them without a strong political education focus is not wise. This is why so many honest Panthers were so easily manipulated into supporting lumpen activities (ala the 1968 attack against the police) which helped discredit the Panther Party as a whole. Another unfortunate example is the Panthers shaking down local African businesses to get them to kick down money to support the breakfast and health programs (known as the survival programs). With a proper political education process, the people who owned these businesses could not be seen as the enemy and an effort to properly politicize them would have been instituted so that they would see the necessity to support the programs themselves instead of being forced into doing so. Revolutions are only successful with mass political education so that the people understand and support the revolutionary objectives. Without this work taking place in communities, no matter how good your work is, the system we are fighting against will find ways to organize against you because your only insulation against this happening is the consciousness of the people. This is the problem with the shakedown approach because the community, influenced by the capitalist media, began to see the Panthers as thugs to the point where when COINTELPRO kicked into high gear between 1969 and 1971, and Panthers were being systematically killed and arrested by the police state, the African community did nothing to protect the Panthers because in many ways at that point, the Panthers had been effectively isolated from the community. No revolutionary party can survive once isolated from the community it serves.
The other example of this lack of political education is reflected in how the state was able to position the Party from focusing on its work in the communities to becoming an organization focused on getting individual leaders out of prison. Once the power structure realized this, of course their work became that of simply arresting as many BPP leaders as it could. The BPP's focus on "Free Huey" after Newton was imprisoned was understandable, but not a practical way to build revolutionary consciousness. The emphasis of the revolutionary party has to be on organizing the community and the basis of this, again, has to be politically educating the community. There has to be a clear understanding and acceptance that people will be arrested, imprisoned, and killed, but the work has to continue. This was not clear within the BPP and once the state starting locking up everyone, the party's loyalties became divided and the work within the communities suffered. These examples all illustrate that the problem wasn't the Panther's use of guns, or even imprisoned leaders, but the focus on these things without a strong political education process that gave the proper political perspective to those issues so that the people understood them and supported them as a part of a broader program to empower the communities towards revolutionary change. Again, since none of these things happened, instead of the Party being empowered by these elements, they were politically isolated by them and set up for destruction by the government. There is obviously much more around this political education question. The treatment of women. The analysis the Panthers had on the broader movements for justice around the world, etc.
So, fifty years later, the BPP must be seen as an organization of primarily young and determined African people who possessed overwhelming courage and commitment to stand up against oppression. Their willingness to confront the police with arms created a psychology of resistance that broke the power structures oppressive mental hold against us. Although the state's violent response towards us obviously hasn't changed (and it never will), our response to their violent response has evolved a great deal. It can be said that there would be no Black Lives Movement were it not for the BPP and the Black Power movement. Colin Kaepernick's afro, braids, pig socks, and militant shirts pay clear homage to the BPP and that militant era. The same can be said of Beyonce's Super Bowl performance. These acts clearly demonstrate the pride and inspiration we gained from the sacrifices of the BPP. Also, the BPP taught us that there are other forms of struggle beyond making a demand against the power structure. We can create institutions within our communities that help us develop capacity to fight back against the system to create the type of new society that we want and need and we can do that without the consent of a system that many of us believe cannot be reformed, but must be destroyed (and changed). You are strongly encouraged to read and/or view what Panther leaders have said and are saying about their work. Most of them openly acknowledge the shortcomings expressed here and some of them give clear direction on how to correct the errors they made. Particularly instructive are works of former Panthers like Kwame Ture, Bob Brown, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown who continued on with radical and even revolutionary politics long after the BPP ceased to exist. Those people serious about carrying the struggle forward will take all of this information and use it to figure out how to improve our organizations today. We love the BPP. I have had the opportunity to work with many of the people named here and the few I haven't met, I've certainly studied intensely. I am without question a product of their work, but I also know the only way to demonstrate appreciation for anyone is to carry on their work. To advance their work. That means taking the best that they offered e.g. working in the communities along with building on their errors, such as the lack of a strong political education program. If this 50 years since their founding is to mean anything, it must encompass that type of serious approach by all of us.