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Study Guide | Film

The Black Panthers

Vanguard of the Revolution 
“There’s an old story and it’s used in various cultures, where a group of blind men approach an elephant and try to describe it. The first man approaches the elephant, touches its side and says It feels like a wall. The next man touches the tusk and says The elephant must be like a spear. Another blind mind touches the trunk and says It feels like a snake. And that is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party. We know the party we were in, not the entire thing. We were making history and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.” – Ericka Huggin

The 1960s

The Black Panther Party was formed in the mid to late 1960s during an era of social movement and political protest in the United States. As people took to the streets to protest the United States’ military actions in Vietnam, they were also rallying to fight racism and segregation on American soil. This period brought new rights and freedoms for black Americans, and is known as the civil rights movement.

Before the events of the civil rights movement, racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence were legally enforced or sanctioned in many parts of the United States. “Jim Crow” laws functioned on local and state levels to enforce racial segregation in public spaces. Black Americans were forced to use separate schools, restaurants, restrooms, and churches, and were strategically prevented from voting or running for public office.

Racially motivated violence plagued the lives of black Americans during this time. On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and motivating a series of protests that drew national attention to racial oppression. On June 12th of that year, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was a prominent member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who organized voter registration and anti-discrimination efforts to combat the systematic disenfranchisement of black Americans.


Political Change and the Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed public segregation and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ability, or ethnicity. This paved the way for more legislation, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed literacy tests and other legal barriers that functioned to prevent black Americans from voting and running for office.

These legal triumphs over systematic racial oppression were accomplished through the work of civil rights leaders and activists of the time. Perhaps the most well-known and influential of these leaders was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King preached an approach of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. His speeches, marches, and protest efforts galvanized the general public as well as political leaders to fight for racial equality and freedom.

Although King’s philosophy of nonviolent protest is the most widely celebrated of the civil rights movement’s ideologies, it does not represent the spectrum of views and efforts of all civil rights leaders. Other leaders, like Malcolm X, sought to end racial discrimination and to empower black Americans through more confrontational means. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X was the leading public voice for the Nation of Islam and pan-Africanism, preaching a Black Nationalism that returned black Americans to their African roots. Malcolm X, unlike King, believed that racial freedom required violent revolution, encouraging his followers to seize their own freedom “by any means necessary.” Malcolm X later broke from the Nation of Islam and renounced his stance on violent revolution. He was assassinated in 1965, very soon after this ideological transformation. Malcolm X left a powerful influence in the black activist community. His ideas of Black Nationalism and self-determination laid the foundation for the black power movement of the late 1960s and 70s.


Black Power Movement and Violent Protest

“Black Power” was a slogan that became widely used among many black activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The term emphasizes a celebration of black culture, and encouraged the creation of black cultural institutions in order to foster freedom from oppression through self-determination. Civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael popularized the term as a social and political slogan, and black power came to have a wide influence and range of associated ideologies.

Black power became a powerful rallying cry for civil rights activists who sought a more radical alternative to King’s nonviolent protest. The black power movement contributed to the development of the Black Arts Movement, which vitalized black culture through the support of black artists and writers, and it’s slogan “Black is Beautiful” encouraged racial and cultural pride by celebrating the natural physical beauty of African-American people. In some cases, Black Power was used to promote an ideology of militancy and separatism, empowering radical black activists and evoking fear in many white Americans as well as black supporters of non-violent protest.

The violent uprising that many Americans feared was epitomized by the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles County. Despite the national legislation passed to equalize the rights of black Americans, black communities continued to suffer oppression due to lack of housing, education, employment, and political freedom. This was true for the residents of the mostly black neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, California, where poverty and racial discrimination dominated their lives. Triggered by the violent arrest of a young black man named Marquette Frye, along with his brother and mother, the black community of Watts exploded in six days of riots, looting, and violent protest. The riots finally ended with the arrival of the National Guard on August 15th, 1965, leaving 34 people dead, more than 1,000 people wounded, nearly 4,000 people arrested, and $40 million in property damage. The violence of the Watts riots represented a spirit of militant rebellion that, coupled with the rising rally against American military violence in the Vietnam War, set the groundwork for the rise of the Black Panther party as a cultural and political force.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”