Cointelpro and the black panther party
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was a militant organization created to promote the rights of African American and defend the Black communities from abuses of white supremacists in the United States. Its leadership advocated armed resistance against any form of societal oppression particularly police brutality. Because of its revolutionary approach to social reforms, the party was targeted for elimination by the US government. Director J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (ICDC par. 8). In August 1967, the FBI orchestrated a nationwide covert action program called COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence program) to destroy the Black Panther and other black militant groups. The main feature of the program was to invent stories and spread wrong information within the party in order to cause conflicts in the leadership and divide the group. Despite controversies of unlawful tactics used by the FBI, COINTELPRO succeeded in neutralizing the effectiveness of the Black Panther.
“Hoover skillfully utilized not only the powerful bureaucracy that he built and controlled, but also the vast powers of the pre-dominantly white corporate press to demonize the Black Panther Party in the eyes of most of America. This clever, cunning, and quite bigoted man used of the most powerful weapons ever in the scabbard of a politician – fear” (Abu Jamal 117). The FBI utilized informers, eavesdropping, bogus mail, and black propaganda to infiltrate the group and promote rivalry and discord among the leaders. In 1970, BPP had about 2,000 members across the country. Due to intensified crackdown, many of its leaders were arrested or killed while others fled the country or joined the Black Liberation Army, a terrorist organization. After his conviction was reversed, Newton tried to revive the party focusing more on community services to alleviate poverty in black communities. He was drawn into cocaine and other drugs. He went into exile in Cuba to avoid criminal charges. On the other hand, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland but lost and was expelled from the organization. The party disintegrated in 1972 with its last leader Elaine Brown.
The Ten-Point Program
Formed in October 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther’s foundation was solely based on a Ten-Point Program designed to help African American improved their economic and social welfare. “This program included demands for the power to determine the destiny of the black community, full employment for blacks, an end to capitalist exploitation, decent housing, exemption from military service for all blacks, freedom for all black prisoners, and a UN-sponsored plebiscite “in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny” (George and Wilcox 114). Moreover, this program was not followed because of conflicting views of its members and leaders. The party maintained their constitutional rights to bear arms as they would carry loaded firearms in public, which was outlawed by the government. This made the party in conflict with authorities and violence erupted more often between the two sectors. From 1967 to 1969, nine police officers were killed while 56 others injured in confrontation with the Black Panther. On the other hand, 348 Panthers have been arrested for various crimes.
Although, party leaders emulate black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and MalColm X, they did not agree with their stand on non-violence but instead followed a socialist revolution patterned after Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung, and Lenin. However, with the assassination of the two famous leaders, the Black Panther saw the need to fill in the vacuum in the black leadership and asserted itself as a political force that could bring changes. “As a Black revolutionary cadre organization, the Black Panther Party was committed to the self-defense and empowerment of African American people. It represented one of the rare instances of a successful blend of nationalism and socialist ideals by an independent African American political organization” (Jeffries et al. 26). At first, the party was true to its goals by instituting social programs offering free services to the black communities on feeding, clothes distribution, education, medical missions, and self-defense. “From the party’s earliest days, the organization took community service seriously. It was seen as a way to demonstrate to Black folks that the party was serious about defending the Black community, even against the cops, the most hated and feared figures imposed upon the community” (Jamal 67). However, as the party progressed its philosophy changed drastically from a humanitarian organization to an aggressive political force that sought the overthrow of the government.
The BPP drew wide support from several sectors particularly during the arrest of Newton in the fall of 1967 and has merged with other militant groups. It attracted supporters from left-wing revolutionaries and activists. As the party grew in number the leadership was divided because of different views on how to run the organization. Some prefer that it would focus on community services while others like Eldridge Cleaver wanted a confrontational approach. Many minorities looked up to the BPP as a model of change. The party produced talented leaders, teachers, professionals, and business individuals but this legacy was short lived because the leadership still adopted a militaristic strategy warning law enforcers that they would defend with force the mutual interests of every African American. Racial tensions always took a violent course every time the Panthers waved their flags demanding reforms from the government. They believed that the U.S. government was racist capitalist state incapable of reforms. The party had urged African Americans to use violence in defending their rights. The FBI had always blamed the BPP for instigating aggression in the country and decided to put an end to all the violence dividing, conquering, and weaken the organization. In Its COINTELPRO Program, the FBI conducted 233 secret operations against the Panthers.
The COINTELPRO Program
The Black Panther was not originally included in the program not until 1969. The goals of this counterintelligence were as follows: “prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups, prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement such as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position, prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups, prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them, and prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth” (ICDC). The method used by the FBI was deception to create mistrust and doubts among BPP members. To carry out such activities, it was learned later that the FBI made some lawless tactics like murder and initiating violence. This was so to provoke violence between the Panthers and other armed organizations like the Blackstone Rangers and the United States, Inc.
BPP and US, Inc. have joined efforts to promote Black Nationalism but there was a power struggle and the FBI exploited this development. In 1968, the agency sent an anonymous letter to BPP informing the party that US, Inc. would assassinate BPP leader Leroy Eldridge Cleaver at a rally in Los Angeles. The FBI likewise did the same with the US, Inc. telling the group that BPP had plans to kill two of its members. In January of 1969, the US, Inc. killed two Panthers Bunchey Carter and John Huggins. In addition, the agency printed cartoons in newspapers and various publications showing that the US organization was ineffective. The supposed caricatures said to be coming from the BPP. The distribution of these caricatures had increased distrust among the two parties. The rift heightened in March 1969 when another BPP member was killed by a US member.
In the early 1969, the FBI again made efforts to cause BPP to clash with another violent gang group called the Blackstone Rangers headed by Jeff Fort. The agency sent anonymous letters to Fort telling him that the Panthers were making negative comments about him specifically his lack of commitment to the welfare of the black communities. The two groups nearly engaged in armed confrontation. Because of this strategy, the Rangers did not join the Panthers but only developed hostility and distrust. “A widely used FBI tactic has been the fabrication of evidence for criminal prosecution of key individuals, and the withholding of exculpatory evidence which might serve to block conviction of these individuals. This includes the intimidation of witnesses and the use of coercion to obtain false testimony”. (Churchill and Wall 51).
The FBI applied the same deception technique to bring internal discord within the BPP and disrupt its memberships. Members of group received anonymous letters from the FBI alleging that certain faction of the party were out to get them. The following is a sample letter written by the FBI:
I’m from the south side and have some Panther friends that know you and tell me what’s been going. I know those two that run the Panthers for a long time and those mothers been with every ‘black outfit going where it looked like they was something in it for them. The only black people they care about is themselves. I heard too they’re sweethearts and that [name deleted] has worked for the man that’s why he’s not in Viet Nam. Maybe that’s why they’re just playing like real Panthers. I hear a lot of the brothers are with you and want those mothers out but don’t know how. The Panthers need real black men for leaders not freaks. Don’t give up brothers.
A black friend
In March 1970, the FBI successfully fashioned disunity between BPP leaders Cleaver and Newton who was imprisoned. Cleaver received an anonymous letter supposedly from the BPP planning to cut short his leadership. In retaliation, Cleaver expelled three international members of the Panthers. When Newton was about to be released from prison, he received a fictitious directive from the party questioning his leadership while admiring the leadership skills of Cleaver and others. Both leaders openly criticized each other and subsequently its membership decline due to bad image. “The Systematic fabrication and transmittal of letters and other documents expressly intended to push ideological disagreements between Party leaders Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver has pushed both leaders into the realm of open hostility” (Churchill 40).
During the operation of COINTELPRO, many militant black movements were neutralized with the arrests of prominent leaders. Raids after raids caught the party empty handed with many legal battles to face that finally bankrupted the organization. The disintegration of the Black Panther was the result of a successful intelligence gathering. However, the true nature of this program was the subject of many congressional hearings that exposed the dirty tactics involved. The program came under fire because of the various violations committed against persons who were violated of their rights to privacy. The covert operation has also initiated violence that resulted in many killings, which is against the policy of law enforcers. For the Black Panther and the FBI, their intentions were noble while performing their respective duties but their means has become unconstitutional that likely contradict the institution of democracy for which America stands for. Today, the country is in a brink of war against terrorism. It is but rightful that all kinds of organizations must unite to defend America from her enemies. In this age of globalization every one is a part of the future and has a role to play to help the country.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. Cambridge, MA:
South End Press, 2004.
Churchill, Ward and Vander Wall, James. Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against
the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998.
George, John and Wilcox, Laird. American Extremists: Militias, Supremacists, Klansmen,
Communists & Others. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. New Ed, 1996.
ICDC. “The FBI’S Covert Action Program To Destroy The Black Panther Party”. Internet
Connect-Internet Access. 14 April 1976. 5 December 2007.
Jeffries, Judson et al. The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered]. Washington, D.C.: Black Classic
We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party
The author, Mumia Abu-Jamal, helped established the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. This is an account of the compelling history of the party coupled with personal experiences. It tells where the party came from and how the government disrupted the organization through COINTELPRO. Munmia tells how the FBI violated the party’s rights and freedoms in its quest to destroy the Black Panther.
American Extremists: Militias, Supremacists, Klansmen, Communists & Others
This book examines the origins and foundations of hate crimes and movements that advocate racism through militias and supremacists in order to gain acceptance in society and in the American political system. It analyzes the psychological and social of those who joined such organizations. The authors summarize the history of several movements since 1960’s.
The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered]
This book revisits the turbulent years of the Black Panther in the 1960’s. It combines actual interviews, analysis and reflections. The writers are members of the party who detailed the organization’s set up, recruitment, and legacy. This also describes how the government and media manipulated public perception against the black movements at the same time describe how the party promoted black nationalism and unity among African Americans.
The FBI’S Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party
This is a transcript of the 1976 Senate hearing on the FBI’s COINTELPRO. It narrates how the agency operated against the Black Panther which includes all the documents and memoranda. It was also in this hearing that the dirty tactics of the agency were known that concluded in the termination of the program.
Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party
and the American Indian Movement
This book details the FBI’s covert actions against the several American movements, the harassment, surveillance, and dirty tactics. In addition, the authors sum up the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was designed to weaken liberal groups. Branding the FBI as the country’s political police, the agency has become agents of repression.