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A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: The Black Panther Party

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.

The Black Panther Party

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale established The Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, California in 1966. The organization––originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense––first established neighborhood patrols and protected residents from police brutality. However, the black revolutionary party ultimately evolved into a Marxist revolutionary group that fought for African American weapon rights, exemption from “white American” sanctions, and financial compensation for years of racial exploitation. In addition to fighting for political and economic equality, the BPP became well known for providing access to medical clinics and free breakfasts for children.

At the organization’s peak in the late 1960’s, it had chapters in several major American cities. Out of the party’s 2,000+ members, some of the most renowned include the sole female chairman, Elaine Brown, as well as the notable leaders, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver.

From the beginning, the FBI considered the Black Panthers an enemy of the U.S. government. In their efforts to dismantle the party, the counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, used a combination of sabotage and misinformation. The campaign against the BPP reached its climax in December 1969, when a Chicago police raid resulted in Hampton’s death. The FBI actions taken during this raid and a subsequent five-hour shoot-out at the BPP Southern California headquarters resulted in the agency‘s public apology for wrongful use of power. Hampton’s death, in particular, increased the resistance to the FBI efforts to demolish the party.

The influence of the Black Panther Party's campaign for civil rights continues to resonate with current social movements including Black Lives Matter.


Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Brazburg v. Hayes (1972)  This case invalidated the use of the First Amendment as a defense for reporters summoned to testify before a grand jury after a reporter claimed he had the privilege to protect confidential informants and their information when we photographed the Black Panther Party Headquarters in anticipation of a police raid. 
  • Hanrahan et. al. v.  Hampton et. al. (1980) -  This case arose when surviving members of the Black Panther party filed actions against 28 state and federal law enforcement officials who were involved in 1969 Chicago police raid that killed two people. Because the respondents were not considered "prevailing parties," congress ultimately held they were ineligible for fees pendente lite.


Circuit and District Court Cases:

  • Black Panther Party v. Kehoe (1974) - this decision ruled complaints filed with collection are exempt from mandatory public viewing requests.
  • Black Panther Party v. Smith (1981)- in this case, Huey P. Newton and other BPP members sued the US and various government officials for unlawful conspiracy to destroy the BPP. The case was ultimately dismissed on the grounds the BPP had unjustifiably claimed a First Amendment privilege in their refusal to provide confidential information in response to interrogatories. 


Selected Library Resources:

  • Curtis Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, available as an eBook (2006) through Howard Libraries.
  • Carson Clayborne, The Black Panthers Speak, E185.615 .F58 2002
  • Samuel Joseph, Whose Revolution is This?: Gender's Divisive Role in The Black Panther Party, HeinOnline (for HUSL community members only, requires HUSL credentials to access) 
  • Gun-barrel politics: The Black Panther Party, 1966-1971. Ninety-Second Congressional Report, M332.4 Un3
  • Husain Lateef and David Androff, "Children Can't Learn on an Empty Stomach:" The Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program, HeinOnline (for HUSL community members only, requires HUSL credentials to access) 
  • Jama Lazerow and Yohuru R. Williams, In Search of the Black Panther Party: new perspectives on a revolutionary movement, E185.615 I453 2006 
  • Robyn Spencer, The Revolution has Come: Black power, gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, available as an eBook (2016) through Howard Libraries 
  • Dr. Huey P. Newton and David Hilliard, Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, HV3185 .O35 B55 2008 or Online Database Access (for HU community members only, requires HU credentials to access) 
  • Charles E. Jones, The Black Panther party (reconsidered), E185.615 199