Power of the Panther: The Origins of the Black Panther's Black Power Logo

>> Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In recent months, a couple people have told me that, "The Black Panthers started in L.os A.ngeles." Many Oakland-natives would know the above statement to be untrue, considering the role the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense played in the city. The Black Panther iconography holds a special place in Oakland history. For example, in 2007, upon restarting the Laney College Black Student Union (Laney BSU), the community college students incorporated the Black Panther into its organizational logo. However, many people do not know that the origins of the Black Panther and Party lay in Alabama. Student-led efforts for political empowerment of in Jim Crow Alabama led to the adoption and dissemination of the Black Panther as a revolutionary icon that would come to symbolize Black Power against white oppression. After emerging in Alabama in 1965-1966, the Black Panther came west to Los Angeles and Oakland. After the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, the Black Panther later became an internationally recognized icon of “Black Power” and revolution.

The Alabama Origins of Black Power and the Black Panther

In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by then activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure)–who later became SNCC’s chair–organized a voter registration project in Lowndes County, Alabama. Although 80 percent of County residents were Black, the white power structure kept all from voting. The LFCO adopted the Black Panther as the organization’s logo. The organization was also known as “The Black Panther Party.”[1] The LFCO registered voters, organized health clinics, and also ran candidates for county offices. Explaining the logo in 1966, the LFCO wrote:
“Their symbol is the “Black Panther” which stands for courage, determination, and freedom. It was chosen as an appropriate response to the racist Alabama Democratic Party symbol, the white rooster and its slogan, “White Supremacy/For the Right.”[2]
The Black Panther rose as a fierce defender of Black Alabamans. Faced with the white dominated political economy–white sheriffs, coroners, education boards, and landowners–the LFCO fought for political rights. Despite evictions and terrorist intimidation, the LFCO ran candidates and brought candidates out to vote.[3]. Out of this struggle also led Willie Ricks (Baba Mukasa) to coin the phrase “Black Power.”[4] The symbolism of Black Power, embodied in the Black Panther, led to two different efforts in Northern and Southern California: Freedom City and the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panther and Watt's 'Freedom City'

Out of the ashes of the fiery Watts Rebellion of August 1965, In Los Angeles, Black Angelenos sought to incorporate the Watts section as “Freedom City.”[5] After the creation of the Temporary Alliance of Local Organizations, a Black united front, the group created the Community Alert Patrol (CAP), a police monitoring organization. TALO later led the drive to enact an idea proposed by SNCC: “Freedom City.” Watts would secede from Los Angeles and “exist as a separate city with powers of incorporation.”[6] The Freedom City movement adopted the Black Panther as its logo [7]. TALO declared:
“For a generation we have vainly protested against a system and a society which have held us in de facto slavery. We have been exploited by the majority of society. We fear the police and the criminal equally. Our votes are overwhelmed by the majority of the electorate, a substantial segment of which has even denied us a public hospital…
“We shall build a city, as the Jews have built a state, where the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be guaranteed…”[8]
As many white-majority cities in the Los Angeles area engaged in defensive incorporation for tax-benefits and to maintain racial exclusiveness, TALO sought political power by creating a city in which New African people would control the political structure and policing and public health institutions. Black Angelenos sought an independent municipality to govern themselves and control their lives. The efforts for self-determination and freedom of Black communities in California also occurred in Northern California.

The Black Panther and Community Control in Oakland

In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland. The revolutionary organization also utilized the Black Power framework with the first point of its Ten Point Plan declaring:
1. WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES. We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions that exist in our communities.[9]
As West Oakland became the “Black Ghetto” section of the city, the Black Panther’s platform call for full-employment, housing, health, education, and an end to the colonial relationship maintained by the capitalist class symbolized a bold response for independence. The organization’s seventh–and most well known–platform against police brutality and containment led to armed patrols of police. The group later organized other “survival” programs tending to the basic, every day needs of the Black community.[10]

As the symbol of the Black Panther traveled west from Alabama to Los Angeles and Oakland, so did the spirit of “courage, determination, and freedom.” Lowndes County efforts at political control and empowerment through the ballot box and elected office inspired other actions in California. In Los Angeles, the Panther symbolized “Freedom City,” and the Black California Dream of an independent city, for and by Black folks. Not unlike Allensworth, California, formed some 60 years prior.[11] In Freedom City, the people would control the police and political institutions, and would have access to health facilities. In Oakland, the Panther symbolized freedom from the “occupying army” called the po-lice. The Panther would ‘Defend the Ghetto’ [12] and empower Wretched of the Earth [13, ref] to control their own lives. As the Panther traveled west with SNCC, the call for “Black Power” resonated with young people throughout California and later the nation. As the Oakland-based Black Panther Party emerged from student groups at Merritt College and UC Berkeley[14], as many members of TALO and later LA’s Black Congress were students[15]. The organization that launched the Black Panther and Black Power, SNCC, has its origins with students who went beyond the walls of the academy and ultimately altered the course of history, challenged the American Empire[16], and changed the world. Notes
  1. Erica Lee Anderson, "Lowndes County Freedom Organization"BlackPast.org, . [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  2. "Origins of the Black Panther Logo," examples of sources from the H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archives at UC Berkeley, . [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  3. Anderson, "Lowndes County"
  4. "48 Years of Struggle for the Liberation of African People," Uhuru News, . [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  5. Donald Wheeldin, "The Situation in Watts Today," 1967. . [Accessed May 28, 2013]. Further reading: Gerald Horne, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, De Capo Press, 1997; Scott Brown, Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism, NYU Press, 2005.
  6. Keith Hayes, Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African American Holiday Tradition, Routledge, 2009.
  7. “Will Watts Secede?”, The Movement, Publication of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of California, July 1966. . [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  8. Ibid.
  9. "The Ten Point Program," , The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  10. "Community Survival Programs" of the Black Panther Party, PBS, 2002. . [May 28, 2013].
  11. Stephen, Hill, "Allensworth, California," . [Accessed May 28, 2013].
  12. James A. Tyner, "'Defend the Ghetto': Space and the Urban Politics of the Black Panther Party,"Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(1), 105–118, March 2006.
  13. Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth was required reading for Black Panther Party members.
  14. Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, University of North Carolina Press, 2005, documents the origins of the Black Panther Party and its connection to student organizations at Merritt College and UC Berkeley.
  15. Brown, Fighting for Us, connects the US organization with Donald Warden's (Khalid Al-Monsour) Afro-American Association.
  16. Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Blacks Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, UC Press, 2012.

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