Reflections on the Panthers

A look back at what the Black Panthers did to deserve Beyoncé's rousing tribute at the Super Bowl.

Beyoncé Knowles. Everyone knows her simply as Beyoncé, the multi-talented superstar wife of music-industry legend Jay Z. She's also the glamorous and magnetic “Bey,” as President Barack Obama affectionately calls her. She's held fundraisers for the President, performed at the White House, and cultivated a warm friendship with both Mr. and Mrs. Obama. Beyoncé often turns up at NBA basketball games, where she and her hubby can typically be seen in their courtside seats, soaking up the love of starstruck fans, broadcasters, and ballplayers alike. This past Sunday, as part of the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé put on a performance that served as an ode to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Her all-black female backup dancers proudly donned the Panthers' signature black berets atop their '60s Afro hairstyles, and emphatically raised their fists in the Panthers' famous Black Power salute. In light of the passion with which so many screaming youngsters in attendance rocked and gyrated orgasmically to Beyoncé's every move and word, it's worth taking a moment to consider exactly who the Black Panthers were, and what did they do to deserve such a tribute from the lovely Bey.

The Black Panther Party was born as an outgrowth of the Oakland, California street gang of Huey Newton, a 24-year-old man whose only prior discernible achievements had been as a vicious thug, thief, and pimp. To define the Panthers' mission, Newton in 1966 drafted a Ten-Point Program charging that because America's “racist government” had collaborated with “the capitalists” to “rob” the “Black Community” blind, that same government was now morally “obligated,” as a form of restitution, to give all blacks “employment or a guaranteed income” as well as taxpayer-funded “land, bread, housing, education, [and] clothing” until the end of time. Moreover, Newton argued that “all Black people should be released from … jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.” He also issued a call for blacks to “arm themselves for self-defense,” which was in fact an incitement to a race war. As Panther “minister of culture” Emory Douglas put it in 1970: “The only way to make this racist U.S. government administer justice to the people it is oppressing, is … by taking up arms against this government, killing the officials, until the reactionary forces … are dead, and those that are left turn their weapons on their superiors.”

In a similarly impassioned speech in the late Sixties, Panther member David Hilliard
 denounced “racist, fascist America” as a loathsome country “run by a slave oligarchy and brigandish criminals.” He condemned contemporary white people and their collective forefathers as “genocidal murderers,” “enslavers,” and “exploiters” of the lowest order. And for good measure, Hilliard dismissed “the whole damn” Constitution as a document that was “invalid in regards to Blacks in particular.”

Portraying law-enforcement officers as the indisputably racist agents of a racist nation, the Panthers regularly tried to defy and provoke police—“pigs,” as they contemptuously called them—by appearing in public places carrying loaded firearms. On May 2, 1967, for instance, more than two-dozen Panthers brandishing guns famously walked into a meeting of the California State Assembly to protest a proposed piece of legislation. Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver acknowledged years later (in 1986): “We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence.”

Of course, ambushing the police wasn't the only thing the Panthers knew how to do. They also perfected the fine arts of dealing drugs, pimping prostitutes, extorting money, stealing property, beating people senseless, and on at least a dozen occasions, committing homicide. In 1969 alone, Panther members were arrested 348 times for murder, armed robbery, rape, and burglary. How often did they commit these and other serious crimes without getting arrested? That's anybody's guess.

Because the Panthers hated America, they naturally detested capitalism and revered Communism. David Hilliard, for one, lauded the many graces of “Marxism-Leninism.” Eldridge Cleaver once wrote that “if you look around the world, you will see that the only countries which have liberated themselves and managed to withstand the tide of counter-revolution are precisely those countries that have strongly Marxist-Leninist parties.” The Panthers made Mao Zedong's iconic Red Book required reading for all their members, and sold copies of it to students at UC Berkeley to raise funds for the purchase of shotguns. And for guidance in how to establish revolutionary socialism in the United States, the Panthers studied the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Frantz Fanon. Historian John Patrick Diggins writes that the Panthers “adopted a 'Marxist-Leninist' amalgam that succeeded in combining nationalism with socialism, preaching self-determination along with class struggle.”

The Panthers maintained that blacks were little more than prisoners of an “internal colony” in America, a colony whose liberation could be effectuated only by armed revolution. Tom Hayden, the New Left radical who founded the Students for a Democratic Society and fully expected that a race war would soon engulf the United States, admiringly dubbed the Panthers as “America's Vietcong”—likening them to the Communist guerrillas who were killing U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. In September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as the single “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Much more recently, historian Ronald Radosh described them as “a group of Stalinist thugs who murdered and killed both police and their own internal dissenters.” And in a Sixty Minutes interview in 1997, none other than Eldridge Cleaver conceded: “If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country.”

These, then, were the Black Panthers. These were the anarchic, murderous barbarians whom Beyoncé chose to honor as voices of “justice” during her insipid Super Bowl halftime performance. It was nothing more, and nothing less, than the grotesque glorification of racism—a politically correct brand.