The original purpose was to patrol African-American neighbourhoods to protect residents from act of police brutality and to monitor the Oakland Police Department.
On 15 October 1966 the BPP formed a 10-point party platform and programme indicating its demands and goals. It also sought more justice and freedom for Black prisoners and created several newspapers and publications.
These strategies were inspired by Malcolm X’s notion of self-defence. With increased levels of police brutality, non-violent civil rights organisations proved to be incapable of addressing the violence against African Americans.
Following the murder of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the BPP took to arms to protect Black Americans. With Californian law allowing individuals to carry arms as long as they were visible and unloaded, the BPP decided to patrol Black neighbourhoods with rifles as a ‘neighbourhood watch’.
With their increased militant image, the BPP soon was deemed a threat to American security and the FBI began a counter-intelligence programme, aimed at surveilling, harassing, targeting and spreading misinformation about various groups and promoting violence between them in order to crack down on them. The targeting of the BPP affected its finances, forcing it pay various legal fees, tickets and fines.
However, the BPP played an active role in community organising and political organising. It used the weapon and its symbolic beret as an organising and recruitment tool that brought in over 5,000 members during its peak in 1969 and spread to over 35 local groups. The BPP also organised rallies which sometimes gathered more than 10,000 people. Co-founder Bobby Seale ran for mayor in Oakland and other local members ran for local council seats.
In 1967, armed BPP members escorted Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz to and from meetings in Oakland,that caused turmoil with police but caught media attention, bringing in more supporters.
The BPP organised and spoke against the Vietnam War and made ties with many New Left, socialist and radical organisations, both in the U.S. and internationally. Eldrige Cleaver, who was a prominent leader of the BPP and had fled the U.S. after altercations with the police, was able to forge international alliances that shaped the BPPs international stance.
The BPP had ties with and supported the Algerian Independence Movement, which drew inspiration from Frantz Fanon's ideas of liberation and decolonialisation. The BPP also forged alliances with other liberation movements, for example in Guinea-Bissau and Capw Verde Islands, Cuba, South Africa and with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The Panthers was also the first organisation that supported the gay rights movement and put it on their national agenda in 1970. They saw women’s liberation as a part of achieving self-determination for all people. Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Higgins, Joan Bird, Elaine Brown and Angela Davis were few of the key spokespersons for BPP, where Brown chaired the BPP between 1974-77.
The BPP challenged white supremacist structures early on and the notion of Black invisibility. It recognised the racialised structures that still existed even though African Americans were gaining more legal rights. The BPP raised issues of colour-blindness and the non-recognition of Black people in physical spaces, as Black people in their physical bodies.
The absence of whiteness created the absence of privilege, thus making Black people more vulnerable to oppression, exploitation and violence. This was visible throughout the segregation of the Southern states and its ‘ghettos’, where African Americans had the right to buy and own land by law, but because of their Blackness they were not able to do so in areas of their choice. Therefore, the BPP also challenged the white identities of law and order, especially the police.
Due to the continuous crackdown by the FBI and friction between Cleaver, Newton and Seale, the Black Panther Party slowly started to decline in membership and legitimacy, and finally dissolved in 1982. However, its radical ideas spread widely and its is still an immense part of civil rights history today.