Liberation Activities of the British Black Panther Party (BPP)

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The British Black Panther Party, founded by Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Olive Morris was operationally different from the African-American version of the movement.

The British Black Panther Party was founded basically to educate British black people about their history.and to challenge police brutality against black communities.

Created during the peak of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party, the British Black Panthers (BBP), existed from 1968 to 1972.

Based in Brixton, south London the BPP took the path of education to give black Britons a voice to speak out against injustice and discrimination.  

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Black Panthers members line up at a rally in Oakland’s Defermery Park in 1969.

Neil Kenlock, a British photographer who had captured the activities of the group was the one who beamed light on the group in 2013, as little was known about them until then.

Neil offered his photographs of meetings, campaigns and marches to a group of young activists for an exhibition at a gallery in Brixton. The activists also displayed contemporary photos, interviews and a documentary film about the activism of the secret group.

The British Black Panthers which was an inspiration to many young black Britons, were made up of students from Commonwealth countries who wanted equal opportunities like the British middle class.

They also relentlessly fought bills aimed at repatriating black people to Africa.

According to Neil;

The British Black Panthers came into being as a result of the discrimination that many students from the Commonwealth faced. Back then, the best students from the Commonwealth were sent to Britain to be educated. Many of those who associated with the Panthers had never encountered discrimination in their own countries, where they were the sons or daughters of the middle classes. So, when they got to Britain for their university education, they discovered this inequality and decided to fight against it.”

“They however needed the support of the communities, so they came to Brixton and met people like me who shared these challenges, and we worked together.”

“At the time, they were trying to repatriate us. It was outrageous – you can’t take us from Africa, enslave us, and after we’ve built the country up after the war, tell us to go back. No. That’s not on,” he added.

Due to their secretive nature, a number of their achievements were not attributed to them, Kenlock says.

“Lots of the students returned to their countries – in many cases to positions of leadership. We were left with lots of the things we’d been campaigning for actually being achieved. The repatriation bill was quashed, the idea of deportation was gone, and the movement just dissolved – not in an organised way, but people just stopped coming around and stopped doing things.”

According to Neil, the group dissolved because they had achieved what they were fighting for and those who were mainly students from the Commonwealth had returned home to take up leadership roles in politics, government and law.

On the other hand, the American Black nationalist group the Black Panther Party, was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and fellow student Bobby Seale whose life was a battle against racism and police brutality.

This version of the Black Panther Movement was formed primarily for Self Defence, taking on a militant stance coupled with the burgeoning pride associated with the Black Power Movement.

The Panther Party became infamous for brandishing guns, challenging the authority of police officers, and embracing violence as a necessary by-product of revolution.

Apart from their militant outlook, The Panthers as the group introduced a series of goals such as fighting for better housing, jobs and education for African-Americans. These plans were laid out in the Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Program.”

Newton embraced a concept he named “revolutionary humanism,” stating the Black nationalist group, The Nation of Islam, couldn’t satisfy his personal quest of understanding the social constructs of the world. Newton was not an atheist, as he embraced church later in his life.

Newton visited worldly environments where the Black Panther Party organized, recruiting young people in a bid to turn their criminal activity around into a positive force of change. The Panthers founded the Oakland Community School, which helped around 150 poor children receive quality education. They also provided free breakfast for poor children and trained them in dance and martial arts.

The Black Panthers became a target of the FBI’s insidious COINTELPRO program, which sought to break apart many of the powerful civil rights and Black activist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reportedly caused dissent and unrest between the Black Panthers and other Black nationalist groups.

In 1967, Newton allegedly shot and killed Oakland police officer John Frey during a routine stop. Originally facing two to 15 years for voluntary manslaughter, Newton endured two trials that ended in hung juries. A popular “Free Huey” campaign calling for the release of the leader became the phrase of the day and helped lead to his release.

By 1980, the Panthers were a former shadow of themselves. Much of what the group stood for had been rendered unrecognizable by bouts of infighting and a general shift in public perception of the group. There were also some Panthers who were allegedly involved in criminal activity, using the group to mask their intentions. Newton turned his focus to education, eventually earning a Ph. D from UC Santa Cruz.

In 1982, Newton was charged with stealing $600,000 of state funds that was supposed to go to the Oakland Community School. As the case went on, Newton disbanded the Black Panther Party. The charges were dropped six years later, and Newton took a plea deal.

It was rumoured that Newton developed a drug problem around this time. A rival group, the Black Guerrilla Family, clashed with the Panthers over the decades. Tyrone Robinson, a member of the BGF and a local drug dealer, shot Newton twice in the face on August 22, 1989.

Although Newton’s life ended tragically, his rise from street criminal to revolutionary remains noteworthy along with his later academic pursuits.