February 17th marks what would have been Huey P. Newton’s 80th birthday. Back in October 1966, he and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were a Marxist-Leninist Black Power organization that contrasted the non-violent integrationist political groups of the southern Civil Rights Movement.
No…they weren’t inspired by Black Panther, the superhero, who first appeared in Marvel Comics that same year.
And contrary to a popular misconception, Stan Lee didn’t name the character in reference to what the political group was stirring up in Oakland. Get that association out of your head.
So, where did the Black Panthers get their name, and how did it spread to become almost synonymous with the Black Power Movement?
Let’s take it back to 1965. While working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, to increase Black voter registration in Alabama, Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael, founded the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Yes, THAT Kwame Ture, who would become the Chairman of SNCC, and eventually the Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party.
Well, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization used a black panther as its mascot, juxtaposing the white-dominated local democratic party mascot, a white rooster. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale adopted the symbol and created the Black Panther Party. Newton believed it was representative of the organization’s main goal: defense of Black people against oppressive systems and state-sanctioned violence by the police.
But self-defense wasn’t the only thing on the Party’s agenda. They were fighting the evils of capitalism just as much as those of white supremacy. They implemented community health clinics for education and treatment of diseases including sickle cell anemia, tuberculosis, and sexually-transmitted diseases. And their Free-Breakfast Program fed tens of thousands of hungry kids across the country before school.
Long before T’Challa was teaming up with the Avengers, the fierce Black Panther symbolized the Black vote, thanks to Kwame Ture, and then Black Power, thanks to Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. And its nine lives don’t seem to be running out any time soon.
For Annenberg Media, I’m Nia McMillan.