Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), founded in Oakland in 1966, fought to establish revolutionary socialism through grassroots organizing, community-based programs, and militant struggle for ethnic minority and working-class emancipation. On April 25, 1967, the first issue of the official news organ, The Black Panther, went into distribution. In 1969, the first BPP Free Breakfast for School Children Program began in Oakland, expanding nationwide and feeding 10,000 children everyday. The BPP further developed socialist survival programs in black communities, including homeless housing, and free medical clinics, clothing, and food. The BPP’s ideals and activities were so radical, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover called them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S." In the late 1960s, BPP members were involved in a series of police confrontations and court cases, including the police killing of Chicago BPP leader Fred Hampton and the trial of BPP Defense Minister Huey Newton for killing a police officer. The BPP, and other revolutionary organizations, were scrutinized by the FBI’s counterintelligence program, which employed assassinations, imprisonment, and psychological warfare to split movements morally and politically. Major internal ideological divisions split the BPP, and during the late 1970s, lost influence within the black community. By the early 1980s, external attacks and further internal divisions disintegrated the BPP; leadership was smashed, its rank and file terrorized by authorities. In subsequent years, many remaining BPP members were hunted down and killed, imprisoned on trumped charges, or forced into exile. The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in 1989, is unrelated to the original organization.

The earliest known appearance of a black panther symbol was a 1966 brochure printed by the all-black Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, an alternative political party founded by local residents and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers, including Stokely Carmichael. Standing for “courage, determination, and freedom,” the black panther symbol directly responded to the Alabama Democratic Party symbol at the time - a white rooster with the slogan “White Supremacy/For the Right.” The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense adopted the symbol as their own in October 1966, and often printed a small black panther “bug” at the bottom of their official communications and posters. BPP member Bobby Seale explained the significance of their symbol at a 1967 rally: "It is not in the panther's nature to attack anyone first, but when he is attacked and backed into a corner, he will respond viciously and wipe out the aggressor."