Black Panther supporters protest while two members go on trial for murder, New Haven, Connecticut.
‘Fifty years on, the legacy of the Panthers is particularly important.’ Black Panther supporters protest in 1970 while two members go on trial for murder, New Haven, Connecticut. Photograph: Barton Silverman/Getty Images

On 15 October 1966 Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. The Panthers quickly became one of the most important and well-known black radical organisations, inspiring chapters across the US and around the world. Fifty years on, the legacy of the Panthers is particularly important given the resurgence of black political action and the rise of Black Lives Matter on both sides of the Atlantic. The Panthers are largely remembered for their gun-toting public displays and revolutionary rhetoric; but the true legacy of the party is the grassroots community activism that defined them.

The image of the Panthers marching into the state capitol building in California armed with shotguns, in 1967, shocked America to the same degree it inspired black communities. The Panthers believed in armed self-defence and “patrolled” the police, observing them during stops in black communities. This, unsurprisingly, led to confrontations, shootouts and arrests, as well as high-profile trials against Panthers including Newton. The campaigns to free the Panthers and raise money for legal defence are the basis of the collective memory of the party. However, the reality of their work was not these direct and sometimes symbolic confrontations.

The main work of the Panthers was in coordinating “survival programmes” that offered support to poor African-Americans that the state would not. The “free breakfast for schools” programme was feeding 20,000 children a day at its peak; the free health clinics treated tens of thousands of people; and they also started their own “liberation schools” to counter racist schooling. It was this community organising that embedded the Panthers in the community, not the guns and shootouts. One of the first successes of the Panthers was campaigning to get a traffic light put up on a busy intersection in Oakland, where children had been knocked down. The main lessons for organisations as they develop in Britain is that activism is not judged by big showpieces that gain media attention; but the mundane organising that organically links movements to the communities they are trying to serve.

In Britain there is a rich historical legacy to draw upon, which has largely been forgotten. The British Black Panthers started in 1968 and included people like Dr Althea Jones-Lecointe, Olive Morris and photographer-in-chief Neil Kenlock. The British Panthers did not condone gun use and focused on community education and anti-racist campaigns. They are part of a lost legacy of black radical activism that has strong roots in Britain. As new movements develop it is important to make connections and draw lessons from what has gone before.

Contrary to popular mythology, the Panthers in America were 60% female and featured prominent roles for women. This was particularly true in the British movement, which had strong female leadership and groups that sprang out of it such as the Black Women’s Group in 1973. Black women have been erased from the narrative of black activism and it is important we rediscover that history.

The Panthers have also helped sustain today’s movements. Their first creative fundraising activity was to sell copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to college students, and they published the Black Panther newspaper, which sold for 10 cents per copy with a peak circulation of 250,000 a week. The Panthers also raised funds from white allies and the state, but they understood that a movement cannot be independent unless it can raise its own funds. Whoever finances a group owns the organisation and this will be key as movements progress in Britain.

The newspaper was important in disseminating the political messages of the party. Mass circulation meant they had reach beyond their membership in black communities. Emory Douglas’s artwork was the perfect vehicle for spreading the ideas of the Panthers, for instance his iconic depiction of the police as pigs. Black Lives Matter has harnessed the power of social media, but this cannot replace the physical paper, which reaches the places the internet cannot. The presence of the Panthers selling the paper and engaging with the community was also important to embedding the movement at the grassroots. The revolution will not be retweeted, it will be led from the ground up by the communities who need it most.

The overt confrontations with police led to the Panthers being financially drained by legal fees and brutally assaulted by the state. This unfortunately led to the downfall of the movement and detracted from the grassroots activism the Panthers were leading. Today’s movements should remember that high-profile confrontations do not sustain an organisation, the first goal must be to root the struggle in the daily lives of black communities.