The Panthers opposed not only police brutality but also the economic injustice of everyday life

February 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

Protests over police killings of unarmed African-Americans continue to erupt across the nation, largely thanks to the organizing efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s worth asking what the movement can learn from earlier organizing efforts — in particular, the Black Panther Party. Nearly 50 years ago, activists were demanding not only the recognition that black lives matter but also the right to black power.

In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. The media quickly caricatured participants as gun-toting militants hell-bent on killing white people. This is far from the truth. The party’s charismatic young leader Fred Hampton denounced racism, saying, “We’re not a racist organization, because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism, and we know that racism is just — it’s a byproduct of capitalism.” (On Dec. 4, 1969, Chicago police raided 21-year-old Hampton’s apartment and fatally shot him.)

The Black Panthers’ message is set to be revived by a new documentary that premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” uses rare archival footage and interviews with party leaders, rank-and-file members and even FBI informants to show how the Black Panthers galvanized urban African-Americans to fight not only for their civil liberties but also their economic rights, to address not only police brutality but also economic injustice. It’s a lesson today’s protesters should learn.

While the Panthers ultimately failed to build a unified, self-sustaining movement, they successfully reimagined the parameters of what is possible, pushing a platform that included demands for an immediate end to police brutality, for full employment and for decent housing. In the documentary, Jamal Joseph, a filmmaker and former Panther, explains why this approach worked. “The civil rights movement was basically a Southern movement,” he said. “So when you had an organization like the Panthers taking on housing and welfare and health, that was stuff people in the North could relate to and rally behind.”

The Panthers didn’t just pay lip service to economic concerns; the party launched a massive social revitalization program in black communities. The group’s free breakfast program at its height served 20,000 meals a week to low-income children in 19 communities across the country. The Panthers operated free health clinics and education programs in inner-city neighborhoods. These efforts were not top-down charities but horizontally run community initiatives that welcomed newcomers as equals. These social programs also served the crucial purpose of bringing community members together to brainstorm and collaborate on how to better their lives.

The need for a broader movement that includes economic well-being is just as important today as it was in the 1960s. According to a Pew Research Center analysis published in December, the median wealth of white households was 13 times that of black households in 2013, compared with eight times in 2010.

When donors visited the Black Panther Party, they came and saw our real programs, a real clinic, with real doctors and medics, giving service to people.

Bobby Seale

Black Panther Party co-founder

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a national dialogue about police homicides of African-Americans and sparked widespread resistance against state violence. But it has yet to galvanize activists behind economic issues the way the Black Panther Party did in the 1960s. While the official website of the Black Lives Matter movement includes economic demands such as a living wage, the movement is primarily seen as an anti-police-brutality effort, and the protests it has organized to draw attention to law enforcement ills have yet to see their economic counterparts.

What would it look like if the Black Lives Matter movement embraced the struggle for economic justice in practice rather than just in rhetoric? A simple, preliminary step would be to reinstate the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program in communities most affected by police brutality and economic marginalization. These programs could provide a forum for discussing issues affecting the community, including economic concerns.

Last week, after Pope Francis instituted a program that offers free shaves and showers to Rome’s homeless population, I received a letter from my longtime prisoner pen pal Jermaine Page, who is serving a life sentence at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He commented on the new program, saying, “That was a wonderful idea. Someone should do that over here.” Although he is concerned about police brutality and believes he was wrongfully incarcerated, he would probably be more likely to attend a social program that offers concrete services than a community meeting about police abuse.

To be sure, leading protests in the wake of police brutality is crucial. But so is maintaining a daily presence in communities dealing with everyday economic difficulties. The Black Panthers were able to attract urban African-American support by stepping in to fill voids in social services — and in the process introduced the possibility of imagining wider societal change.

While there are numerous commendable programs, from Dress for Success to Habitat for Humanity, that offer services to those who are struggling, few have accomplished what the Black Panther Party did in the 1960s: create community spaces in which individuals interested in fighting for greater rights could receive tangible economic support from their peers. Given its broad base of support, the Black Lives Matter movement is well positioned to revive this model of activism.

The Black Panther Party didn’t survive as a cohesive entity. It disintegrated in the 1970s and early ’80s after being targeted by CoIntelPro, the secret FBI counterintelligence operation that aggressively sought to dismantle the Panthers. The FBI exploited ideological schisms between two party leaders, Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, for its own purposes. While the Panthers’ conception of black power was far from perfect, it successfully captured the interest of a generation of urban African-Americans by fighting for both civil and economic rights. The Panthers understood that police brutality is just one form of state violence.

As Seale said, “When donors visited the Black Panther Party, they came and saw our real programs, a real clinic, with real doctors and medics, giving service to people.” It remains to be seen if the Black Lives Matter movement will emulate the Black Panthers’ opposition to both police brutality and the economic brutality of everyday life.