The Black Panthers emerged from the Freedom Faith of those who could not accept the doctrine of non-violence. It emerged particularly from the anger and humiliation endured by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the Democratic convention of 1964, when black delegates were not allowed to take seats at the convention. It seemed that, once again, freedom faith had been trumped by the pragmatism of politics-as-usual.
SNCC called for a march from Selma to Montgomery. While marching, Carmichael and other SNCC members took up the call-and-response chant of the black church and made it into a political slogan:
"What do you want?"
Carmichael left SNCC and formed the Black Panther Political Party in Lowndes County, the county that lay between Selma and Montgomery. It elected the first black sheriff since Reconstruction.
At around the same time, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, a former minister in the Nation of Islam, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They made Stokely Carmichael their Prime Minister.
Carmichael took ideas of separatism and nationalism, which had swirled within the black community since Reconstruction, and stated, "Whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing...If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people...[otherwise] we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country."
In Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense became the center of the Black Power Movement. They were not strictly separatist, and formed alliances with the Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society. The Panthers carried armed rifles to defend the black community against police brutality and perceived racist threats. They also fought to establish socialism through mass organizing and community-based programs. The Panthers called for radical reform of every aspect of American life: housing, employment, health care, the criminal justice system, education, national security, and the military.
The Black Panther Party imploded in the midst of drugs, infighting, and a sustained FBI counter-intelligence program. Nevertheless, it made a lasting contribution. The Panther's first social action item was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which spread from one small Catholic church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, to cities across America. The success of the campaign pressed the federal government to adopt a similar program for the nation's public schools.
Eldridge Cleaver became a born-again Christian in 1974, and died in 1998. Huey Newton was shot and killed in a drug deal gone bad in 1989.
"We were a bunch of kids," recalled Kathleen Cleaver (who divorced her husband after he became born-again) many years later. "We didn't understand the energy required to make real revolution. We discounted the organizing power of the black church, and we didn't understand the spiritual commitment that would be necessary to achieve our goals."