At its peak in 1968, the revolutionary Black Panther Party had an estimated 5,000 members with offices in 68 cities, but within the decade, membership began to decline.
There were several factors leading to the organization’s downfall. Combined, these proved unsustainable to the activist group’s survival. The Panthers were being attacked from all sides. The U.S. government was trying to break them down, the mainstream press was vilifying them, and members were losing faith. Even the public started to turn on them.
The Seattle chapter was the one that stayed functional the longest. Its breakfast program and medical clinics continued even after the chapter disbanded in 1977.
The party membership dwindled throughout the 1970s and by 1980, just 27 members were left.
Here are five factors that led to the decline of the Original Black Panther Party.
COINTELPRO was a special counter-intelligence program established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that played a major part in the unraveling of the Black Panther Party. The goal of the program was to neutralize political dissidents and groups such as the thBPP. Between 1956 and 1971 the COINTELPRO program investigated “radical” national political groups. Ffive groups were singled out — the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, white hate groups, Black Nationalist hate groups and the new left, according to PBS.
In 1968, COINTELPRO zoomed in on Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton.
“Of the 295 documented actions taken by COINTELPRO to disrupt Black groups, 233 were directed against the Black Panther Party,” PBS reported.
The Party struggled “to compete with the more popular cultural nationalism,” according to George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Musgrove wrote a research paper titled “There Is No New Black Panther Party: The Panther-Like Formations and the Black Power Resurgence of the 1990s.” He also co-wrote the book, “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
What started out as a neighborhood organization in Oakland in 1966, grew fast, adding chapters across the country. According to Musgrove, the BPP leadership “struggled, however, to manage this growth. Individual chapters developed their own ideology and organizing agenda, sometimes at odds with party leadership,” he wrote.
There was no uniformity or cohesiveness among the chapters, making it easier for the government to break down the Black Panther Party.
There was trouble within the chapters. Many of them were “divided along the lines of class, strategy, and ideology,” Musgrove wrote. “College students…struggled to work with ‘lumpen‘ (in Marxist contexts, uninterested in revolutionary advancement), Black nationalists resisted the Central Committee’s growing adherence to Marxism-Leninism, and underground and above-ground factions had different approaches to using violence as a political strategy.”
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Another thing that caused the downfall of the Panthers was the drug addition of co-founder Huey P. Newton.
“Facing intense police repression that exacerbated these divisions, the Party retreated to Oakland in the mid-1970s to become an urban power broker. It remained until 1980, when ongoing repression and Newton’s drug use bankrupted the organization, forcing it to disband abruptly,” Musgrove wrote.
Newton, who suffered from major drug and alcohol problems, also faced prison time for weapons possession, financial misappropriation and parole violations, according to Biography.com.
Photo: Huey P. Newton, national defense minister of the Black Panther Party, raises his clenched fist behind the podium as he speaks at a convention sponsored by the Black Panthers at Temple University’s McGonigle Hall in Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 5, 1970. He is surrounded by security guards of the movement. The audience gathered is estimated at 6,000 with another thousand outside the crowded hall. (AP Photo)