The Illinois Black Panther Party: Seize the Time

The Black Panther Party(BPP) was one of the most influential organizations of the 1960’s-1970’s USA uprising. Its combination of direct social services, intense political education and militant revolutionary activity by African Americans helped inspire other racial groups to adapt their model to their own situations.  

The 10 point program of the Party became a must-read document for like-minded radicals of the time who were seeking a strategy for ending capitalism and it’s endemic racial horrors.The Panthers worked tirelessly at forming alliances, not only with  Black organizations, but organizations made up of other racial groups, an effort that came to be called the Rainbow Coalition.

Origins of the Black Panther Party 

Founded originally in 1966  by two Oakland CA college students, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the BPP came to national attention with its armed patrols against police brutality and it’s dramatic 1967 armed lobbying effort in the California legislature. Black people across the country were soon asking to join the BPP and the BPP leadership found itself busy sorting out applicatIons for chapters and memberships.

Bobbe Seale and Huey Newton

The rapid growth of the BPP and its insistence on revolutionary coalition building attracted unwanted attention from police forces of all types, up to and including the FBI. The federal COINTELPRO program devoted much of its resources to the goal of destroying the Black Panther Party. US Capitalism has long depended upon white supremacy to divide the working class and the Black Panther Party was viewed as a threat to the very system itself.

Police repression against the new organization was fierce. Paid informants and provocateurs signed up to spy upon and disrupt BPP operations. There were mass arrests, shootings and general harassment everywhere the Panthers tried to organize.  In 1967 Huey Newton was wounded in a shootout with police that resulted in the death of a cop. in  1968, Bobby Hutton was killed by police after surrendering. Hutton had been the first BPP recruit. Bobby Seale was accused of inciting the 1968 police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago as well as conspiring to kill a suspected informant in  the BPP New Haven CT chapter. 

The Black Panther Party in Chicago

In Chicago two different groups negotiated a merger and formed the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968.  The organization included Fred Hampton, Rufus Walls, Jewel Cook, Billy “Che” Brooks, Christina May, Bob Lee, Lynn French and many others. 

The public face of the Illinois BPP was the brilliant and talented Fred Hampton, who came to the organization after a highly successful stint as Youth Director of the West Side NAACP. Hampton had the ability to explain complex socio-economic concepts in clear understandable English and had a well deserved reputation as a powerful and persuasive speaker at rallies. Hampton soon  gained a national reputation.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”—- Fred Hampton

At the core of the BPP’s activism in Chicago were its survival programs, its educational work and its resistance to the corporate-driven  politics of the infamous Democratic Machine headed by Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Across the nation the BPP set up service programs: medical clinics, free breakfast for children, free busing to prisons, free childcare centers, free clothing, free ambulance services and others, each tailored to the specific needs of the community where the BPP chapter was located.

The Illinois BPP survival programs helped address two debilitating consequences of poverty: malnutrition and the related one of poor health. The Panthers set up a free breakfast program for more than 400 children with sites in community centers and churches and a free clinic to attend to community health needs.

Panther Wanda Ross was one of the breakfast program organizers. She solicited both food and money from local residents, wealthy sympathizers and businesses. She made a special point of talking to Black management personnel in corporations:

“Basically, on a daily basis, I was out on the street beggin’ for money and food, purchasing food and supplies, and making sure all the breakfast sites had everything  they needed.”—Wanda Ross

The Illinois BPP also set up the Spurgeon “Jake” Winters People’s Free Medical Care Center. Named after a Panther who died in a shootout along with two cops, It was located in the West Side North Lawndale community. 

In a community where infant mortality was twice that of whites, its policy of close attention to patients could make a difference. Ronald “Doc” Satchel, a Panther who played a crucial role at the clinic explains:

We can have patients come through and see a doctor, actually get through, get a test, what have you,then they come in and see the people’s advocate.That’s a community person, a person in power that acts likes liaison  between the center and the community. He asked them what kind of service they got here in the center, you know, any other criticism of the medical center itself. It’s also to deal with problems outside medical problems, you know.people’s advocate also has a resource file. In this file we have teachers,sociologists, speech therapists, social workers…”

Besides its liberation classes which focused on Black history, economics and politics, the BPP put a lot of resources into its weekly newspaper, The Black Panther, as a tool for education. With a national circulation that reached upwards to 100,000, the paper contained a wide variety of news and opinion, exhorting its readers to resist police brutality, protest police murders, prepare themselves for revolution, support the 10 point program and work to free the growing number of Black Panther political prisoners. The paper had also an international focus because of the BPP’s militant anti-imperialism. Groups inspired by the BPP began to appear in other nations.

Mayor Daley liked to tout Chicago as the “City that Worked”.

 But if that were true, why were the cops always beating and shooting people? Particularly Black people? Why were hungry people in poor health flocking to the Panther survival programs? Why was the Daley Machine so opposed to the Panthers message to Chicago street gangs that they should stop preying on their communities and instead help revitalize them? Why did Martin Luther King get bricks thrown at him for trying to draw attention to Chicago’s poverty and racism, both of which Mayor Daley denied even existed.

The Daley Machine was especially incensed at the Rainbow Coalition of the Black Panther Party, Young Lords (mostly Puerto Rican) and the Young Patriots (mostly low income southern white migrants). The Rainbow Coalition’s insistence on breaking down the racial segregation that propped up the Daley Machine threatened the dictatorial power of Chicago’s mayor.

Repression Of The Illinois Black Panther Party

As the influence of the BPP grew in Chicago’s low income Black neighborhoods, the Democratic Machine of Mayor Daley grew more and more alarmed. There was constant harassment of Panthers on the street including multiple arrests where prosecutions were quickly dropped. The Panther office was shot up and the interior wrecked. But none of these efforts stopped the BPP in Chicago.

So with the blessing of the authorities in Washington, the Chicago police drugged Fred Hampton with the aid of an informant and launched an armed night raid on the West Side apartment where he was staying. When it was over Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were dead. Verlina Brewer, Ronald “Doc” Satchel, Blair Anderson, and Brenda Harris were seriously wounded. Fred’s pregnant fiancee Deborah Johnson, was dragged out if the apartment and arrested. 

All of the surviving Panthers were charged with attempted murder and weapons charges. Those charges were all dropped when the police story fell apart and the truth about the cold-blooded murder came out.

Hundreds of people lined up to see the apartment where the assassination took place and thousands came to his funeral.

Hampton funeral

Congressperson  Ralph Metcalfe broke with the Daley Machine over the killing and it ended the political career of States Attorney Ed Hanrahan. In 1973 the BPP leadership decided to dissolve all of its chapters outside of Oakland and try to consolidate political power there. Some Chicago Panthers moved to Oakland. Others left the Party. The Illinois Black Panther Party disbanded.

As a formal organization, the Rainbow Coalition had ceased to exist, but its legacy of multi-racial working class community organizing lived on. A relatively unknown state senator named Harold Washington decided to run for Mayor of Chicago in 1977 and received help from former Rainbow Coalition members. Washington understood the importance of multi-racial organizing and although he did not win in 1977, he went on to become Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. Jesse Jackson borrowed the name Rainbow Coalition for his progressive presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.