By Allen Harder
In 1966 Black Americans first donned the berets and bandoliers that in the following years became synonymous with the Black Panther Party. Soon, it would become a large part of the fight against racial inequality in America
In the wake of the 60s civil rights movement and in response to the ongoing police brutality and the recent assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in October 1966 in Oakland, California. Established by two college peers, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, it revolutionized the idea of what the civil right movement could be, organizing armed police monitoring, exercising their own rights and fighting actively for justice.
Newton and Seale would soon create a coalition, or rather an institution, consisting of over 2,000 people that carried these same sentiments. The two were a force to be reckoned with, challenging police as well as the government. Straying away from the traditional nonviolent civil rights movement, they would station themselves and monitor police activity and often get into confrontations, aiming to protect other Black victims of police brutality. They did not only fend off police brutality, though. They supplied communities with food, provided education and even distributed manufactured products like shoes and clothing. These came to be known as the survival programs, a pivotal self-sustained system that further empowered Black people.
These initiatives would out-live the group and extend to other systems and programs. The federal government would soon adopt this policy of free distribution of food for kids in school. The introduction of the radical Black Panther Party resonates within today’s culture, and some of their values still permeate many other social justice movements.
Throughout every generation, East High School has had its share of problems. Throughout the mid 60s and early 70s, many students faced the realities of the Vietnam War and continued racial injustices within society. During this time, the Black Panther Party of Denver, led by the late Lauren Watson, planned to hold a dynamic speech at East High School. However, they were not permitted to enter into the school due to their violent reputation. But the principal at this time was the progressive-leaning Bob Caldwell, who met with Watson and other members of the group to discuss issues within the high school. Their three demands were plain and simple. The first was the creation of the Black Student Alliance, to continue the legacy of the Panthers and encourage students to fight back against racial transgressions. The second was the diversification of the school’s teaching staff. Lastly, the group wanted to introduce classes like African American Literature within the schools academic courses. Caldwell not only agreed to these new demands, but also wanted to allow not only Black students to attend these classes.
This rarely-acknowledged event was pivotal in changing the school’s identity.
The peaceful protests of the 60s led by Martin Luther King Jr, James Farmer and John Lewis all broadened the support for the ever-growing civil rights movement. Many of these leaders sought to end racial disparities through non-violent means. In stark contrast. The Black Panther Party set themselves apart by opting for violent and armed confrontations with police and the government. These operations would abruptly cease in 1982, as their support would decrease following involvement in drug dealing and other illicit actions.
But, to many, their influence on the generations after them have far surpassed their violent doings and unlawful activity. They brought forth an idea that intrigued many, and they gave power back to the people. They armed people with weapons and inspired them to fight for their basic human rights. It gave many people hope, when their people were being killed in the streets and their homes. They imbued this sense of power within people; though their means are viewed as questionable by many, for others, their impact demands respect. It is unquestionable that the identity of East would not be the same today if it weren’t for the Black Panthers.