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Fifty years later: Black Panthers look back

JANIE HAR | 11/13/2016, 7:29 p.m.

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – The Black Panthers emerged from Oakland, California – a gritty Northern California city – 50 years ago, declaring to a nation in turmoil a new party dedicated to defending African Americans against police brutality and protecting the right of a downtrodden people to determine their own future.

In the group’s short life, it launched an ambitious breakfast program for children and opened free health clinics to screen for sickle-cell anemia. At the same time, party members scared mainstream America with their calls for revolution that were at odds with Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence on peaceful protest.

The Panthers eventually imploded, weakened by internal fighting and by a government effort to undermine the group. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said the party represented the nation’s “greatest threat to internal security.” The Nixon administration moved to shut it down.

The anniversary comes as new tensions between Black communities and law enforcement have given rise to another social-justice movement with Oakland ties – Black Lives Matter.

Hundreds of Panthers from around the world are expected in Oakland for a four-day conference that started Thursday. Two days later, co-founder Bobby Seale will celebrate his 80th birthday with a roast sponsored by the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party.

Nationally, African Americans continue to lag Whites in jobs, housing and health. And Oakland, once a heavily Black city, is losing its African American population as soaring home prices propelled by the technology boom drive out poorer residents.

“The only change is that time has passed,” said Elaine Brown, a former party chairwoman who remains politically active in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We are the poorest. We have the least economic interests in the country, and consequently we are an oppressed people. We remain an oppressed people.”

Bobby McCall was 20 when he left Philadelphia for Oakland to help give away 10,000 sacks of free food. He agrees that conditions have not improved.

“That’s why we have the movement Black Lives Matter,” McCall said. “Only they’re not as organized as we were. They don’t have a free breakfast program like we had. They have to start developing programs.”

The generally accepted date of the party’s founding is Oct. 15, 1966, although Seale said it was a week later, on his birthday.

It was an era of Vietnam War and civil rights protests when Seale and Huey P. Newton drafted the party’s 10-point platform. The document called for decent housing and employment. It demanded Black self-reliance.

They named their group the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense after a Black civil rights group in Alabama, adopted the beret worn by the French resistance to Hitler and launched armed patrols.

In response, California lawmakers in 1967 repealed the law that allowed people to carry loaded weapons in public. The Panthers gained national attention when they carried guns into the state Capitol in protest.

White Americans were used to King’s nonviolent campaign against racism, but they were not accustomed to seeing Black Americans with guns.