Half a century after the FBI director called them the greatest internal threat to national security, the Black Panther Party is once again in the spotlight thanks to the new critically acclaimed film, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
The film tells the story of Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was betrayed by an FBI informant and killed during a police raid.
“Reading the script and hearing his words stirred me,” actor Daniel Kaluuya said. “They moved me, it was almost like a call to action.”
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California by activists who were disillusioned with and frustrated by the civil rights movement.
“When Dr. King got assassinated, those of us that were talking about non-violence got really angry,” explained Black Panther veteran, Jamal Joseph.
Inspired by their boldness and hungry for social change, Jamal Joseph walked into the Black Panther office in Harlem at the age of 15.
“I jumped up and I said, ‘arm me brother. I’ll kill a white guy right now,'” Joseph recalled. “He calls me up to the front, everybody gets quiet. And he reaches down, he’s sitting at a desk, and he hands me – I thought it was going to be a big gun – it was a stack of books.”
Misconceptions about the Black Panthers have persisted from the 1960s until now. Panthers created a 10-point program for community empowerment.
“Afeni Shakur, who was Tupac’s mom [and] who was my mentor in the Black Panther Party, [was] my big sister. [She] was brilliant, organizing around housing, and also around health care,” Joseph said during an interview with PIX11 News.
During the late 1960s, new chapters opened in cities across the country.
“Very strong chapter in New York City,” Joseph explained. “Our community patrols of the police, we weren’t armed. But we were out there with cameras and notepads taking badges, intervening in police brutality.”
The Harlem Black Panthers also served free breakfast to children before school.
As their grassroots organizing intensified, so did the displays of Black militancy, often referring to police officers as pigs.
By 1969, the Black Panthers became a major target of the FBI’s counterintelligence program. Tensions were high between Black Panthers and law enforcement after shoot outs that were deadly both for both Black Panthers and police officers.
In April of 1969, 21 members of the Black Panthers in New York City were arrested and accused of planning coordinated attacks across the city.
“That number 21 represented what the district attorney and the police thought was the leadership of New York,” Joseph remembered.
Joseph learned some of the people he trusted as mentors within the organization “were actually undercover cops.”
At the time, the Panther 21 trials were the longest and most expensive prosecutions in New York State history. By 1971, Panther 21 members were acquitted of all 156 criminal charges filed against them.
Today, Jamal Joseph is a filmmaker and Columbia University professor. He believes the struggle for racial equality that the Black Panthers contributed to continues today in the Black Lives Matter movement and others like it.