The Black Panthers And The Police. Who’s Really Radical?

Source: The New York Times

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On February 1st, the movie Judas and The Black Messiah came out. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it, so don’t worry, no spoilers here. The movie depicts the Black Panther group, specifically the Chicago chapter led by Fred Hampton. The Black Panthers lay among the more radical side of the civil rights movement. Though not solely based upon violence, they weren’t afraid to get violent.

On the other hand, as many people know, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is considered the ultimate peacemaker in the Civil Rights Era. American History textbooks don’t cover much other than Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream Speech and Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience. This means things like Malcolm X., or in this case, the Black Panthers, are left unaddressed and open to uneducated opinions. 

Who Are The Black Panthers?

In 1966, the Black Panthers considered themselves a group founded for the self-defense of Black people. The group was initially founded by Bobby Seale, Elbert Howard, also known as Big Man, and Huey P. Newton. By the 1970s, the group began to see itself as a political party. It had upwards of 2,000 members across the country. Also, the group had set up community programs, one of which, as depicted in the movie, was a breakfast program where children were fed free meals. 

Grayscale photo of a man in a white polo holding a bottle and holding his fist in the air.
Photo by Guillaume Issaly on Unsplash

Despite this, the organization had controversies that stated that members had tortured a suspected police informant within its organization, as portrayed in the movie. In 1969 two significant events occurred. Fred Hampton was assassinated, and J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther movement a communist group.

  • Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton meet at Merritt college in Oakland, California. -1961

  • Malcolm X. is assassinated -1965

  • Seale, Howard, and Newton found The Black Panther Party -1966

  • The group reaches 2,000 members -1968

  • Betty Van Patter, a Black Panther member, is beaten and murdered allegedly other members -1969

  • The Black Panther Party is designated a communist group by the FBI -1969

  • Chicago Police assassinate Fred Hampton and others and arrest Deborah Johnson. -1969

  • The Black Panther Party disbands officially. -1982


The Truth May Be Lost To History.


In the end, the movie depicts the assassination of Fred Hampton and many other members and the arrest of his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, who now goes by Akua Njeri. The Chicago Police Department is responsible for the brutal murder of these people. Still, the movie heavily suggests that the FBI, under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover, was ultimately responsible for the assassination.

Photo by Pipe A. on Unsplash

 History confirms this theory but clarifies the FBI has never admitted its involvement in the assassination; however, “a federal grand jury later indicated that the bureau played a significant role in the events leading up to the raid.” So the truth to whatever may indeed have happened is probably lost to history.

Who’s Really The Radicals?

Civil rights leaders are often deemed “radical,” but as stated before, the education system hardly addresses such leaders and their group ideals. Malcolm X. is touted as radical and pro-violence; however, many historians clarify that he was instead a proponent of self-defense, which is a subtle yet essential difference. In this case, it’s the Black Panther Party which is still declared as even more radical than Malcolm X. 


The movie offer subtle hints that Fred Hampton may not have been radically violent. When the members go into rival territory, Hampton orders them to leave their guns in the car as a sign of peace. If someone refuses, as happens in one scene, Hampton tells them to stay in the car. Whether this is true or not, history goes to show that the Black Panther group, as founder Bobby Seale states, doesn’t “hate nobody because of color. We hate oppression.” If the police can have “bad apples,” can’t a civil rights movement also have them?  

History seems to repeat itself in that Black movements tend to die out or fizzle if not solely due to the government; they certainly had a hand in it. For example, Martin Luther King Jr., murdered, Malcolm X. murdered, Fred Hampton, murdered. These individuals were the leaders of monumental groups leading the civil rights movement, which fizzled out after their deaths. While there isn’t and probably never will be proof, in each case, the government had labeled each one a credible threat to society. 

The FBI, under Hoover’s authority, encouraged King to commit suicide and attempted to discredit him. Having converted to Muslim and thus arguably as “radical” as King at the time of their deaths, Malcolm X was considered “controversial in mainstream America” for his ideas of self-defense and self-empowerment. Malcolm X, like King, and Hampton, were under extreme surveillance through COINTELPRO. While the connections aren’t damning, if it smells fishy, it’s probably fish.

Whether the racial movement leaders were genuinely radical or not may be lost in history, but if they are considered radical, what must the police departments, the FBI, and the United States government be considered?

If these institutions were at the hands of these individuals’ murders, that’s far beyond radical. If they weren’t behind the murders, shouldn’t they have known of any threats? Logically, with the amount of surveillance from COINTELPRO, with bugged rooms and phone lines and secret informants, a threat must’ve been detected, so why weren’t they protected? We can’t change the past, and the past won’t necessarily change the future, but truth matters.

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them

– Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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