Social Movements: How the Black Panthers Used Public Relations in the Fight for Civil Rights

The Black Panthers at the 'Free Huey' rally, in support of the Black Panther co-founder, Huey Newton, in West Oakland. (Stephan Shames, East Bay Times)

One of the most controversial groups of its time changed the face of Civil Rights. With a very militant agenda, the Black Panthers of the sixties redefined community-based revolution. More importantly, this revolution in some ways was the public relations that fueled change in the African-American consciousness. 

Why is the Panther Movement a movement?

In its inception, the Black Panthers comprised six members. However, at its height, the Party had close to 5,000 members with 45 chapters across the country! Even more important, the group promoted a specific social cause that addressed change, in this case 1960s African-American civil rights.

Okay, well why are they important to you in 2018?

The group is of import for one main reason. They addressed the need for programs that helped impoverished people, but more importantly, they established a way of dealing with police brutality, something that we are all susceptible to experiencing!

Furthermore, when any segment of society is marginalized, society as a whole becomes vulnerable to the violence that flourishes as a result of discrimination and other forms of disenfranchisement.

How did they address these issues?

Seeking to address inequities experienced in the African-American community, the Party’s platform addressed two major issues: it addressed the needs of the African-American community in the Oakland area and it addressed police brutality.

The platform for the community addressed the issues related to the economic and social disparities that many African-American Americans experienced. One of the major issues was related to disproportionate number of underprivileged African-Americans. To address these inequities, the Party’s community outreach efforts included providing clothing, food, and healthcare to those in the community.

The other major platform addressed by the Panthers was the issue of police brutality, which occurred often. Relations between African-Americans and the police in Oakland were not positive, as the community grew to distrust law enforcement because of the racial attitudes that contributed to law enforcement’s approach to community policing. In response to this unfairness, the Panthers took a community approach to dealing with these inequities by overseeing police activity within their communities and taking up arms in defense of the community at-large.

For the American public, the Panthers would….

Essentially, the group believed in social activism that would provide equity through mass organizing and community-based programs. Many of the points that would achieve this end were addressed in the Black Panther Ten-Point Program and focused on empowerment through community effort.

So, why were the African-American Panthers of the sixties vilified in the public arena?

One of the worst crimes an American citizen can commit against society is to enact violence against a member of law enforcement. However, a routine traffic stop ended proactive efforts to help African-American people in the United States end the cycle of racism that made them marginalized American citizens.

Huey P. Newton, one of the organization’s frontmen, was arrested and convicted of manslaughter in the slaying of two officers in Oakland, California and ending what would have been a great movement addressing the inequities in the urban landscape for minorities.

Who were the Panthers in the public arena?

Before this event, the group’s public image was a militant one. The Panther’s principles was similar to Malcolm X’s, one of a by any means necessary attitude, which condoned violence. In fact, many of the Panther platform ideas were drawn directly from the Black Muslim Movement that preceded the Panther movement years before.

Furthermore, the Panthers existed when the entire country was experiencing several revolutions at the same, and for the most part, a popular form of protest was through marches or sit-ins, as non-violent protest was a theme throughout the sixties. However, the Panthers were not pacifist by any meansand they believed that non-violent protest was ineffective in getting the attention of the authorities and the world community.

How did the Black Panthers use media to empower their communities?

One of the most important activities the founders of this movement engaged in was creating a platform where they could address the issues of the African-American community. While the group received press about its activities, the Panther newspaper gave the Party’s leaders the opportunity to speak to its public, and even more important, the paper helped shape the community paradigm around the discussion of civil rights.

The newspaper, at its peak, had a circulation of around 250,000 readers across the country, and some sources credit this newspaper as being responsible for garnering the support of the African-American community in major cities, as around 90 percent of African-Americans supported the cause.

The Black Panther Movement employed media to disseminate information regarding the group’s activities, but more importantly, to employ public relations in an effort to empower this historically marginalized group of people.

How did public relations play a role in empowering African-Americans during this era?

The Black Panther party engaged in public relations in two ways: community involvement and employing the press to spread the message.

Whether knowing or not, the Panther party helped underserved communities across America by establishing outreach programs that addressed social and law enforcement inequities, and in essence established a trust with the community. This two-way relationshiphelped create the platform that would empower a once disenfranchised community to take action.

Ultimately….

By using media that was self-owned and self-operated, the Panther organization could then take the initiatives that were a part of the Ten-Point Plan and further their cause across the United States.


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