History of Black Panthers

For Black History Month, Bellevue College invited students to watch and discuss a 15-minute episode segment of the TV documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” which was about the Black Power movement in the U.S. from 1967 – 1975, on Feb. 16. Leading the discussion was Ron Taplin, a counselor here at BC who was in high school when the party was formed.

BC Counselor Ron Taplin
BC Counselor Ron Taplin

According to Taplin, the Black Panther Foundation for Self Defense was formed in 1966 to combat police aggression and bring freedom to the black community. Before the party was formed, brutality against the black community had become so bad that James Meredith, the first black person to attend the University of Mississippi had to do so with armed guards. Meredith “decided that in the face of ongoing oppression and threats he was going to lead a march against fear,” said Taplin. “On the second day of this walk, somebody shot him from in the trees.” This, according to Taplin, was one of the many reasons the Black Panther Party was formed. “They decided they were going to protect their communities.”

The episode segment talked about what the Black Panther Party did to help stop the oppression and how they dealt with the media’s opinion of them. When the party was first formed in Oakland, Calif., they carried guns while observing police officers and although possession of firearms was legal in California, this became a point of conflict.

Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party
Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party

The video then went on to talk about the other exploits and activities of the party, including traveling to Sacramento to protest the legislature trying to remove the law that allowed citizens to carry guns, creating their own national newspaper and creating a children’s breakfast program, a community service project where the Panthers cooked and served food to poor city youth.

The party is not in existence today. Taplin said that their demise began when the FBI started raiding their bases and internal conflict eventually broke them apart. Now, however, there is the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The movement today is the continuation of an old narrative,” said Taplin, when commenting on police brutality in the present. “Sometimes it was written or spoken. Sometimes it was sung. In the case of the Panthers, it was expressed boldly and aggressively with a gun in hand along with a 10-point plan.” Taplin says that the modern movement might be less aggressive than the Black Panther Party because there is more proof of police brutality online in this modern age.

“Thank goodness for YouTube, Twitter, social media,” he said, stating that even though people heard stories of police brutality around the late 1900s, the general population didn’t witness this.

“In the news, it’s their word against the police officer, and the default goes to the police officer,” said Taplin. “Now you can go to YouTube and you can actually see what these people are doing.” This, according to Taplin, is one of the reasons why the modern movement can be more peaceful. The Black Panther party didn’t have the ability to spread awareness so quickly, so they used violence as a last resort. “They never wanted to get into a war with the police,” said Taplin.

Members of the audience said they gained a lot of knowledge from this event, but there were less than 10 of them in one session and around 13 in the other. “It was not well attended,” said Donna Sullivan, the director of instruction.  “I was expecting more.”

This could have been because American History classes don’t teach much about the civil rights era, according to Taplin. “I think it is easier to leave much of the truths of these periods unsaid,” he said. “Sadly, this allows Americans to live in denial about so many inconvenient truths of our history.”