“Judas and the Black Messiah”, released on February 12, 2021, was a long-awaited exposé of the FBI’s past conspiracies against the Black nationalist political organization, The Black Panther Party. Following the story of William O’Neal’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party, the movie was inspired by true events and the harassment of the Black Panther Party by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California by young political activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale after the assassination of Black nationalist Malcolm X and the murder of unarmed Black teen Matthew Johnson by San Francisco police officers. Formed to address the long tradition of police brutality and state oppression of the Black community, the revolutionary party aimed to fundamentally change the American society as to protect the young, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the Black Americans. Co-founder Bobby Seale famously stated, “We don’t hate nobody because of color. We hate oppression”. Consisting of roughly 2,000 members at its peak in 1968, the Black Panther organized armed citizen patrols of Oakland and other cities to monitor police activities in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. The Black Panther Party advocated for immediate social reform, an end to police brutality, employment for Black Americans, and other basic civil rights. The movement emphasized Black pride and unification of the Black community in the fight for civil rights.
The Black Panthers drew widespread support from predominately minority communities in urban areas as the result of their social programs. The party organized community service programs known as “survival programs” through typically female-led local chapters of the Panthers with the initiative of providing disenfranchised communities with the basic essentials for life. These programs included a free breakfast program that fed up to 20,000 children daily and a free food program for families and the elderly. Additionally, the Black Panther Party sponsored schools, legal aid offices, clothing distribution, local transportation, and health clinics, and sickle-cell testing centers in various countries to reinsure basic human rights for urban centers. The party campaigned for prison reforms, opened free health clinics, and created the Freedom Schools, notably Oakland Community School, for disenfranchised communities.
The FBI established COINTELPRO, mere months following the formation of the Black Panther Party, with the initiative of “neutralizing political dissidents”. They were tasked with investigating “radical” political groups, leaders, and activists who they believed to be involved with foreign enemies or communistic ideologies from 1956 to 1971. The FBI investigated groups deemed subversive and radical, like the Communist Parties, feminist organizations, anti-Vietnam War organizations, and black civil rights activists. The program famously investigated the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Nation of Islam under allegations of involvement with foreign Communist parties. FBI documents specifically state one of the primary purposes of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists” and prevent the rise of a black “messiah”. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party were considered a prime target for COINTELPRO’s directives.
COINTELPRO, or the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, played an important part in fear-mongering the people through the portrayal of the Black Panthers as a criminal organization. Government propaganda, spread through false messages and political cartoons, depicted the Black Panthers as a heavily armed street gang, creating controversy around the political party. Their socialist message and focus on black nationalism labeled the Black Panthers as “dangerously radical” and drew the attention of COINTELPRO. The Black Panther Party was declared a “communist organization” and “an enemy of the United States government” in 1969, in an attempt to demonize the organization and stir fear among the Black nationalists. J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI’s director, referred to the group in 1968 as “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security”. They worked to undermine the social programs and the political actions of the party instituted by the Black Panther Party.
The bureau released bogus letters and messages to create rifts between the Panthers, its white leftist supporters, and other Black nationalist organizations. In particular, false leaked documents created permanent internal tensions between the two Panther leaders, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, ultimately playing an important role in the weakening of the party. The FBI planted false stories in the newspaper and television to paint the Panthers and their white supporters in a bad light, reducing their popular support. COINTELPRO successfully created discord between the Black Panther Party and other Black nationalist organizations like Ron Karenga’s US group. The FBI-fostered feud between the two organizations led to a large shootout, from which two Panther members, Alprentice Carter and John Huggins, lost their lives. An official report by the Chicago FBI office stated the leaked letters “may intensify the degree of animosity between the two groups and occasion Fort to take retaliatory action which could disrupt the [Black Panther Party] or lead to reprisals against their leadership.”
Direct police violence and brutality from local police departments backed the initiatives of COINTELPRO by targetting popular Black nationalist organizations. The Chicago police gunned down and murdered two Panther members, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, when the two were unarmed, unaware, and asleep in their apartments. Survivors of the raid were arrested for bogus attempted murder charges. Over a hundred bullets were discovered in the aftermath of the raid and the police statement described a bloody two-sided confrontation initiated by the Panthers. However, experts later discovered that only one of the bullets were fired from by Black Panther Party members, discrediting the official reports.
The FBI conspiracy to diminish the political influence and undermine the social programs of the Black Panther Party through the covert operations of COINTELPRO directly led to its decline in 1982. Through propaganda and false documents, the program flooded the public media with distorted depictions of the party as a violent armed criminal organization, creating rifts between the Panthers and their leftist white supporters. Forged communications and documents were “leaked” to the public to create feuds within the Black Panthers and with other Black nationalist organizations, weakening the unity and social integrity of the political party. The FBI encouraged local police departments to raid, harass, and assault members associated with the Black Panther Party. The operations of COINTELPRO directly demonized the Black Panther Party and disparaged their “subversive” political message.
Picture Credit: photograph of Huey Newton by Eldridge Cleaver (1967)