Berkeley in 1969: Black Panthers, the FBI & Vietnam

By Mal Warwick

A review of ‘Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party,’ by Joshua Bloom, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA. and Waldo E. Martin III, a professor of history at UC Berkeley.

When I moved to Berkeley in 1969, the Black Panther Party was in its heyday. Only three years earlier, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had begun building the party around an image and a name they’d appropriated from other Black organizations then active in those turbulent years of the Vietnam War and exploding ghettos.  Yet before the decade of the 1970s was out, the Black Panther Party had all but disappeared. Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s excellent study of the Panthers and their politics, makes clear why and how they grew into such a force — and why the party collapsed so few years later.

The pivotal event in the history of the Black Panther Party was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Before that day, the Party was just one of hundreds of activist African-American organizations, most of them vanishingly small, in Black ghettos and on university campuses all across the country. The Panthers were set apart from others by their distinctive black outfits, by carrying guns in public to defend themselves against police brutality, by their outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, and, perhaps most of all, by their willingness to encompass people of other ethnicities. As a result, they had grabbed headlines locally and were growing at a fast pace, attracting African-Americans in their late teens and twenties who were disillusioned by the timidity of their elders in the Civil Rights Movement — but the party’s activities were largely limited to Oakland, Berkeley, and nearby cities. However, when Rev. King was murdered, the Black Panther Party quickly emerged as the leading organization nationwide with the credibility and the activist ideology that could channel the fury and the hope of young African-Americans and attract alliances with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other largely non-Black radical organizations. The Party quickly began opening offices around the country — a total of 68 cities by 1970 — and for three years remained a powerful and ever-present force in the activist politics of the day.


Soon, however, the party’s rapid decline began in earnest. Bloom and Martin emphasize two key factors — the Panthers’ establishment enemies and the shrinking U.S. engagement in Vietnam under Richard Nixon — to which I would add a third: the explosive personality dynamics of the Panthers’ leaders themselves.

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Mal Warwick is an author, impact investor, and activist who reviews books on his blog Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books and is one of four partners in the One World Futbol Project, a social enterprise he helped establish in Berkeley.

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