'The Trial of the Chicago 7': Does the Black Panther Party still exist? Here's why they are relevant today
In Aaron Sorkin's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7', the Black Panther Party plays a prominent role in the background as several members come to Judge Julius Hoffman's (Frank Langella) courtroom in support of their organization's co-founder, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), one of the initial eight charged by the Anti-Riot Act. Among them, Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr) continues to give legal advice to Seale, who was not allowed preferred legal representation by the judge. Seale's presence itself is entirely suspect given that he did not have a big role in organizing the protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention — rather, Seale knows that he was charged because of what he represents.
The Black Panther Party was perhaps the culmination of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was founded as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 as a Black Power political organization. The group was founded to challenge police brutality against African-Americans and to protect Black neighborhoods in Oakland, California, with armed organized patrols. At the time, California residents were allowed to carry weapons openly. When the Panthers began to take advantage of this law, the state soon passed a law banning open carry of loaded weapons by anyone outside of law enforcement or those with explicit authorization. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the supporters of the new law was the National Rifle Association (NRA).
While the Panthers were known for their violent ways, they participated and performed many deeds for society. Drawing on Marxist ideology, Newton and Seale outlined the organization’s philosophical views and political objectives in a Ten-Point Program which called for an immediate end to police brutality, employment for African Americans, and land, housing and justice for all. The group started a number of popular community social programs, including free breakfast programs for school children and free health clinics in 13 African American communities across the United States.
Other free services included clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.
By 1970, the Black Panther Party had grown to its peak membership, with even government oppression failing to stop it. However, through the 1970s, gun violence and infighting began to weaken the Panthers as a political force. One example of this is mentioned in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' itself. Seale was accused of a murder of a Black Panther in 1969. He was later acquitted due to lack of evidence but the said Black Panther, Alex Rackley, was tortured and killed by other Black Panthers after he was suspected of being an FBI informant. Black Panther bookkeeper Betty Van Patter was found beaten and murdered in 1974. No one was charged with the death, though many believed that party leadership was responsible.
As the Black Panther Party became embroiled in more controversies, the mainstream media turned against it, which led to a decrease in public support. In 1982, the Black Panther Party was dissolved. While the legacy of the Panthers remains controversial, the Black Panther Party was no doubt an influential Black movement in the 20th century. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the Black Panther Party's Ten-Point Program remains relevant. In 1989, a "New Black Panther Party" was formed in Dallas, Texas as a Black nationalist organization. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center include the New Black Panthers on their lists of hate groups. Bobby Seale and other members of the original Black Panther Party have insisted that this New Black Panther Party is illegitimate and they have strongly objected to it.
'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is now streaming on Netflix.