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The Black Panther Party For Self-Defense was a significant social justice group in the 1960’s that was a important precursor to the anti-police brutality movement today. The Panthers believed in self-determination for Black communities and in defending themselves against the police by carrying legal weapons and monitoring police activity in the neighborhoods.

Destroyed internally by power struggles and externally by COINTELPRO, the true story of the Party has not before been told. That has change with the release of  The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which opened yesterday in New York with a national roll-out to follow. 

“The last two films were about the civil rights movements. The Black Panthers started n Oakland because of the police brutality in Oakland and that was 50 years ago. And here we are 50 years later fighting the same battle,” Nelson said.

Yet maybe because of the rhetoric of the times or because the media considered them dangerous and scary, the Panthers changed from being viewed as the community-based organization that it started out as and became known more as and anti-White hate group, which they never were.

“One of the things that gets pointed out is that by the early 70’s the majority of the Panthers were women,” Nelson says. “You think about men with guns, but women had a very strong role in the Party.”

Nelson also confirms that the Black Panther Party in its original incarnation does not exist today. The “New” Black Panther Party” shares a name, but not an ideology with the original group and has been condemned by many of its former leaders, including former Minister of Information Kathleen Cleaver. 

“The Panthers, as we show in the film, were destroyed by many things,” says Nelson. “The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover and it was well documented. They were out to destroy the Panthers and they did. But the Panthers also had a number of really volatile and strong personalities which I guess you need to form an organization like that. So there was infighting but some of that infighting was orchestrated by the FBI. They was enormous pressure from outside.”

The Panthers have also been well-documented in books and pop culture, including Elaine Brown’s book A Taste Of Power  among many others and the fictionalized movie Panther, which had many historical inaccuracies. Many of the prominent Panthers, including co-founder (with Huey P. Newton) Bobby Seale are still alive. Newton was shot and killed in 1989.

“Many of the Panthers were teenagers at the time,” Nelson says. “So many of them are vibrant people in their late 60’s, early 70’s. Kathleen Cleaver is still around, Bobby Seale is still around and Emory Douglas, who was the artist for the Panthers, is still around. We probably interviewed about 45 people for the film. We really wanted to interview not just the leadership, but the rank and file of the Panthers.”

For more information on the screenings, which begin in New York City’s Film Forum this week and then travels around the county click HERE. 

Click the link above to hear the entire interview.

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 (Photo: Black Panther Party 1968 – Courtesy of Stephen Shames)