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FIFTY YEARS AFTER ITS FOUNDING, THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY MARCHES ON IN THE SPIRIT OF BLACK LIVES MATTER AND ON THE STREETS OF CHARLOTTEFFOR WHEREVER POLICE NEXT SHOOT AN UNARMED BLACK MAN

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You tell all those white folks in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead.” So said Stokely Carmichael at the birth of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer wasn’t feeling so nonviolent after spending a few years watching police beat civil rights protesters with billy clubs in the South. With the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, Carmichael and other SNCC members tried to overthrow the all-white power structure running that majority-black Alabama county in 1965. They failed, but the group’s symbol—a lunging black panther—endured, claws out, teeth sharp, ready to bite.

Google “Black Panther” today, and the first hit is the superhero slated for big-screen treatment in 2017. That Black Panther debuted in Marvel Comics’s Fantastic Four in 1966—the same year Oakland, California, college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party, 50 years ago this October. Both superhero and mortal men took their name from Carmichael’s ferocious feline, but the real-life Panthers had more style than the cat in the cat suit. The Afro, the leather jacket, the shades—that look has been referenced in films such as Forrest Gump and in Beyoncé’s 2016 halftime Super Bowl show, where she and her dancers freaked out Breitbart News just by donning black berets.

But the real Black Panther Party (BPP) was a lot more than superfly costumes. It was a group of utopian visionaries who sought to serve the oppressed and under-served communities not with guns (though they had those) but by demanding food, housing, education and so on. “There have been these blaxploitation cutouts [that stand in for] the way we think of these historical figures,” says Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. “These were human beings; they weren’t angels. There’s lots of complicated stuff. There was gun violence.

People were murdered…. This was a complicated organization. But there’s still lots we don’t know about the breadth of the party.”

That was, in part, by design: Early on, the FBI set out to discredit and destroy the BPP by infiltrating the group and setting members against one another. Drugs, egos and disorganization also contributed to the problem. At times, it seemed the Panthers didn’t need any help breaking up the band. “Do you think anyone still cares about the Black Panthers?” I was asked last month at a dinner party in Oakland, just miles from Merritt College, where students Newton and Seale came up with the party’s 10-point program and flipped a coin to see who would be chairman. (Seale won; Newton became minister of defense.) And this was from someone who had produced a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther on death row for killing a Philadelphia police officre in 1981. Maybe people don’t. Most ex-Panthers are in their 70s now and probably not in your Twitter feed.

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