I think the FBI’s counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) terror campaign against the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other progressive and revolutionary organizations was a little more complex than a simple response to a successful Panther’s free breakfast program.
Being one of the original founders of the post Lowndes County, Alabama Freedom Organization BPP in Harlem in the spring of 1966, I know first hand that FBI director Herbert Hoover’s (and hence, the U.S. ruling class’) intent was to destroy the growing organizing and education capabilities of young Black activists within the Black working class. Hoover (and his class sponsors) began to fear this development when SNCC initiated successful Freedom Schools in 1965 in the South (where they also offered a free breakfast).
In addition, by the summer of 1965, SNCC embraced Malcolm X’s understanding of the Viet Nam War and began to organize southern Black teens not to go into the military and the resist the draft. At the same time, SNCC began to build a political organization independent of the ruling class’s “liberal” facade called the Democratic Party. They had learned the harsh lessons of racism and ruling class collaboration the year before at the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic Party Convention.
So in 1965, SNCC leadership set out to enter electoral politics as an independent Black force and strategically chose Lowndes County, Alabama because of its majority Black populace. They chose the Black Panther as a powerful symbol to counter the Dixiecrats’ rooster. The symbol and their grassroots organizing work resonated with many young Northern Black activists, and we in NYC (in Harlem) were connected to SNCC (I was a member along with two other founders of the original BPP members in Harlem that Spring of 1966) and felt that we were extending the SNCC work in Alabama into a more urban and revolutionary Black nationalist way.
Please also note that from 1965 onwards one of the most feared-by-Hoover Black clandestine organizations had members within SNCC and helped form the Harlem BPP: the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). This was another piece to the ramping up of COINTELPRO in 1966 and beyond.
The Panther breakfast program that evolved from this was a powerful threat to the policy of destabilizing Black communities through miseducation, the atomization of families, and police intimidation and terror. The breakfast program provided the following:
- political/cultural education about Black folk, current events, and the world for young Black men and women.
- young Black men and women who study, discuss and analyze as role models.
- young Black men and women who are not fearful of police terror.
- young Black men and women who respect each other (the struggle against sexism was an open and principled one).
Most Black adults supported the BPP, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, and the Nation of Islam. The support was wide-ranging, with most embracing the political and cultural discourse these groups were laying out. This was for
Hoover and his handlers another danger: the radical/progressive Black organizations and individuals were not disdained by the majority of ordinary Black folk despite the disinformation campaign.
But I go on too long here. Just remember this: the success of the Panther’s free breakfast program was just the tip of the Black radical iceberg that Hoover and the national security state knew existed. And they had to find a way of melting that iceberg and erase its historical existence.
Enter even more sophisticated pys-ops programs, the use of the media monopoly, and the grooming of two generations of petty-bourgeois black elected officials, poverticians, hustling preachers, and ebony-towered “negro” intellectuals fronting for their racist elite benefactors.