Malcolm X’s Influence on the Black Panther Party’s Philosophy

The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, was based on ideas such as black nationalism and a staunch belief in the necessity of violence and armed self-defence in order to obtain freedom from white oppression – ideas which are strongly associated with Malcolm X’s life work.

Following Malcolm X‘s assassination in 1965, it has been suggested by some historians that the Black Panther Party used his philosophy of gaining freedom “by any means necessary” both as a justification of their methods and as a means of inspiring other African Americans to join their cause. Although Huey Newton later stressed in his autobiography a belief that the party had not done things the way that Malcolm X would have done them had he lived beyond 1965, the fact that Malcolm X had a huge influence on the philosophy of the party is virtually indisputable.

Bobby Seale

It is also clear is that Malcolm X had a strong influence on the individual, personal philosophies of key Black Panther members, especially the two founding members. Both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were drawn in by Malcolm’s speeches and agreed with many of the revolutionary ideas he expressed within them. Bobby Seale wrote about listening to Malcolm X’s speeches, proclaiming him to be “a better speaker than even Martin Luther King.” He went on to name his son Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, later explaining “Malik” was “for Malcolm X”. After Malcolm’s death, Seale wrote that he “cried like a baby” and announced soon afterwards: “I will make my own self into a motherf**king Malcolm X…they’ll have to kill me!” In the process, Seale made clear the extent to which Malcolm X had influenced his beliefs.

Huey Newton’s personal philosophies were similarly influenced by Malcolm X in the years prior to the formation of the Black Panther Party. Newton claimed that Malcolm’s work with the Organization of Afro-American Unity was one of the major sources of inspiration in him eventually forming the Black Panther Party and gave him enormous credit in paving the way for the party’s eventual rise. Newton was sure that despite leaders like Martin Luther King advocating non-violence in the struggle for civil rights, Malcolm X, with his policy of armed self-defence, had the only philosophy which could bring real success in the struggle against white oppression. Newton wrote that he saw the Black Panther Party as “a living testament to [Malcom X's] life work” and Newton was especially influenced by Malcolm’s desire to help educate black people and encourage a sense of black pride and an appreciation of their heritage.

Either the ballot or the bullet

Perhaps the most obvious example of Malcolm’s influence on the philosophy of the BPP is the party’s policy of armed self-defence and violence. Malcolm X condoned violence, or the threat of violence, in order to attain the goals of the African American community. This was highlighted by his speech on April 3rd, 1964 in which he encouraged African Americans to use their right to vote and threatened the government with an armed response if African Americans did not receive full voting equality, famously stating “it’s either the ballot or the bullet”. The Black Panther Party later utilised the phrase “The Ballot or the Bullet” as one of their slogans, in the pursuit of voting equality. In his ‘Message to Grassroots’, Malcolm X explained that armed self-defence among African Americans was not only necessary but also morally justifiable. He explained that the American Revolution, French Revolution and Russian Revolution all involved huge loss of life and outlined a belief that a revolution which doesn’t involve bloodshed was impossible. He also justified armed self-defence on a moral and intellectual level, stating “As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled…if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people.”

Malcolm X was able to convince many African Americans that non-violence was no longer an option, a viewpoint which was massively influential on the philosophy of the Black Panthers. As Bobby Seale explained, “Malcolm X had advocated armed self-defense against the racist power structure.” Huey Newton was the man who led the continuation of that philosophy with the Black Panthers. Seale claims that Huey Newton pushed for armed self-defence, even in the face of opposition from other civil rights activists, and Seale backed him because he felt that, unlike many leaders of civil rights groups at the time, Newton “knew what the hell he was talking about.” The Black Panther Party utilised armed self-defence in a bid to stop racist police brutality and assaults on African Americans by white people.

The concept of armed self-defence played a prominent role on the BPP philosophy and in their public image. The party even campaigned against anti-gun legislation, famously marching through the Sacramento state capitol carrying weapons in order to protest the impending passing of the Mulford Act in 1966, an act intended to stop private citizens from carrying loaded weapons in public.

America – the “internal colony” 

Malcolm X’s influence on the philosophy of the Black Panther Party however went beyond his calls for armed self-defence. Malcolm X expressed a belief that the struggles African Americans were facing were intertwined with the troubles colonised people were facing in Africa, south east Asia and Latin America. Malcolm thought of black America as being an “internal colony” which reflected other colonised countries in the world at the time. As a result, he felt that African Americans could learn from the struggles of the oppressed in colonial countries. The influence of this philosophy on the Black Panther Party is demonstrated by one particular policy implemented by Seale and Newton, which insisted that Black Panther Party members read and understood the book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon.

Fanon, an Algerian psychiatrist and author, wrote the book during the Algerian war for independence. Newton, Seale and the Black Panther Party studied the book in great depth, believing, like Malcolm X had suggested, that their own situation and the situation of the colonised natives of Algeria were fundamentally linked. Malcolm X was also instrumental in influencing African Americans, including the founding members of the Black Panther Party, to explore the philosophies of Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Huey Newton claims that he developed a belief that there was a link between racism and the capitalist system, a belief which was confirmed for him when he attended a conference for the Afro-American Association, where Malcolm X served as a guest speaker. As a result, the Black Panther Party began to study Marxist revolutionary theory; a philosophical theory which condoned the use of violence in order to seize power. One of the major legacies of the Black Panther Party, its community survival programs, which included free breakfasts for school-age children, were likely a direct result of studying Marxist theory on production and Newton’s general dislike of capitalism.

The Black Panther Party began to see people like Mao, Castro and Guevara as figures to learn from, as they had overcome similar oppression to what African Americans were facing. In order for African Americans to gain their freedom, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale believed they had to learn how revolutionaries in other countries had gained theirs and then find the best way to apply similar strategies to their own situation. Newton credited Malcolm X with teaching him to understand how to make those theories relevant to the average African American.

Whitened

Furthermore, the Black Panther Party believed in the necessity to educate African Americans, and campaigned for changes in the education system itself, especially regarding the teaching of black history. The purpose of this was to help develop a sense of black pride amongst African Americans. The BPP believed it was important for African Americans to be aware of their history and to receive education which was specifically relevant to them. Malcolm X had held a belief that African American history in the education system had been “whitened” and, as a result, African Americans were not learning the true realities of their culture and history. Bobby Seale spoke of his vision for the formation of black community groups, an idea which had also been influenced by the words of Malcolm X. Seale envisioned that these community groups would serve to “teach brothers, like Malcolm said” in order for African Americans to better themselves.

There were of course limitations to the influence Malcolm X had on the BPP’s philosophies. His Islamic teachings were not always relevant to members of the BPP who belonged to other faiths. Huey Newton did briefly take an interest in the Nation of Islam after hearing speeches from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, however despite being impressed by his visits to mosques in Oakland and San Francisco, Newton had by this time “had enough of religion”, later stating “references to God or Allah did not satisfy my stubborn thirst for answers.” Bobby Seale displayed similar frustrations with religion at this time. It is therefore unlikely that Malcolm X’s religious teachings, so central to his own philosophy, had an especially strong influence on Black Panther Party philosophy.

Black Power

Despite these limitations, it is clear that the party very much followed in his footsteps and heeded Malcolm X’s words on many issues. The Black Panther Party adopted slogans such as ‘Black Power’, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ and ‘By Any Means Necessary’ and used them to pursue the decolonization of African Americans. The BPP shared the same philosophy towards the use of violence and armed self-defence as Malcolm X had previously and both founding members as well as other important figures within the party spoke openly about the debt they owed to Malcolm X and the influence he had on their personal beliefs. Malcolm X helped African Americans to explore the work of other revolutionaries throughout history and the Black Panther Party spent a lot of time intellectualising such works and attempting to put their ideas into practice. The Black Panther Party also took influence from Malcolm X’s views on the American education system and its limitations.

While Newton was likely correct to assert the Black Panthers had not done what Malcolm X would have done if he had lived beyond his assassination in 1965, he was also right to suggest that the Black Panther Party’s work stood “as a living testament” to the influence that Malcolm X had on African Americans during the civil rights era.

Jason Mitchell

See also Malcolm X: a summary
Read more in Black History: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, available in various digital formats and audio.