Although they were not the first group to call themselves the Black Panthers nor the first to use the fierce feline as a mascot, the Oakland, Calif., organization begun by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966 is believed by most to be the beginnings of the revolutionary political party that eventually grew nationwide.
In fact, the Black Panther Party of Harlem preceded the Oakland group by a few months, something often overlooked in historical accounts.
“Max Stanford, Eddie Ellis, Teddy Wilson, Sam Anderson, Lloyd Weaver, Rodney Toney, Dorothy Gordon, Al Haynes, Al Pertilla, Donald Washington–we started in spring of ’66 at St. Nicholas Park and 135th Street,” reveals Brother David White, founding member of the original BPP from Harlem. He and many of his associates were initially members of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), he recalls.
Ellis adds: “Unbeknownst to us, shortly after we established the BPP in New York–by October or November, Bobby and Huey started a BPP out on the West Coast. Initially, we were not aware of [each other]. Then we heard about them, and they heard about us. The first thing that came to mind was that we need to coordinate these efforts and develop a strategy.
“The important thing is not so much that we established a separate BPP here in Harlem from what Huey and Bobby did out on the West Coast, but that we both drew from the same inspiration and idea, separately from one another,” Ellis says.
He continues: “We met with them here in New York–Huey, David Hilliard, and one or two others were there–to try and coordinate our efforts.”
From initiating free food drives–which the U.S. government eventually adopted–to establishing proper educational programs, to providing no-cost medical clinics/supplies, to combating police terrorism, to running voter registration campaigns, the original BPP from Harlem empowered their dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods.
“We recruited people that were serious about changing the conditions in our community, and were about retraining, re-educating our people about the facts,” Brother David reflects.
Having support from H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the message rapidly spread.
“A lot of people feel the significant thing is that we established the first branch of the BPP here in New York, before Huey and Bobby,” Ellis says.
“That’s important, but the most significant thing is the whole idea of a political party that stood for armed self-defense and presented itself as a resistance movement against police brutality and other oppressive conditions taking place in urban communities.”
Listen to Brother Eddie Ellis at “On the Count,” Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon, WBAI 99.5 FM.