Who were the Black Panthers? It's complicated

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Who Were the Black Panthers? It's Complicated
If you're wondering just how divisive the Black Panthers were and still are as an organization, look no further than Super Bowl 50. Beyonce's background dancers merely dressed up as members of the revolutionary group and have managed to capture the nation's outrage and admiration.

So is the Black Panther Party to be praised or shunned?

"The biggest misconception about the Black Panthers is they were these anti-white, gun-toting, mostly male, militant black people. ... These were young people, and they were really trying to make a change." Director Stanley Nelson said of the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 and upon their founding had a relatively simple goal — stop police brutality. One of their practices in order to stop police violence was police patrols. Members, citing open-carry gun laws, carried loaded guns while following police cars around black neighborhoods.

See images of the Black Panther Party below:
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Black Panthers demonstrators
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Who were the Black Panthers? It's complicated
22nd July 1968: Black Panthers march to a news conference in New York to protest at the trial of one of their members Huey P Newton. Newton was later convicted for the manslaughter of an Oakland policeman. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1970: A woman sits on a bench outside the Black Panther office in Harlem circa 1970 in New York City, NY. Pictured in the window are Panther founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Demontrators march with a 'Free Huey' banner in support of the Black Panther Party, New York, New York, April 4, 1970. The banner refers to imprisoned Panther co-founder Huey Newton. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 22: Attorney Mark Lane (left) with Black Panther Party Minister of Defense Huey Newton (center) and Chief of Staff David Hillard during press conference at Jane Fonda's East Side apartment. (Photo by Leonard Detrick/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton (1942 - 1989) (center) smiles as he raises his fist from a podium at the Revolutionary People's Party Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, early September 1970. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
Members of the Black Panther Party stand behind tables and distribute free hot dogs to the public, New Haven, Connecticut, late 1960s or early 1970s. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
The headquarters of the African-American revolutionary organization, the Black Panther Party at 2026 Seventh Avenue, Harlem, New York City, circa 1970. In the window on the left is a portrait of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
View of a Black Panther Party parade, on Tremont Street in downtown Boston, 1970. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) USA, Maryland, Baltimore: John Clark, leader of the Black Panther, poses in front of Black Panther posters - 1970 (Photo by H. Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
View of a Black Panther Party rally, held at the Post Office Square in Boston, 1970. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)
View of a Black Panther Party rally, held at the Post Office Square in Boston, 1970. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)
FEB 1970, FEB 9 1970; Michael Dee, left, and Arlando Pipkin, black Panther Party members, react at Press Meet; They said some kind of coalition between black and brown people of Denver has to come against racist organizations.; (Photo By John Prieto/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Political and social activist and Black Panther member Dhoruba Bin Wahad (center) speaks at a rally in support of the Panther 21, New York, New York, April 4, 1970. The Panther 21 were Black Panther members arrested by New York police under suspicion of planning a series of bombings, charges that were eventually dropped against all the defendents. Next to Wahad are Afeni Shakur (left, in checkered pants) and Jamal Joseph (right, in sunglasses). (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
American political activist and founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) Abbie Hoffman (1936 - 1989) wears a party flag around his neck like a cape as he raises his fist in solidarity before a bank of microphones at a rally in support of jailed Black Panther Party members, New Haven, Connecticut, April 30 to May 1, 1970. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
View of demonstrators as they march in support of the Panther 21, New York, New York, April 4, 1970. The Panther 21 were Black Panther members arrested by New York police under suspicion of planning a series of bombings, charges that were eventually dropped against all the defendents. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they stand outside the New York City courthouse under a portion of an Abraham Lincoln quote which reads 'The Ultimate Justice of the People,' New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they stand outside the New York City courthouse under a portion of an Abraham Lincoln quote which reads 'The Ultimate Justice of the People,' New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they stand outside the New York City courthouse, under a pair of quotes, as demonstrate in support of the Panther 21, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. The two quotes read 'Only the just man enjoys peace of mind' by Epicurus and 'Every place is safe to him who lives with justice' by Epictetus. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
3rd April 1969: A banner protesting the incarceration of Black Panthers members outside Criminal Courts Building, New York City. The protesters were demanding the release of 21 Black Panther members suspected of plotting various bombing incidents around the city. Their banner reads: 'Stop The Frameup of The Black Panthers: Youth Against War & Fascism.' (Photo by Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
Activist members of the Black Panthers stand in a line with their arms folded during a demonstration outside the city courthouse, New York City, April 11, 1969. (Photo by Neal Boenzi/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Marlon Brando attending the Black Panther Party rally held as a memorial for Bobby Hutton, a young Panther killed by police. (Photo by Dan Cronin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NOV 7 1969; Black Panther Party members and Sympathizers stand outside courtroom; Two party members were to make an appearance before judge Don D. Bowman on extradition to New Haven, Conn.; (Photo By Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
American political and social activists and Black Panther Party members Bobby Seale (left) and David Hilliard sit at a table in front of the Party headquarters during a press conference, Oakland, California, August 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
An unidentified man raises his arm in defiance at a protests against the incarceration of members of the Black Panthers, New York, New York, November 17, 1969. The protesters were demanding the release of 21 Black Panther members suspected of plotting various bombing incidents around the city. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
American actress Ruby Dee (seated, in scarf) speaks at a press conference during the trial of the Panther 21, New York, New York, December 18, 1969. The Panther 21, comprised of the leadership of the east coast membership of the Black Panther Party, and were on trial for conspiracy and various other charges; they were all ultimately acquitted. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
An unidentified man raises his fist in defiance at a protests against the incarceration of members of the Black Panthers, New York, New York, November 17, 1969. The protesters were demanding the release of 21 Black Panther members suspected of plotting various bombing incidents around the city. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
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"No one would do anything until a policeman ejected a round in the chamber, then we would all eject rounds in the chamber. All up and down the street you could hear this clackety-clack" a former Black Panther member told the New York Times.

The goals eventually expanded into the group's 10-point program, which, along with ending police brutality, called for more employment opportunities, an end to housing discrimination and more minority representation in jury trials.

This defiance in the face of law enforcement continued to escalate and it eventually grew deadly, leaving casualties and blame on both sides.

Former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver admitted to ambushing police officers in 1968, which resulted in the first of eight shootouts with law enforcement nationally in just two years.

"I am not standing for violence but I do stand for self-defense," Huey P. Newton said.

Even Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter charges in the death of Oakland police officer John Frey, though Newton's conviction was eventually thrown out.

On the other hand, Panthers members did suffer at the hands of police. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were both killed during a raid by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department. It was determined in a federal investigation that only one shot was fired by the Panthers while the other 80 to 90 shots were fired by police.

The city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government eventually paid a $1.85 million settlement to the mothers of Clark and Hampton in relation to the raid.

But the shining achievement of the Panthers had nothing to do with its tumultuous back and forth with the police.

"Children that didn't have a good breakfast in the morning were less attentive in school, less inclined to do well ... we just simply took that information and a breakfast program was developed for children," Black Panther member David Lemieux told PBS.

During its peak, the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children program served full breakfasts (eggs, bacon, grits, toast, milk) to 20,000 kids in 19 cities every school day.

One could even argue the program was the inspiration for the USDA's current school breakfast program that serves more than 13 million kids every school day.

The breakfast program was one of more than 60 different community outreach programs aimed at improving the black community.

So who were the Black Panthers? Well, for those community members, the Panthers' legacy is mostly a positive one. But to the families of law enforcement, this same organization was essentially a terror group. Like most organizations pushing for change, they were complicated.

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