Black Power and Prison Struggles

In cities like Oakland and Los Angeles Black and Brown youth struggled against brutal police who terrorized their neighborhoods and enforced racial inequality. 1 .In 1966, Oakland students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed a new organization, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). The Panthers became leaders in the growing Black Power movement, combining militant self defense against police with revolutionary Marxism inspired by anti-imperialist struggles around the world. The Party organized survival programs to fulfill essential needs in the community, such as food, healthcare, and transportation to visit loved ones behind bars. 2  Soon, movements on the “inside” and “outside” of California prisons would converge into a powerful force for Black liberation and revolution.

By 1968, state repression incapacitated many of the party’s leaders, including Huey Newton who was arrested in 1967 and sentenced to two to fifteen years for the murder of police officer John Frey. Incarcerated African Americans became a revolutionary force as the party on the outside, as well as its members behind bars, challenged unfair trials and prison as institutions of racial oppression. The “Free Huey” campaign gained ground and BPP chapters spread across the West Coast and the nation. Conditions similar to those described in Soledad led to 68 prison riots that year alone. 3 Black revolutionaries denounced the interconnected violence of policing and incarceration. In 1971 Angela Davis argued that “Police would be unable to set into motion their racist machinery were they not sanctioned and supported by the judicial system.” 4

  1. Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Duke University Press, 2016), 12.

  2. Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr, and Waldo E. Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2013), 1–5.

  3. Berger, Captive Nation : Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, 93.

  4. Angela Yvonne Davis, If They Come in the Morning; Voices of Resistance (New York, Third Press, 1971), 39,

Free Huey Rally, DeFremery Park, Oakland, #86 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers
Protestors hold up a "Free Huey" banner and photographs of Panther leadership at a demonstration in De Fremery Park. Courtesy of University of California, Santa Cruz. McHenry Library, Special Collections. 07/14/1968
Black Power and Prison Struggles