By Abayomi Azikiwe
1969 had been a critical year for the Black Panther Party (BPP) with hundreds of its members indicted and incarcerated on trumped-up charges while numerous activists had been killed as a direct result of the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). During this year, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panther Party as the most serious threat to national security in the United States for decades. (https://vault.fbi.gov/Black%20Panther%20Party%20)
Such an exaggerated and clearly politically-motivated accusation required a political response from the by far most targeted revolutionary organizations working inside the country. The Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention (RPCC) was such an effort to build a broad based alliance encompassing Left-wing and progressive forces which had emerged over the previous decade.
On December 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police officers under the supervision of Illinois State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan had engineered a raid into the BPP residence on Monroe Street on the city’s west side. The attack was set-up by the Chicago Field Office of the FBI in an effort to assassinate African American leader Fred Hampton who was gaining national recognition for his organizing work in the Windy City.
The police intervention resulted in the assassinations of Peoria chapter Captain Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, Sr. Other occupants of the apartment were wounded, arrested and later charged with several felonies which were completed fabricated.
The assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were an outcome of the role of the FBI in undermining and neutralizing the BPP. Informant William O’Neal, a career thief and informant, had been recruited by the local FBI special agent Marlin Johnson to infiltrate the Chicago chapter and to find any information which could be used to criminalize their work.
Fred Hampton had stated in 1969 that the BPP was committed to remaining a vanguard organization operating publically in major urban areas such as Chicago. Hampton said the Party would not be driven underground and in order to remain relevant had to enhance its outreach and community program to build support from the grassroots.
After the militarized police attacks on Party chapters around the U.S. during 1968-69, the BPP organized a National Revolutionary Conference for a United Front Against Fascism in July 1969 in Oakland, California. The event attracted thousands of activists while the Party put forward its program for ensuring that the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, the Justice Department, FBI and local police agencies would not be able to destroy the burgeoning revolutionary Left movement around the country.
In 1970, the BPP was facing extreme repression. Co-founder Huey P. Newton was serving a 2-15 years sentence for manslaughter against an Oakland police officer stemming from a shootout in October 1967. Chairman Bobby Seale and Central Committee member Erika Huggins, the wife of slain Panther John Huggins, were facing the possibility of the death penalty in a murder conspiracy case in New Haven, Connecticut.
Many within the Left were attempting to demonstrate solidarity with the Panthers. At Yale University in New Haven, students called for mass demonstrations and teach-ins in early May of 1970. In response to the atmosphere inside the country and the state, the president of Yale closed the University for the weekend in honor of the demonstrations saying that Black revolutionaries in the U.S. were incapable of receiving due process under the law.
While over 50,000 people congregated in New Haven, the U.S. administration was concerned that the BPP and other revolutionary organizations would break out of the attempts to isolate them among the youth and other segments of the populations. Therefore, the concept of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention arose as a means to counter the Nixon program of repression and counter-revolution.
RPCC Holds Three Gatherings in 1970
On June 19, 1970, 1,000 members of the BPP and their supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Actor and social activist Ossie Davis was present to lend his support to the concept of convening a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention to be convened in Philadelphia in early September.
By September there was considerable momentum for the RPCC. So much so that the racist police force of Mayor Frank Rizzo raided several offices and residences of the BPP arresting members and charging them with spurious crimes. Panthers were forced to disrobe in the streets where photographs were taken by the corporate media in order to humiliate the organization.
Despite these acts of repression and destabilization, the RPCC was held with a reported 6,000-15,000 people in attendance.
Huey P. Newton had recently been released from prison after serving nearly three years for the conviction in Oakland for the killing and wounding of two police officers. The release of Newton was a major victory for the Party and the movement since it signaled the capacity of revolutionaries to mount successful legal and political struggles around principled issues of repression, national oppression, racism and economic exploitation.
An entry on an historical website says of the June 1970 gathering that: “The goal of the Convention was to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to ensure equal rights for oppressed groups, including African Americans, women, and young people. The organizers of the rally chose June 19, or Juneteenth, for its significance as the day in 1865 when enslaved people living in Texas were finally freed. Roughly 1,000 people attended the Mall rally.
At the Philadelphia RPCC meeting in early September, Newton read a draft of the proposed constitutional document. The program called for the withdrawal of Pentagon military forces from Vietnam and the recognition of the Provisional Government of South Vietnam as the legitimate administrative force in this geo-political region.
The section on international affairs also expressed solidarity with the revolutionary struggles in Palestine, Puerto Rico and throughout the world. In conjunction with the rejection of imperialist war, the RPCC document mandated that standing armies and police forces inside the U.S. be dismantled. In their place there would be the creation of people’s militias and community organizations concerned with security.
This same constitutional draft supported the full rights of Women and Gay people. Newton had issued a directive on these questions to the entire rank-and-file membership of the BPP.
During this period, the campuses and other educational institutions were centers of militant demands and protests surrounding curriculum reforms, affirmative action and intellectual freedoms. A special section on educational transformation emphasized: “All people will be provided with the kind of schooling they desire and need. All levels of schooling will be provided free by the government. Schooling must be non-compulsory. The community will control the schools, education, curriculum, and educators. Education must be part and parcel of the political realities of the time. Education must always serve the people by teaching the true nature of this decadent society.”
The final gathering of the RPCC occurred in late November 1970 in Washington, D.C. This event represented a culmination of the debates and discussions related to the drafting process of the proposed new revolutionary constitution.
Newton in a statement describing the RPCC of November notes: “This convention of Revolutionary Peoples from oppressed communities throughout the world is convened in recognition of the fact that the changing social conditions throughout the world require new analyses and approaches in order that our consciousness might be raised to the point where we can effectively end the oppression of people by people.
“We gather here from our communities because we realize that we have a common enemy, a common goal, and that the geographical barriers which separated us from one another in the past are no longer obstacles to our revolutionary unity.”
Impact and Lessons from the RPCC for Today
Only two months after the November RPCC, the BPP suffered its most severe and devastating political split. There had been other fissures in the organization going back to its founding in 1966 as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Nonetheless, the fracturing of the organization between the Algerian-based International Section headed by exiled Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver and Central Committee member Kathleen Cleaver on the one hand and the national headquarters run by Newton and Chief of Staff David Hilliard, had the most debilitating effect.
The FBI and other intelligence agencies had worked tirelessly to weaken the Party and the entire Left movement in the U.S. This reality along with subjective contradictions within the organization effectively minimized its influence as a national and international entity.
After the early months of 1971, the BPP scored a major victory with the failure of the state to convict Chairman Bobby Seale and Erika Huggins in the New Haven murder conspiracy cases. Others involved in the New Haven trials were either released or given sentences less severe than anticipated by the Panthers.
Today there is a great need for revolutionary organizations among the nationally oppressed and the working class in the U.S. Once this becomes a reality the question of unity and development of a political program will become paramount.
Lessons from 50 years ago can be useful in learning from advances made and the errors committed. Inevitably, the people must be organized in order for socialism and national liberation to be realized in the 21st century.
African American History Month Series:
Part 1: Mass Student Movement in the United States Began Six Decades Ago
Part 2: Renewed Examination of the Assassination of Malcolm X 55 Years Later
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