The black Panther is one of the most iconic symbols used by people of African descent. Majestic, sleek, regal, viral and fierce—not to mention unmistakably black—the animal has resonated with people of African descent for over seven decades and has been adopted by a number of black nationalist/Pan-Africanist organizations and entities—even African Americans who do not identify as such have nevertheless adopted the symbol as their own to convey strength, fearlessness, beauty, and a willingness to fight back. Characterized as an animal that is never aggressive unless provoked, once it is threatened it responds with unbridled ferocity and steely determination in protecting itself, its progeny, and its territory.
The motion picture Black Panther, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) of movies with an interrelated storyline that begin with the premiere of Iron Man in 2008, was one of the most anticipated movies of 2018 and it delivered rave reviews and extraordinary success when it finally debuted in in the United States on February 16, 2018 (February 15 in some areas). Critically acclaimed all around and experiencing a financial windfall since its release, Black Panther is not the typical superhero movie, something Ryan Coogler, the director and co-writer, along with Joe Robert Cole, purposely intended.
Making his first on-screen appearance in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, was the highlight of the film, in both Chadwick Boseman’s performance and the fighting prowess of the character. Now in his first full-length movie, many are becoming acquainted with a character that several folks, including Black folks, had previously been unfamiliar. And that unfamiliarity has resulted in a number of myths and misperceptions that have surrounded the character’s origin, history, and purpose. For instance, because the character is named Black Panther, it is almost inevitable that he would be immediately associated with the Black Panther Party, the most well known entity to use the black panther as a symbol. However, research into the character’s history reveals that although the character and organization were created in the same year—1966—the character was actually created first. Black Panther, created for Marvel by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two white, Jewish, men, first appeared in July 1966 in Fantastic Four #52 and would appear in the stories of other characters before receiving his own title in 1972 (check on this). The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California, was organized in October 1966. Therefore, the Black Panther preceded the founding of the political organization.
However, there is a myth surrounding this course of events as well. Some who are aware that the character preceded the Black Panther Party have purported that the political organization took its name from the character. This, too, is incorrect. The model for the organization created by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), who was also known informally as the “black panther party” was the symbol that they used to represent the party. The LCFO was formed in Lowndes County, Alabama as an independent local political organization under the auspices of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the major civil rights organizations, in 1965. Known as “Bloody Lowndes” because of the widespread racial violence, which reinforced the fact that the county was 80% African Americans but had not a single black registered voter. Dominated by the all-white Democratic Party, who used a white rooster as its symbol, the LCFO adopted a black panther for those African Americans who were illiterate or semi-literate to mark on local ballots for their slate of candidates for public office. Although in Oakland, both Seale and Newton had southern roots—Texas and Louisiana, respectively—and were very aware and admired the LCFO. In fact, they received permission to adopt the black panther for their own endeavors.
Now, it had been assumed that the LCFO was the first to use the black panther. Here again, further research uncovers something that may have been previously unknown to the greater public. A Black tank unit, the segregated 761st Tank Battalion, who fought under General George Patton across Europe beginning in October 1944, was the first black unit to go to war in armor. The 761stdistinguished themselves as a decorated unit that engaged enemy forces for 183 days straight without respite, participating in four Allied campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge, something that no other unit had achieved. Several members of the unit received individual distinctions, including 7 Silver Stars, 56 Bronze Stars, and 246 Purple Hearts. But, the thing that also distinguished the 761st was the fact that they used a black panther as part of their insignia, which featured a black panther’s head with its teeth bared with the text, “Come Out Fighting” underneath. Again, the slogan itself conveys the idea that the Panthers—as they referred to themselves—would respond with maximum retaliation if provoked.
The character, though receiving its name strictly through “coincidence” according to Stan Lee, is still part and parcel of the history that came before his creation. Although the character Black Panther represented the African nation of Wakanda and assisted other superheroes in their battles with supervillians, under the writing of Don McGregor, T’Challa came into his own, receiving his own independent story arches that extended over several consecutive issues such as “Panther’s Rage” in the 1970s (which some have claimed were the start of the graphic novel). Here, T’Challa also became involved in political battles that were relevant to contemporary times, including fighting against an organization known as “The Clan” in a series under the Jungle Action title in 1976, which was, or course, a representation of the Ku Klux Klan. So, very early in his history, T’Challa was involved in storylines that reflected the wider society and also proved controversial, for the story arc made some in the Marvel offices uncomfortable.
The battle against the Clan was far from the only instance where Black Panther sought to address contemporary political issues and/or controversies. In fact, Marvel was very much aware—and uncomfortable—that the character was being associated in much of the public’s mind with the Black Panther Party. This required a name change to attempt to disassociate the two. Therefore, beginning in Fantastic Four No. 119, Black Panther became Black Leopard. When questioned by Ben Grimm a.k.a. The Thing, about the change, T’Challa emphasized that he held neither sympathy nor ill will toward those who used the name; however, there were “political connotations” that prompted the change, since he was “a law unto himself.” Fortunately, the name change was very short-lived, since those who wrote Black Panther and its readership, particularly its black readers, disliked the change because “leopard” simply does not convey the same sense of strength and character as “panther,” but as writer Clarkisha Kent argues in a recent article on theroot.com (“On Black Panther, Black Leopard, and the Politics of Being a Black Superhero,” January 30, 2018), the character benefited from its association with the Black Panther Party’s because of the Party’s stance against racism, colonialism and imperialism, which mirrored T’Challa’s own politics. Ironically this name changed occurred in 1972, when the Party ceased to be a force on the national political scene.
The film itself, whether intentional or not, nevertheless seems to solidify the notion that the character is associated with the Black Panther Party, however tenuously that association may be. The film opens in Oakland, California in 1992, which is or course the year of the L.A. Rebellion in the aftermath of the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, which was captured on video and splashed across the news media. Beginning the story in Oakland is only natural for Ryan Coogler, the director and co-writer of the screenplay. Coogler was born in Oakland and raised there until the age of eight, when his family moved to the Bay area city of Richmond, California. Coogler’s first major full-length feature film was Fruitvale Station (2009), centered in Oakland, which tells the story of Oscar Grant, detailing the 24 hours of his life before he is killed by a BART transportation officer.
Coogler is very much aware of the legacy of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, as it is celebrated in a number of ways in and around Oakland today, and his changes to the story of Black Panther, as far as the main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is concerned, makes it seem as if Coogler wants to re-establish those connections. In the comic, Killmonger is actually raised by his mother in Harlem, New York, whereas in the film, his father, Prince N’Jobu, brother of King T’Shaka, the Black Panther, raises Killmonger, in Oakland. Again, because of the Party’s stance against various forms of racism and capitalistic exploitation in the form of global colonialism and imperialism, the film does well to make that association between the character and the BPP, though it is not rooted in historical fact.
Dr. Tony Gass, born and raised in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, is an Adjunct Professor at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland. He completed his B.S. degree in History at Bowie State University (1993), M.A. degree in History at Morgan State University (2001), and Ph.D. in History from The Ohio State University (2014). Specializing in contemporary African American History, his primary focus is on the Civil Rights/Black Power era from the 1950s through the 1970s, though he also has interest in African American urban history, gender and sexuality, U.S. social movements, racial violence, Pan-Africanism and black nationalism, contemporary African American music, identity and culture studies, African liberation movements, Afrofuturism, and slavery and freedom in the Atlantic World. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]