The Black Panther Party’s influence peaked in September 1970 when 7,000 attended a plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia PA. Many believed that an organized, broad-based revolutionary movement would follow the adoption of a common platform at the full constitutional convention Nov 27-29, 1970 in Washington, DC.
This movement toward bringing together the many threads of struggle in the US under a unified program was halted when authorities in the Washington, DC area refused to permit the Panther-sponsored group to meet or imposed financial barriers that were impossible to reach.
Thousands arrived in the District to find no adequate meeting space and the unity sought proved elusive. Soon afterward, the Panthers were wracked by an internal split and declined in influence. Much of the rest of the New Left splintered as US involvement in the Vietnam war winded down.
Elbert Howard & Ossie Davis, June 1970
Elbert “Big Man” Howard and actor Ossie Davis at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, June 19, 1970 to announce the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Photo by Bernie Boston, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.
Rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial June 19, 1970 attended by about 1,000 calling for a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would unite the struggles of black liberation, independence for Puerto Rico, students, women’s, gays, workers and other fights behind a common program. Photo by Thomas J. O’Hallorgan & Warren K Leffler, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Image from page 23 of the August 29, 1970 issue of the Black Panther that advertises the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention plenary session scheduled for Philadelphia, PA Sept. 5-7, 1970.
The Philadelphia plenary drew over 7,000 (the Panthers claimed 15,000) and generated much excitement that unity would be achieved among disparate struggles in the country.
Image is from a microfilm copy of the newspaper and posted by the Rainbow History Project.
An unsigned and undated flyer following the Black Panther Party sponsored Philadelphia plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in September 1970. The flyer is a call to come to Washington DC to unite under a revolutionary banner Nov. 27-29, 1970.
Thousands had rallied in Philadelphia and expected that the Washington, DC convention would be the culmination of an effort to forge a revolutionary program and unite many sections of the American left.
Black Panther Party leader Elton “Big Man” Howard speaks to the press in front of the Washington, DC Panther Community Center at 1732 17th Street NW on Nov. 27, 1970.
Howard demanded that Howard University drop its $10,000 deposit requirement and provide free space for the Panther sponsored Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Authorities had pushed institutions hard to deny space to the Panthers. The DC Armory Board and the University of Maryland had already turned down requests for facilities.
At the press conference, Howard said that revolutionaries arriving in the city would stay three days or three weeks if they had to. Ultimately, no adequate space was found. A rock concert was held Nov. 27 in Malcolm X Park (Meridian Hill) that drew over 5,000 and churches provided some space to the gathering. However, most of the meetings scheduled to hammer out language could not be held.
Huey Newton, chair of the Panthers who had been recently released from jail, spoke Nov. 29 to 600 packed into St. Stephens of the Incarnation Church located ironically on Newton St. NW while another 2,000 listened though loudspeakers outside.
Newton promised another gathering to finalize the new constitution, but none was ultimately written or adopted. The Panthers soon underwent a decline, along with the New Left that provided much their external support, as internal splits and a dissipating movement took their toll.
Photo by John Bowden, courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.
To see more information on the history of the Washington, DC Black Panther Chapter, see the Washington Area Spark Flickr set description “DC Black Panthers 1969-74.”
To see more information and photos on the Black Panther Party and what former Panthers are doing today, visit It’s About Time.