"All Power to the People" and its Constitutional Antecedents: The Role of Constitutional Thought in the Black Panther Party's Framing Strategies, 1969-1971

Willa Sachs, Yale University

In this article, I examine the role of American constitutional thought in the ideological agenda and framing strategies of the Black Panther Party (BPP) from 1969 to 1971, using their protests against the New Haven Black Panther trials of 1970-71 as a case study. While historians and social scientists largely assume that the BPP operated entirely outside the bounds of civic nationalism – invoking constitutional discourse, if at all, on an ad hoc basis as a pure matter of legal instrumentalism – I argue that the BPP gave particular attention to the inalienable rights enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. Through a qualitative assessment of The Black Panther newspaper and archival research on the New Haven Black Panther trials, I identify three inalienable rights frames BPP leaders and adherents employed: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the right to create a republican form of government; and the right to revolt against despotic governments or unjust laws. The BPP employed these frames, I argue, to mobilize movement adherents to protest the majority-white juries to which the New Haven Panthers were subjected, laying claim to what they believed was their Sixth amendment right to an all-black jury. In this way, the BPP reformulated the Constitution’s foundational precepts in accordance with their own worldviews and beliefs about the proper exercise and expression of inalienable rights, re-envisioning the very meaning of equal justice under law. By analyzing the synergistic relationship between Panther ideology and constitutional thought, I not only paint a fuller picture of the Party’s historical legacy, but demonstrate the ways in which legal idioms can energize and inspire social movement mobilization strategies—an idea largely neglected by sociologists of social movements.

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 Presented in Session 251. New Perspectives on the Long Civil Rights Movement