No, ‘Black Panther’ Was Not Named After the Black Panther Party

“Black Panther” is the most political of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but its protagonist doesn’t draw his name from the 1960s-70s black self defense and revolutionary socialist political party

Last Updated: February 20, 2018 @ 10:27 AM

As Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” continues to smash through box office records, a perennial complaint about the character’s origin has reemerged.

But no, the character wasn’t named after the revolutionary socialist and black empowerment-focused Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton (pictured above) in October 1966.

Marvel’s Black Panther (a.k.a. King T’Challa) was a product of the ’60s, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee during their legendary creative relationship at Marvel. He first appeared in “Fantastic Four” Vol. 1 #52, dated July 1966 — months before Seale and Newton set up their organization. (Per comic book publishing practices, the issue actually hit grocery store spinner racks either in June or May.)

So where did Lee and Kirby get the idea for the name? Unfortunately, that isn’t remotely clear.

One possibility is the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party founded by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1965 to register African American voters in Lowndes, Alabama, that had a black panther as its logo. Carmichael was a huge influence on the founders of the Black Panther Party, who the next year took the party’s name from LCFO’s logo.

Lee and Kirby would likely have been aware of Carmichael, who was already famous as a spokesperson and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the man who probably coined the slogan “black power.” But given the very narrow focus of LFCO, the party (and its logo) never attained widespread familiarity outside of activist circles.

Another possible inspiration is the 761st Tank Battalion, a segregated U.S. Army unit that earned one Medal of Honor, 11 Silver Stars, around 300 Purple Hearts, and a Presidential Unit Citation for its exploits in Europe during World War II.

The unit was especially notable for counting among its members future baseball and civil rights legend Jackie Robinson. The battalion was nicknamed the “Black Panthers” after their distinctive logo. Kirby and Lee were themselves WWII Army vets — in fact, Kirby served as an Army scout in Europe during the war, so it’s highly possible he at least was familiar with the unit.

However, neither Lee nor Kirby (who died in 1994) ever explained why they picked the name “Black Panther.” Kirby originally called the character “Coal Tiger” before they duo settled on the catchier name we now know and love. Perhaps it just sounded cool, or it was just something in the cultural air.

Although Black Panther and the Black Panther Party didn’t inspire one another, their histories are intertwined. Marvel was well aware of the association between their superhero and the Black Panthers, and the white ownership and editorial team resisted outright political themes as much as possible in that era.

In fact, in a 1972 issue of “Fantastic Four,” the publisher even briefly changed the character’s name to “Black Leopard” to distance him from the political group. In that story, the newly-minted Black Leopard explains that he was worried about using his original name when returning to the U.S. because of its political connotations.

While he neither condemned nor condoned the Black Panther Party, “T’Challa is law unto himself,” he said in the comic. The change didn’t take, however, and within just a few months T’Challa was back to calling himself “Black Panther.”

That doesn’t mean Black Panther was created with apolitical intent. As Kirby explained in a 1990 interview with Comic Book Journal (using dated terminology — he was almost 80), the character was created to give what we’d now call greater representation and visibility to an ignored and marginalized community. “I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black,” Kirby said. “I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black.”

What’s more, the character soon became a means of exploring political issues very much on the radar of the political party. Most notably, the final story arc of Panther’s 1972-76 monthly comic series (the unfortunately-titled “Jungle Action”) focused on T’Challa’s efforts to take down the Ku Klux Klan.

Of course, the prominence of overt politics has varied greatly by writer and by various “Black Panther” monthly titles over the years. But in the last decade, particularly after Marvel hired political and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates as lead writer on the latest “Black Panther” monthly series, the character’s political relevance as been emphasized, rather than downplayed.

The film version of “Black Panther” unflinchingly deals with post-colonialism, the impact of slavery and the Black experience in America. And with ticket sales zooming past $230 million in its debut weekend, the film seems to have benefited from the political themes Marvel downplayed once upon a time.