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Beyoncé didn't bring back the Black Panthers when she and an Afro-frizzed dance team donned black leather jackets and berets ...
Black Panthers

By John Blake

(CNN) -- Beyoncé didn't bring back the Black Panthers when she and an Afro-frizzed dance team donned black leather jackets and berets during Super Bowl 50's halftime show.

That's because the Black Panthers never actually left.

The Panthers were more than militants; they were pioneers in American pop and political culture. The Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of social media, music and sports, even Donald Trump -- all were shaped by the Panthers in some way, historians and ex-Panthers say.

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, people are taking a second look at the group. A mesmerizing new film, "Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," premiers tonight on PBS and will air throughout the month and appear online. And Beyonce's tribute caused people to post vintage photos of the Panthers on social media sites and debate the group's purpose.

"They're always going to be a potent symbol because we live in a visual age," says Komozi Woodard, a history and Africana studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

"The way they dressed, the way they walked, the visual body of their work and their rhetoric" -- it all "captured peoples' imagination."

It still does. Here are three reasons why.

No. 1: Using words as weapons

People focused on the guns they carried, but the Panthers did a lot of damage with their words. They transformed political discourse into a form of verbal combat.

"Using words as a weapon was born with the Panthers," Woodard says.

The PBS documentary shows how. Directed by Stanley Nelson, recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, the film is filled with electrifying moments: armed Panthers squaring off against grim police officers; jaw-dropping revelations about the FBI's successful campaign to infiltrate the Panthers; aging Panthers recounting the battles they fought and friends they lost.

Yet the way the Panthers spoke is as memorable as how they looked, the film reveals. They weaponized words. Consider how a smirking Eldridge Cleaver, a Panther leader, responded to Ronald Reagan when the then-governor of California criticized the group for carrying guns in public.

"I challenge Ronald Reagan to a duel to the death because Reagan is a punk, a sissy and a coward," Cleaver said during a Stanford University speech in a clip from the film. "He can fight me with a gun, a knife or a baseball bat. I'll beat him to death with a marshmallow."

Or consider the origin of the Panthers' word for the police: "pigs." It seemed like a juvenile and cruel insult, but there was a purpose behind it, explains Huey Newton, co-founder of the Panthers, in "Voices of Freedom," an oral history of the civil rights movement.

"Most of my young life I was a student. And I know sociologically that words stigmatize people," Newton said. "We felt that the police needed a label, a label other than that fear image that they carried in the community. So we used the pig as the rather low-life animal in order to identify the police. And it worked."