Well, one thing I know is that the Panthers provided free breakfasts for schoolchildren in low-income communities. This makes an enormous difference in a child’s ability to concentrate and achieve in school; physically alone, but also psychologically, I should think.
Also, while of course violence and corruption are very bad, I think that at that time and in that context it was important to create an alternative to the common (white peoples’) image of black folks at that time. Panthers were educated, politically informed, and capable of a pretty high level of discourse, at a time when black folks were painfully underrepresented and misrepresented in the media and in the news and in the political arena.
Also, the American government has a long history of ignoring its disenfranchised (like people of color, women, the poor and the homeless) until they are forced in one way or another to at least enter into a dialogue. This has usually been accomplished, especially, again, at that time, by being strident, visible, and (at least appearing) powerful or, you know, dangerous. By dangerous I mean liable to cause a ruckus of some kind.
And, I probably shouldn’t say this for fear of altering the earnest and thoughtful tone of the foregoing; but I have to say it:
Angela Davis was hella hot!