Black History Month is not only a time to celebrate black history, but also a time to reflect on my existing knowledge about black history. It is crucial to educate oneself by seeking out new and diverse perspectives year round, but I chose to write this piece as an opportunity for me, as a white woman, to fill in the gaps on a subject that my formal academic education merely skimmed over: the Black Panther Party’s community survival programs.
After World War II, the federal government invested money in highway systems and low-interest loans for returning soldiers. This new ability to transport products on interstates allowed manufacturers to move factories out of urban areas onto cheaper land outside of cities. With new jobs popping up outside of cities and the help of low-interest loans to pay for houses, the white urban population had a new opportunity to move into the suburbs, a phenomenon known as White Flight.
These opportunities were intentionally reserved for white Americans. Even if African-Americans had the means to move out of the city, deep-rooted institutional racism barred them from the suburban neighborhoods and schools of their white counterparts. Banks, insurers and realtors used redlining—the practice of deliberate discrimination against non-white neighborhoods by arbitrarily categorizing these areas as a “risk”—to deny financial services and permanent housing to the black community. “Freedom of Choice” in public school systems after the Brown v. Board decision in theory allowed families to choose whether to attend black or white schools, but actually existed to provide a guise of integration, while black students were simultaneously kept from entering higher quality white schools. So although the so-called “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws were overruled by 1965, many African-Americans still lived in poor conditions and were intentionally kept there by policies that existed to preserve white supremacy. High unemployment rates, limited access to basic healthcare, increasing violence and police brutality plagued black communities, and existing institutions were not providing solutions.
As black communities remained trapped in these cycles of social, economic and political inequality, and violence continued escalating (notably peaking during the Watts Riots of 1965), two men, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, saw the need for African-Americans to take community organizing into their own hands. In 1966 in Oakland, California, Newton and Seale founded the The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with the objective of protecting black communities from violence and police brutality.
The organization’s first goal was protecting people of the community from hostile police violence, evidenced by the original name: the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (the name was later shortened to the Black Panther Party). Photographs of Black Panther members protecting their communities by strolling the streets with guns are commonly associated with the Black Panthers. While with context these images are striking and powerful, they have been used to paint the Panthers as a black terrorist organization, a threat to white society, and this is blatantly misleading. In reality, the Black Panther Party was only taking the steps it needed to in order to protect its community’s survival at a time when the police force was not only neglecting to support community members, but also participating in the violence against them. At a time when government programs failed their community, the Panthers took matters into their own hands to ensure the safety and success of the black community. “The Panthers and their communities saw the Party as fighting a state that at best neglected the community and at worst, oppressed and victimized the community,” write historians Ricky J. Pope and Shawn T. Flanigan.
The Black Panther Party also designed many community initiatives to address problems that were not taken care of by local and federal governments, most notably ensuring children had healthy food to nourish their growing minds and bodies, as well as access to healthcare and medical screenings.
To achieve these goals, the Panthers came up with The Ten Point Program which outlined social, political and economic objectives for the organization and identified areas in need of reformation. Areas addressed included police brutality, employment, housing, education and incarceration. The tenth point begins, “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Community survival projects were designed to help revitalize and empower the community in the areas outlined in the Ten Point Program. Described as “part parliamentary, part social work,” the Panthers set up a number of successful community projects.
The Free Breakfast for Children Program is often regarded as the most successful program developed by the Black Panther Party, and its success lead to the nationwide adoption of free breakfast programs in public schools. The program began in a church in Oakland, California. On the first day only 11 children were fed but by the end of the week, 135 children attended the breakfast. Community members volunteered to help facilitate the breakfast programs, including cooking the meals. After the success of the first location, a second location was added two months later, and by 1969 the breakfast program was mandatory for all Black Panther Party chapters. It is estimated that at its peak, the program fed more than 20,000 children every week in cities across the country.
One of the reasons the Panthers’ community initiatives were so successful is that they were comprehensive: the Panthers acknowledged that by addressing health and well-being conditions of poverty, unemployment and lack of adequate education and housing could improve as well. In a 1972 revision of the original Ten Point Program, healthcare was explicitly outlined as a crucial area for the Panthers to focus on.
Thirteen free health clinics were established nationwide. The Black Panther Party believed “achieving health for all demands a more just and equitable world.” Doctors and medical students met with patients with the help of volunteers who kept the clinics running smoothly. Generally, each clinic was tailored for the local community it served. For example, a clinic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina had an ambulance service available in order to provide people with free medical transportation in light of high healthcare costs. On the other hand, some clinic services were more widely adopted, like a service to escort seniors to their appointments and the implementation of housing and legal assistance at the clinics. This movement drew attention to health care inequalities nationwide, leading to the creation of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The organization, which had close ties to the Civil Rights Movement, fought for access to healthcare on behalf of disadvantaged and marginalized citizens. Although the Medical Committee for Human Rights was dissolved under the Reagan Administration, the organization, along with the Black Panther Party, brought attention to the shortcomings of the American health care system and provided real solutions to these problems.
The success of the Black Panther Party’s community survival programs was in part due to their engagement with other civil rights groups, women’s movements, and worker unions. Panther leaders saw the power of partnering with other interest groups, giving their efforts more impact and reach. But perhaps what makes the Black Panther Party’s accomplishments most impressive is that the Panthers circumvented government agencies and organized these successful programs, drawing attention to the government’s (often intentional) failure to address issues within black communities.
Contemporary activist groups are using the Black Panther Party as a model, engaging citizens at the local level, finding areas of agreement between special interest groups and spearheading inclusive and comprehensive action. This can be seen in programs such as Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, which is designed to educate and empower people of all races and ethnicities to know their legal rights and become active in their communities—“to help build a stronger generation of people that will create the change that is much needed in this world.”
Despite all their community-enriching programs, when the history of the Civil Rights Movement is taught in schools, the Panthers are often misrepresented. Textbooks paint Panthers as violent, anti-white terrorists. One textbook writes that Black Power groups “embraced militant strategies and the use of violence. Organizations such as the Black Panthers rejected all things white and talked of building a separate black nation.” In reality, the Panthers believed in violence as a means of self-defense, the organization was not anti-white and Black Panthers allied with other human rights organizations to provide vital services to their community. Deliberately misleading information about the Panthers is all too common.
Additionally, several textbooks ignore the FBI’s attempts to dismantle the Black Panther Party. According to scholar and activist Ward Churchill, “the Black Panther Party was savaged by a campaign of political repression, which in terms of its sheer viciousness has few parallels in American history. Coordinated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation . . . and enlisting dozens of local police departments around the country, the assault left at least 30 Panthers dead, scores of others imprisoned after dubious convictions, and hundreds more suffering permanent physical or psychological damage.” Not only did the FBI assassinate Panther leaders and orchestrate the Black Panther Party’s demise, but also by extension they actively worked to prevent the uplifting of the black community. Such misrepresentations have resulted in rhetoric surrounding the Panthers that upholds the racialized social, economic, and political systems that continue to disenfranchise black Americans today.
White people in particular have the responsibility to challenge these racist narratives. As the system operates in our favor, racial injustices can go over our heads if we do not pay attention, simply because we don’t experience them. Learning and listening to peoples’ unique experiences and perspectives fosters compassion and cooperation. It is important now, more than ever, to do your own investigating. Re-educate yourself on stories from history you only half-learned or were intentionally mistaught. Listen to all sides of a story before jumping to a conclusion, even if that means seeking information yourself. Go out of your way to listen to traditionally marginalized people tell their stories. If I’ve learned anything from the Black Panther Party, it’s that when people can set aside their differences and unite for the common good, great things can be accomplished.