It wasn’t all young men and guns: the Black Panther Party’s programs fed more hungry kids than the state of California
Starting in 1969, and for several years afterwards, in church basements and community centre kitchens in cities and towns around the United States, thousands of kids sat around a table every school day morning, eating hot breakfast served by the young adults of the Black Panther Party. At each seat there was a plate and utensil setting, a cup and a napkin. The children learned to use their fork and knife properly, eating eggs and grits and bacon and toast, washed down by juice or milk or hot chocolate – whatever local businesses had donated that week.
The Panthers – most of them in their late teens and early 20s, and about two-thirds of them women – had arrived at these community kitchens before dawn to prepare this hot meal for the children, serving them and then checking homework, and giving PE (political education) lessons.
‘Who invented the traffic light?’ a Panther would call out.
‘A Black man!’ the children responded.
They also learned that eating a filling breakfast was a right, and that a full belly helped them pay attention in school. The children – most but not all of whom were Black and Hispanic – were taught about Black and Hispanic inventors and artists and leaders, the stories that were (and still are) so often left out of mainstream histories. For many children, this was the first time they learned that a Black or other person of colour could be an engineer or a scientist or an artist.
The Panthers then taught the children to help clear their plates and pack their bags, and then walked them to school. In places where the Black Panther Party offered their Free Breakfast for Children Program, attendance rates and overall academic performance increased.
The Panthers’ breakfast programme addressed a dire need in communities around the country, but it and their other food justice programmes were always about more than feeding the hungry. They saw these ‘survival programmes’ – what the Panthers’ founders Bobby Seale and Huey PNewton called ‘survival pending revolution’ – as modelling their party’s socialist principles.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Seale and Newton in Oakland, California in 1966, with an initial goal to address police brutality in the Black neighbourhoods of their city. Their name was inspired by a pamphlet for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Alabama who used the imagery of a large, crouching black cat on their third-party ballots. The LCFO was begun by Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the civil rights organisation Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1965 to support Black candidates, and was dubbed ‘The Black Panther Party’ by the white media. The Panther had seemed an apt symbol: an animal who did not attack unless provoked, but who would then bravely defend itself.
Initially, Seale and Newton recruited young men who patrolled the streets with guns slung over their shoulders, often adopting a similar uniform of a black leather jacket and beret. If they saw an arrest in progress, they would stand nearby as witnesses to police actions and inform the arrestee of their rights, sometimes documenting the interaction with a camera. Unsurprisingly, local police were angered by the Panthers’ presence, and tension fomented.
The Panthers quickly moved beyond street patrols, addressing other needs of the community. One early effort sent members to direct traffic at a notoriously dangerous intersection, prompting the city to finally install a traffic light.
In the spring of 1967, the teenaged Tarika Lewis came to the Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland and asked to join. She noted their own language in their Ten-Point Program supporting gender equality, and wanted to see women in their ranks. She later reflected: ‘When I joined the party, I was thrilled about becoming part of an organisation that believes in the equality of men and women …’ Lewis opened the door for many more women to join the party, both in Oakland, and among the quickly expanding chapters around the country. Lewis added: ‘One of the ironies of the Black Panther Party is that the images of the Black male with the jacket of a gun became emblematic but the reality is the majority of the rank-and-file members by the end of the ’60s are women.’ […]
Edited bySam Haselby