In their most recent Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé, flanked by dancers in black leather and berets, paid tribute to the Black Panther Party and aroused the wrath of Conservatives who associated the Panthers with inflammatory actions and anti-police sentiments.
Founded 50 years ago in Oakland, California, the Black Panthers are known for their revolutionary rhetoric. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called them the greatest threat to the country's internal security. Less well known is the group's history of health activism and early understanding of the link between economic inequalities and poor health. As part of a strategy to organize social services in underserved communities, the Panthers operated more than a dozen clinics across the country and screened thousands for sickle cell anemia.
It's important to remember that there was a time when we as a people really fought to make our communities as strong as possible, says Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical science. We assumed that we would have to do it ourselves. We didn't want to wait for someone to come in and do it for us.
In 1964 and 1965, Fullilove, then a student at Colgate University, joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), registered voters and promoted integration in Mississippi and Louisiana. After graduating in 1966, he stayed with the SNCC as a community organizer in Newark, New Jersey, and soon found that the situation was very different in the north. Newark citizens didn't care about civil rights, he recalls. Social services mattered to them. What worked in the south did not work in the north.
In contrast, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as it first called itself, organized around the needs of blacks in the city center, starting with protection from police brutality. According to Alondra Nelson, dean of social sciences at Columbia University and author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination , the group's mission soon expanded from armed patrols via the police to what could be understood as medical self-defense.
The Panthers realized the self-determined philosophy of the Black Power era and organized a dozen or more survival programs. The most prominent of these was the Free Breakfast for Children program, which fed more than 20,000 children each week at a time when there were no government programs that would do the same. The Panthers also opened a school and offered community classes in business, first aid, and self-defense; drug and alcohol rehabilitation provided; given away food and clothing; and accompanied seniors to doctor's appointments.
In April 1970, Panther's chairman Bobby Seale directed all chapters to open health clinics. At its peak, there were clinics in 13 cities where volunteers provided basic medical care as well as residential and legal assistance. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Panthers even ran an ambulance service. Clinics in Chicago and Los Angeles were established with the help of former members of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which, unlike the Panthers' broad social platform, focused closely on the medical needs of local communities.
The Black Panther Party is very aware of the health inequalities, says Fullilove. The language of health disparities did not exist back then, but everyone knew it. What can we do to look after our children, find work, and protect ourselves from the police? These questions were central to the concerns of the community. In response to them, the panthers became very popular.
In her book, Nelson writes that the Black Panthers screened thousands for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder that is prevalent in people of African descent. They also helped raise awareness of the disease, particularly during an appearance by party leaders on an episode of the Mike Douglas Show in 1972 hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Around the same time, the Black Panthers were campaigning for education and protest to protect color communities from exploitative research - even before revelations about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment came to light. The group successfully blocked the creation of a UCLA Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, which had, among its proposals, experimental brain surgery that was supposed to eliminate aggression.
In 1972 the Panthers Ten Point Program was formally changed to make health an explicit part of its mission. The new platform called on the government to provide free health facilities to the people that will not only treat our diseases, which are largely caused by our suppression, but will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. At the same time, the Panthers called for health education and research programs to give black people access to advanced scientific and medical information so that we can adequately medically care for ourselves.
After years of fighting and infiltration by the FBI's COINTELPRO program, the Black Panther Party found itself in sharp decline in the early 1970s. Nonetheless, the group's legacy can be credited with programs ranging from the Federal School Breakfast Program and environmental justice campaigns to community-based health care and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Too often, black history is limited to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama and a linear notion of progress where things keep getting better, says Fullilove. But it's so much more complicated. In planning for the future around issues such as mobilizing communities to meet their needs, we need to be sensitive to learn from past experiences.
Take part on February 25thDr. Fullilove shares his Freedom Summer '64 experience and reflects on that crucial moment in history.