Note: I’d like to thank Jakobi Williams, a professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington who specializes in the Black Power and civil rights movements, and Hy Thurman, a member of the original Young Patriots and Rainbow Coalition, for contributing their invaluable insight and expertise to this column.
Poverty, inequality, racism, gentrification, police brutality — if we are to defeat these social problems, we should look to the past at organizations, such as The Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition, that have successfully implemented programs that fought these issues.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to combat police brutality in Oakland. Armed Panthers monitored police patrols to discourage abuses of power, and if confronted, they would cite their legal rights. In addition, the Panthers provided lessons on self-defense to black communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Black Panthers’ open carry tactics led the then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to enact the Mulford Act, which outlawed the public carrying of loaded firearms. Isn’t it interesting how conservatives suddenly became pro-gun control when it was black people who were open-carrying?
By 1969, the main focus of the Black Panther Party, which had expanded across the nation, was their “serve-the-people” programs. The most prominent of these was the Free Breakfast for Children program, which by 1970 provided free breakfast to 20,000 children in need. Other programs that the Panthers ran included free schooling for children and adults, interfaith temples, free health clinics, the Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation, a free ambulance service, free food, clothing and shoes programs, an employment assistance program, a nationwide newspaper, cooperative housing, children’s daycare, free plumbing, maintenance and pest control and legal aid and education.
What is distinctive, and often overlooked, about the Black Panther Party is its intersectionality. By 1970, approximately 40 to 70 percent of the party’s members were women. Beyond the party itself, the Black Panther Party would be responsible for coalition building across multiple lines, most especially in Chicago, where the work of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois BPP and deputy chairman of the national BPP, and others would build an interracial, working class alliance.