The Panthers Following a Tradition of Armed Self Defense
In 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party For Self Defense in Oakland, California. Having known each other in college and community service work they were moved to take action against the Oakland Police Department and their brutality against the black community. The Panthers were a local organization, monitoring the police in their interactions with the community, until they carried fire arms into the California State Legislature to protest legislation to restrict their rights to carry weapons in public. This act of defiance resulted in a few arrest and it immediately, in the eyes of the law, made them a target as a threat to national security.
Alondra Nelson’s book, Body and Soul, provides a broader perspective of the Black Panther Party and their commitment to community security in the form of health care. In addition to their children’s breakfast program they mandated each chapter to open free health clinics that would fill the void in the black community.
The tradition of armed self defense has a long history in the African American community. In the 1950’s Rob Williams organized a self defense league among African Americans in Monroe, North Carolina for protection against the Klan and local police. Williams ultimately had to flee Monroe, with his family, under threat from the local police where he landed in Canada before relocating in Cuba. There he hosted a radio program called Radio Free Dixie, broadcasting political commentary and jazz music that could be heard over much of the United States. The Panthers were of the same tradition as Williams at a time when the accepted philosophy of nonviolent protest was just beginning to be challenged.
From Armed Defense to Health Care
The Panthers were battling pressures from both the local police and the FBI (COINTELPRO). The coordinated pressures from law enforcement were made worse by challenges within the leadership. In 1968 co-founder Huey Newton served 22 months of a 15 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter of a police officer and Newton and Seale often had differing opinions on organization goals and objectives. The one point of agreement they did share was the need for a coherent philosophy that could guide their initiatives. All members were required to read revolutionary thinkers such as Franz Fanon and Che Guevara to broadened their political perspective. Both of these icons were physicians and their examples gave clarity to the Panther mission and made basic health care services an obvious extension to their original purpose. Nelson gives a useful account of the relevant history of medical malfeasance Black Americans suffered from during this period. Medical facilities were being desegregated by law and black medical professionals were challenging the traditional racist orthodoxies of the medical profession and organizing their own professional medical organizations.
Nelson gives an extensive review of the successes and challenges of the Panther Free Health Clinics. The constant harassment from local law enforcement; they ransack clinics, destroyed supplies, filed bogus code violations and arrested panther members soliciting donations. Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law in 1965, making health accessible to more Americans, but Blacks still suffered from a lack of access to basic healthcare services.
One of the major successes attributed to the clinics was the health care screenings performed by members and supervised by volunteer medical professionals from local hospitals. Sickle cell anemia was a much overlooked health crisis for black people and Nelson does a thorough review of how the Panther clinics created the inertia that gave impetus to federal legislation, signed by President Richard Nixon, that made screening for the sickle cell trait a standard procedure. The Panthers were filling a void created by the neglect of the government and the medical community at large and as a result another brick in the civil rights legislative edifice (civil rights act of 1964, voting rights act of 1965) was set.
Black Panther Party et.al. v Center For The Study And Reduction Of Violence
The Black Panther Party was operating on several fronts at once. Internally they were struggling with changes in leadership, the constant harassment from law enforcement and coordinating their efforts with a growing group of activist with overlapping agendas. The Young Lords Party, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society worked with the Panthers on issues of common interest. In 1973 Gov. Ronald Reagan expressed his support for a proposal to create the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. The center was proposed to study the human brain and study what was the physiological source of violent tendencies. Eurocentric philosophy, dating back generations, maintained that Black People were inherently violent and American social customs have been predicated on this belief. The concern of many in the civil rights community was the obvious implication that the study, given America’s racial history, would focus on the assumed violent behavior of black people. The research was to include brain surgery to determine the source of violent tendencies in the brain.
America’s history of medical experimentation, particularly on racial minorities, the incarcerated and the poor, has a long an abominable history. White men, as far back as the late 1900th century, professed to be able to prove the intellectual superiority of Europeans by measuring the capacity of the human scull and cadavers were stolen from graves for medical research and training At a time when accounts of medical experimentation, of dubious and often in outright racist objectives, where being exposed (tuskegee syphilis study) the proposal to medically research the biological origins of violent behavior in black people was seen as another example of further stigmatizing black people. Community activism and direct protest to members of congress was ultimately successfully in getting funding for this research to be rescinded.
Alondra Nelson’s book is incisive in her account of the ways the Black Panther Party created change on a variety of issues beyond police violence against black people. Party members ran for political office, filed lawsuits against discriminatory legislation and provided essential services in health care and child nutrition, but none of these initiatives were seen as redeeming values to most of white society. By the time the party ceased operation in 1982 other community health centers had begun to fill the void left by the Panther Free Health Clinics.
This book is gives a well documented account of the Black Panther Party beyond the common narrative of black men and women in leather coats carrying weapons. I highly recommend this book.