[On October 15th, 1966, the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories connected to the Panthers, leading up to a special weekend post on an unfolding contemporary history that echoes the group’s activism and legacy.]
On two sides to the Panthers, and why they’re not as opposed as they seem.
As I wrote in yesterday’s post, one of the founding elements of the Black Panthers was an emphasis on guns, on being openly, heavily, and proudly armed. While that emphasis was both legal and entirely understandable, it also led the group—as tends to be the case with any group defined so fully by firearms—to experience a number of violent confrontations and tragedies within its first few years. Just over a year after the founding (October 1967), Huey Newton was arrested for allegedly killing a police officer; six months later (April 1968), a group of Panthers led by Eldridge Cleaver took part in a shootout with police officers, with another founding member Bobby Hutton killed. Four months after that (August 1968), three more Panthers were killed in another gun battle with the police; two months later (October 1968), another Panther was killed in the same manner; and so on. Each of these incidents was unique and would require further investigation and analysis before drawing any final conclusions, but there’s no doubt that taken as a whole they (and many other events like them) reflect a group caught up in, and to some degree contributing to, a culture of violence and death.
In January 1969, however, just three months after the October 1968 shootout, the Panthers’ Oakland chapter began a program (housed at St. Augustine Episcopal Church) providing free breakfasts for the city’s African American children. As that wonderful hyperlinked post by Darryl Robertson on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog details at length, the program was the first of what would become many such breakfast programs around the country, and of a much broader spectrum of initiatives that came to be known as Survival Programs. By the end of 1969 every city with a BPP chapter was running its own breakfast program (the BPP’s national leaders had in fact mandated that all chapters offer breakfast, with a minimum of at least ten workers and seating for at least fifty people), and many had begun implementing other community-focused Survival Programs as well. The Los Angeles breakfast program served an estimated 1,200 children per week at its 1970s height (as recounted by LA Panther Flores Forbes), to cite one particularly impressive example of the program’s significance and success.
I don’t know whether the Panthers who worked at these breakfast programs for children were armed while they did so, but it seems likely to me that they were; given the quantity of police shootouts, it’s also quite possible that some of the breakfast servers had been involved in one or more of those violent altercations. But despite the seeming contradiction between those two sides to the group, I would argue that they also represent two threads of a single pattern, one defined by a particular vision of community service. The express reason for the Panthers’ emphasis on guns, after all, was to create citizens’ patrols that would monitor police actions and brutality in African American communities. Perhaps it was inevitable that such an emphasis would also lead to violence, but we cannot and should not use that result to discredit entirely the idea that African American communities needed (if they do not indeed still need) a level of internal, shared protection. In that way, the Panthers’ emphasis on being armed comprised another Survival Program, one responding to a crisis no less urgent than the hunger and poverty that prompted the breakfast programs. Their response to that crisis was extreme to be sure, and perhaps again destined to produce its own form of violence and crisis—but it was inseparable from the rest of the Panthers’ work, and like all that work cannot be dismissed.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Panther histories or connections you’d highlight?
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