Looking back at the Black Panther Party's community-based "survival programs"

The Black Panther Party's Franklin Lynch Peoples' Free Health Center in Boston, ca. 1970

Men with guns. Armed community self-defense. Confrontations with predatory police departments. For many people, until you know differently, these are the dominant ideas associated with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Founded in Oakland, California, in October of 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Party existed in more than 13 official chapters across the country and abroad until 1982.

Less known is the targeting of the BBP by the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) operations to "discredit, disrupt, and destroy" the organization. COINTELPRO targeted every progressive organization in the United States at one time or another. Since J. Edgar Hoover was placed in charge of domestic surveillance since 1924, the infiltration, sabotage, and surveillance operations against progressive movements continued across the better part of the century.

Less well known are the Black Panther Party "survival programs," community-based social justice programs to respond to the organized abandonment by civic leaders of Black and Brown neighborhoods. Organized and run primarily by women, the projects included free breakfast programs for children, grocery cooperatives, free ambulance services, neighborhood escorts for the elderly, education initiatives, and the People's Free Medical Clinics. The Great Society's social programs were inadequate, so communities took matters into their own hands. The Black Panther Party survival programs served anyone and everyone and inspired other political formations to create their versions, like the Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement.

From the 1972 Black Panther Party Platform, "WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE. We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care."

The Panthers were ahead of their time. Or rather, they were part of a long genealogy of struggle for freedom and self-determination.

Check out this short video, "What You Don't Know About The Black Panthers." For the full BPP and health justice story, see Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination. For a discussion of the local chapters of the BPP, see Judson Jeffries, Comrades;and Liberated Territoryby Yohuru Williams and Jana Lazerow. These two titles examine gender, power, women, and the survival programs: Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution Has Come, and Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement, by Suzanne Cope.