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"Serving the People":
The Survival Programs of the 
Black Panther Party 

JoNina M. Abron

The Black Panther Party Reconsidered

ed. Charles E Jones
Black Classic Press 1998

[More on the Black Panther Party]

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While speaking about the Black Panther Party (BPP) to college students in a Black American literature class, I was reminded once again that the establishment news media, historians, and political scientists have not provided a full treatment of the BPP. The students (of various ethnic backgrounds) with whom I spoke were surprised yet pleased to learn that the Black Panthers fed hungry children, escorted senior citizens to banks to cash their checks, administered a model elementary school, and tested people for the rare blood disease, sickle cell anemia.[1] Unfortunately, these community service activities lacked the sensationalism of the gun battles between police and BPP members. Not surprisingly, the only recollection of the BPP for many of the students was the Party's confrontations with law enforcement officials. Heretofore, the Panther survival programs have received minimal popular and scholarly attention.

First, this essay addresses the theoretical underpinnings of the survival programs. Secondly, the specific projects constituting the survival programs are described, and finally the essay assesses the impact of the survival programs. From 1972 to 1981, as a member of the Black Panther Party and the last editor of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, I participated in many of the various survival programs and knew the importance of these service projects to their recipients. It is hoped that this essay proves useful to contemporary young African American activists.


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Health Programs

Panther activism extended to health concerns as well. Members of the BPP sponsored three major programs to address the lack of adequate health services in the Black community. Health related survival projects included free health clinics, sickle cell testing, and a free ambulance service. Since the Party's health programs required medical workers and equipment, the health projects were not as plentiful as some of the other survival programs. One of the first efforts to implement Chairman Seale's 1969 directive to institute free health clinics was undertaken by the Kansas City, Missouri branch of the Black Panther Party, which opened the Bobby Hutton Community Clinic on August 20, 1969. Soon afterwards Party branches in Brooklyn, New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, created free health clinics. Although medical cadres in the Party received first aid training, the survival of the health clinics depended on health professional workers, such as Dr. Tolbert Small of Oakland, to donate their time. The health clinics offered a variety of services which included first aid care, physical examinations, prenatal care, and testing for lead poisoning, high blood pressure, and sickle cell anemia. An exemplary Party health clinic operated by the Panthers was the Spurgeon "Jake" Winters People's Free Medical Care Center established in January 1970 by the Illinois chapter of the BPP, which "served over 2,000 people within the first two months of its existence."[35] Medical teams from the Winters clinic went door-to-door assisting people with their health problems; the clinic's staff included obstetricians, gynecologists, pediatricians, and general practitioners.

Sickle cell anemia testing was another major health community service program offered by the Black Panther Party. Panthers were at the forefront of an educational and medical campaign to eradicate sickle cell anemia, a rare blood disease that primarily affects people of African descent. In a front-page article in The Black Panther, entitled "Black Genocide, Sickle Cell Anemia," the Party accused the United States government of refusing to conduct research to find a cure for sickle cell anemia. Five weeks after the publication of this article, the BPP announced that its medical clinics would begin free testing for sickle cell anemia and the sickle cell trait. The Jake Winters Medical Center conducted the Party's first sickle cell testing in May 1971, testing about 600 children in a three-day period. In Houston, Texas, the BPP trained Texas Southern University (TSU) students and community residents to perform testing for sickle cell anemia, hypertension, and diabetes. According to David Hilliard, Chief of Staff of the BPP, the Party "established nine free testing clinics, publicizing the problem so successfully that [President] Nixon mention[ed] sickle cell in that year's health message to Congress.”[36]

The Joseph Waddell People's Free Ambulance Service, established in early 1974 by the Winston-Salem, North Carolina branch of the BPP, was another health venture of the BPP. Panthers in Winston-Salem were granted a franchise by the Forsyth County Commissioners and financed their ambulance service with a grant awarded by the National Episcopal Church. It included 24-hour service with a voluntary staff of twenty certified members who received extensive emergency medical technician training. The ambulance service operated for two years.”[37]

Educational Programs

From the Party's inception, its leadership attacked what it considered to be a biased and distorted educational process. Hence, the demand for a relevant education was explicitly stated in the organization's ten-point party platform. Specifically, point 5 of the BPP Platform stated: "We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society."[38] The BPP sought to overcome the problem of substandard education with the creation of liberation schools, community political education classes, and the Intercommunal Youth Institute. As early as 1969, the various affiliates of the Black Panther Party instituted liberation schools. Members of the Berkeley branch instituted one of the first liberation schools on June 25, 1969.[39]

According to chairman Bobby Seale, liberation schools taught children "about the class struggle in terms of black history."[40] The lesson plans of these schools included presentations on Party activities, Black history, and current events. Students usually received breakfast and lunch during their attendance of the liberation schools, which "were an outgrowth of the interaction with children of the F.B.P. [Free Breakfast Program]. Frustrated with the lack of time to talk with children, many Panthers were eager to establish liberation schools.”[41] Unfortunately, government officials were sometimes successful in convincing community leaders and parents not to cooperate with the Party. Consequently, in some cities, including Omaha and Des Moines, the school program was discontinued. The Party's community political education classes were the educational counterpart for adults. In addition to listening to lectures about the Party's ideology goals and activities, community adults were taught basic reading and writing skills.

The key educational component of the Party's Survival Programs was the Intercommunal Youth Institute. In January 1971, the Oakland chapter established the Intercommunal Youth Institute (later named the Oakland Community School in 1974). According to the Party, the school was established because "we understand clearly that those who can control the mind can control the body. What we have is an educational system which is completely controlled by the power structure."[42] At the beginning, there were twenty-eight students in the school, many of whom were the children of BPP members. Students, ages 2½ to 11, attended the institute. They were placed in levels instead of grades, and their placement was made according to their abilities rather than age. Therefore, a student might be in a fourth-level math class but in a first-level English or reading class. Meals were provided and buses transported the pupils to and from school as well as to medical and dental appointments. During the fall of 1973, the Youth Institute was housed in a former church in East Oakland's predominantly Black community. The school graduated its first class in June 1974. At one point, there were 400 children on its waiting list. Ericka Huggins served as the director of the school from 1973-1981. In September 1977, California Governor Edmund "Jerry" Brown Jr. and the California Legislature gave Oakland Community School a special award for "having set the standard for the highest level of elementary education in the state."[43] The last class graduated from the Oakland Community School in 1982.

Criminal Justice Programs

The 1966 version of the BPP ten-point Party platform included two demands concerning the United States criminal justice system. Point 8 demanded, "We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails." In a similar vein, Point 9 demanded, "We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States."[44] In the early days of the organization, the Party informed community residents of their constitutional rights. Early issues of The Black Panther included a column authored by Huey P. Newton entitled "Pocket Lawyer of Legal First Aid," which noted,

[Black people] are always the first to be arrested and the racist police forces are constantly trying to pretend that rights are extended equally to all people. Cut [the "Pocket Lawyer"] out, brothers and sisters, and carry it with you ... at all time [sic] remember the fifth amendment ... Do not resist arrest under any circumstances ... Do not engage in "friendly" conversation with officers."[45]

For a time, the BPP newspaper also included a section that explained state and federal gun laws.

Established in Seattle, Washington, in July 1970, the Party's free busing to prisons program provided transportation for families and friends to visit their relatives who were incarcerated in prison. Seattle BPP members recalled, "We found out that many families and friends cannot afford transportation to these prisons to visit their loved ones. The result is that the prisoners feel that no one even cares about them ... It [the busing program] gives a chance to establish some type of communication between the community and the prisoners."[46]  This program was one of the first survival projects in which I personally participated after joining the Detroit branch of the BPP in 1972. I drove one of the vans that transported families to visit their incarcerated relatives at Jackson State Prison. Having grown up as the sheltered daughter of a minister and a music teacher, I was overwhelmed by my experience at Jackson State Prison, which was my first visit to a penitentiary. Another service that the BPP provided for prison inmates was the free commissary program. BPP members secured donations of personal hygiene items and nonperishable foods and sent care packages to prisoners. The Party also offered attorney referral services for prison inmates.

Legacy of the Survival Programs

Sociologist Herbert H. Haines has suggested that the activities and rhetoric of Black power groups like the Black Panther Party provided a "positive radical flank" for Black progress. According to Haines, Black radicals of the '60s improved the bargaining position of mainstream civil rights groups, which hastened the accomplishment of many of their goals.[47]  There is evidence that the Black Panther Party's survival programs contributed not only to the improved bargaining position of civil rights groups, but for all poor people in America. First, in the area of police-community relations, the Party's police-alert patrols educated the public about police brutality. In Oakland, California, the Panthers increased public awareness about the role and actions of the police. A Citizens' Complaint Board to hear allegations of police abuse was established by the Oakland City Council in 1981—fourteen years after the BPP launched its community patrols of the police.

Contemporary incidents of police brutality, the Rodney King case among others, demonstrate that police abuse of African Americans continues. Nonetheless, today, unlike the 1960s, "three strikes and you're out" is the prevailing public attitude toward criminals. This attitude is perhaps understandable, given the rapid growth during the last decade in the sale and use of crack cocaine and its attendant violent crime. Given the contemporary situation, the Black Panther Party's call in 1966 for the "immediate" release of all Blacks in prisons and jails would understandably draw little support. Nevertheless, the Party's observations that Black and poor people are not tried by a jury of their peers and that crime and poverty are inextricably linked remain correct.[48]

The BPP’s breakfast program and food give aways also raised public consciousness about hunger and poverty in the United States. The precursor to the present free school lunch program, the Party's free breakfast for children survival program was a popular community service activity. Indeed, Panther activism provides a model of community self-help. Finally, in the area of education, the Black Panther Party established the Oakland Community School in 1971 as an alternative to the substandard education foisted upon the city's low-income and working-class children. However, Oakland, California, must not be singled out. Then, as now, public education is in crisis throughout the United States, particularly in large, urban school districts. Notwithstanding the sincere efforts of parents and teachers to improve education, urban schools are often abandoned. Is it not possible to create Oakland Community Schools throughout America?

More than thirty years have elapsed since Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. Despite the passage of time, however, the Party's quest for "land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace" remains elusive for far too many Black and poor people in America. Consequently, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Black Panther Party, particularly by African American youth. Several former Panthers have written books about their experiences, young artists have "rapped" about the Party, and a major motion picture on the BPP has been produced.[49]  What are our young people, who are searching for role models, to make of the sometimes contradictory accounts of the Black Panther Party?

Above all, it must be remembered that the BPP was an organization comprised of young African Americans from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Moreover, Party affiliates throughout the country possessed distinct organizing styles and programs based on the qualities of the local membership and the particular needs of their respective communities. What happened in one chapter of the Party did not necessarily occur in the same manner in another chapter. Furthermore, members of the Black Panther Party were young men and women, many in our teens and twenties. There were, undoubtedly, times when members of the BPP romanticized the Black liberation struggle. As a result, we seriously underestimated the apparatus of the state in the most powerful country in the world. Moreover, we did not always operate democratically and sometimes failed to grasp fully the imperatives of leadership.[50]  Lastly, but certainly not least, the BPP was the main target of the FBI's counterintelligence program to destroy the entire Black power movement.[51]  The pervasive government repression directed against the Party affected all aspects of organizational life. It developed an atmosphere of mistrust and personal danger among the membership. In the end, the Panthers sought to transform powerless Black and poor people into powerful, political individuals in their attempt to actualize the motto of the Black Panther Party "All Power to the People." As Huey P. Newton recalled,

We knew that this strategy would raise the consciousness of the people and also give us their support ... revolution is a process ... we offered [the programs] as a vehicle to move [the people] to a higher level ... In their quest for freedom ... they have to see first some basic accomplishments, in order to realize that major successes are possible.[52]


1. JoNina Abron, "The Black Panther Party," lecture by author, English 223, Black American Literature, Western Michigan University, 5 December 1994.

2. Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967; reprint, New York: Vintage Edition, 1992), xv-xvi.

3. Ibid.

4. Black Panther Party (Guest Editors), "Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog," The Co-Evolution Quarterly, no. 3 (23 September 1974): 7.

5. Huey P. Newton, To Die for the People (New York: Writers and Readers Publishers Edition, 1995), 46.

6. Kit Kim Holder, "The History of the Black Panther Party 1966-1972: A Curriculum Tool for Afrikan-American Studies" (Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, 1990), 78.

7. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (1970; reprint, Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991), 412-413.

8. Huey P. Newton, To Die for the People, 89.

9. United States Senate, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, S.R. No. 94-755, 94th Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), 200-207, which hereafter will be referred to as The Church Committee; Huey P. Newton, "On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community," The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, 17 April 1971, C-F.

10. Black Panther Party, "Whole Earth Catalog," 5. 

11. Huey P. Newton, To Die for the People, 89.

12. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan Parts I and 11 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1958).

13. Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak (New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1970), 2-4.

14. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973). Reprint, New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1995), 114-115, 120-126, 146-147; Bobby Seale, Seize the Time, 153-166. In April, 1967, a California legislator, Donald Mulford, introduced legislation to change a gun statute in California. This bill was designed to disarm the BPP and end its police-alert patrols. On May 2, 1967, Bobby Seale led a group of Panthers to the California State Capitol in Sacramento where he read the Party's "Executive Mandate No. 1," a statement written by Huey, upholding the right of blacks to arm themselves against "terror, brutality, murder and repression" by "racist police agencies."

15. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time, 139. 16. Ibid., 136.

17. Ibid., 139.

18. Black Panther Party, "Whole Earth Catalog," 19. The dates of the six week period were August 21 to October 1, 1972.

19. "Seniors Against A Fearful Environment," The Black Panther, 16 December 1972, 3 and 11; "S.A.F.E. Wins Victory for Senior Citizen Home," The Black Panther, 26 January 1975, 4. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 321-327; Rod Bush, ed., The New Black Vote, Politics and Power in Four American Cities (San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1984), 323-325; and the following articles in The Black Panther: "Unite to Defeat Reading" and "Bobby in Run-Off," 21 April 1973, 3, A, B, and C; "A People's Victory May 15 in Oakland" and "The People's Political Machine Victors," 3 and A, 19 May 1973. On April 17, 1973,ín a field of four candidates, Bobby Seale forced the incumbent mayor of Oakland, John Reading, into a run-off election. Defeated by Reading on May 15, Bobby nevertheless won a respectable 40 percent of the vote. Elaine Brown lost her race for Oakland City Council, but garnered over 34,000 votes. The Seale-Brown campaign registered over 30,000 new voters in Oakland, paving the way for the election of the city's first Black mayor, Lionel Wilson, in 1977.

20. JoNina M. Abron,"'Raising the Consciousness of the People': The Black Panther Intercommunal New Service, 1967-1980," in Voices From the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, ed. Ken Wachsberger (Tempe, AZ: Mica Press, 1993), 348.

21. "Why Was Denzil Dowell Killed?," The Black Panther, 25 April 1967, 4.

22. United States, House of Representatives, Committee On Internal Security, The Black Panther Party: Its Origin and Development as Reflected in Its Official Weekly Newspaper, The Black Panther Black Community News Service, 91st Congress, 2nd (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), 15.

23. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, 163-167. 24. The Church Committee, 214.

25. Ibid., 214-215. Also see Seale, Seize the Time, 179. Describing the purpose of its study of the Black Panther Party in the preface of the report, the Committee on internal Security stated, "to determine its origin, history, organization, character, objectives, and activities with particular reference to certain aspects set forth in the committee mandate." The mandate included investigations of groups "which seek to establish a totalitarian dictatorship within the United States, or to overthrow or assist in the overthrow of the form of government of the United States or any State thereof." United States, vi. House of Representatives, Committee on Internal Security, The Black Panther Party: Its Origin and Development as Reflected in Its Official Weekly Newspaper, The Black Panther Black Community News Service. 91st Congress, 2d Session. Washington, 1970, vi. For information about incidents of sabotage against the BPP newspaper, see "Repression of the Black Panther Newspaper," The Black Panther, 8 August 1970, 11.

26. Abron, "Raising the Consciousness of the People," 357; "The Government Murdered My Sister at Jonestown" and "People's Temple `Hit List' Exposed As Fake," The Black Panther, 29 December 1978, 3. People's Temple was founded by the Rev. Jim Jones, who died at Jonestown. The BPP had developed a close relationship with the People's Temple, whose community programs for the poor in San Francisco and northern California were much like those of the Party. Charles Garry, a long-time attorney for the BPP, was also the attorney for the People's Temple. The BPP believed that People's Temple members, voluntarily moved to Guyana to flee racism and poverty in the United States which the Party considered a serious indictment of life in America. Also see Michael Meirs, Was Jonestown a CIA Experiment? (Lewiston, NY: Emellen Press, 1988).

27. Father Earl A. Neil, "The Role of the Church and the Survival Program," The Black Panther, 15 May 1971, 11.

28. JoNina M. Abron, "Women in the Black Power Era: Lessons for the 1990's from the 1960's," paper presented at the "Black Women in the Academy, Defending Our Name: 1894-1994" Conference, Boston, Massachusetts, January 1994.

29. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time, 414.

30. Ibid., 413-414.

31. Foner, ed. The Black Panthers Speak, xiii.

32. The Church Committee, 210-211; see also Charles E. Jones "The Political Repression of the Black Panther Party 1966-1971: The Case of the Oakland Bay Area," Journal of Black Studies 18 (1988): 415-434.

33. Assata Shakur, Assata, An Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill &Company, 1987), 220.

34. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, 276; Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, 303.

35. Kit Kim Holder, "History of the Black Panther Party," 112; Jake Winters, a member of the Chicago BPP, and two Chicago policemen died during a shootout on November 13, 1969. See Kenneth O'Reilly, "Racial Matters": The FBI's Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 311.

36. David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company), 339; Black Genocide: Sickle Cell Anemia," The Black Panther, 10 April 1971, 1; "The People's Fight Against Sickle Cell Anemia Begins," The Black Panther, 22 May 1971, 10; "BPP Trains Houstonians for Free Medical Testing Program," The Black Panther, 22 June 1974, 5.

37. "Winston-Salem Free Ambulance Service Opens," The Black Panther, 16 February 1974, 3. Joseph "Joe-Dell" Waddell was a member of the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, branch of the BPP. On June 12, 1972, he was pronounced dead of a heart attack at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. His fellow inmates believed that prison authorities gave Waddell drugs to induce heart failure; Also see Mario Van Peebles, Ula Y. Taylor, and J. Tarika Lewis, Panther: A Pictorial History of the Black Panthers and the Story Behind the Film (New York: New Market Press, 1995); The Black Panther, 16 February 1974, 3.

38. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, 117.

39. G. Louis Heath, ed. Off The Pigs!, 107. 40. Ibid.

41. Kit Kim Holder, "History of the Black Panther Party," 99.

42. "Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute," The Black Panther, 27 March 1971, 1.

43. The Oakland Community Learning Center offered a variety of educational and recreational programs, including G.E.D. classes and martial arts classes. Various community groups in Oakland, such as the Black Veterans Association, also met regularly at the OCLC. See "O.C.L.C.'s 2nd Annual Martial Arts Friendship Tournament Huge Success," The Black Panther 29 January 1977, 23. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, 391-394. Former BPP member Carol Granison and I wrote the curriculum for language arts and the Oakland Community School. I also taught at the school from 1976 through 1981; "Address of Deborah Williams At First Intercommunal Youth Institute Graduation Exercise," The Black Panther, 22 June 1974, 2. Also see "S.O.S.: Win $1000 in `Support Our School' Donation Drive," The Black Panther, 2 April 1977, 3; Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, 439.

44. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, 117-118.

45. Ibid., 157-159.

46. See the following articles in The Black Panther: "People's Free Busing Program," 8 August 1970, 9 and "Behind the Walls," October 1-14, 1979, 8-9. According to Elaine Brown, "The Black Panther Party provided a voice and a hope for thousands of black inmates." See Brown, A Taste of Power, 315-316.

47. Herbert H. Haines, Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970 (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 180-182.

48. Robert Staples, The Urban Plantation, Racism and Colonialism in the Post Civil Rights Era (Oakland, CA: Black Scholar Press, 1987), 103-120.

49. In addition to Elaine Brown, among the other former BPP members who have written autobiographies in recent years are David Hilliard (with coauthor Lewis Cole), This Side of Glory; Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson), My Life With The Black Panther Party (Oakland, CA: Burning Spear Publications, 1991), and Assata Shakur (formerly JoAnne Chesimard], Assata, An Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1987). Some of the rap artists who have performed material about the `Black Panther Party are Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur. The 1995 film Panther—a fictional account of the BPP's early days—was based on a screenplay written by Melvin Van Peebles and directed by his son Mario. See Mario Van Peebles, Ula Y. Taylor, and J. Tarika Lewis, Panther.

50. For discussions of the structure and decision-making process of the Black Panther Party, see Brown, A Taste of Power, 319-321 and 443-447; and Hilliard and Cole, This Side of Glory, 224-225, 246-247, and 250-251.

51. See Jones, "Political Repression," 415-434; Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 63-99.

52. Huey P. Newton, "On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community," The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, 17 April 1971, C-F.

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