Sickle cell anemia testing at the Black Community Survival Conference
March 30, 1972
Photo by Bob Fitch
(Source: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford Libraries)
Watch our 14-minute documentary on the Black Panther's Community Survival Conferences here.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a revolutionary organization founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton - then students at Merritt College in Oakland, California.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Black Panther Party Headquarters, Oakland, California, 1970s
(Credit: Bobby Seale)
That same year, Seale and Newton drafted a "Ten Point Platform and Program," calling for full employment, decent housing, truthful education, and an end to police brutality. Nutrition is also implied in the final point - a synopsis of all their demands:
10. WE WANT land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace...
The Survival Conferences
Sickle Cell Anemia Testing
March 30, 1972
Photo by Bob Fitch
(Source: The Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford Libraries)
In 1972, the Black Panther Party held three conferences for Oakland's Black community.
These “survival conferences” were organized with the goal of promoting the development of grassroots institutions to help an underserved population meet their own needs outside the municipal, state or federal systems.
Through these conferences, the Panthers worked to meet their primary objective, established eight years prior:
1. WE WANT freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
Bobby Seale at the Black Community Survival Conference
March 30, 1972
Photo by Bob Fitch
(Source: The Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford Libraries - 1, 2)
During the first event from March 29-31, the Panthers conducted a voter registration drive, led drills for “panther cubs,” tested people for sickle cell anemia, and had free grocery distributions for thousands in attendance.
The next conference on May 13, 1972 championed the support of a new local political platform - with Chairman Bobby Seale for mayor of Oakland and Elaine Brown for the Sixth District city council seat.
Seale and Brown ran their campaigns on a “Community Survival Ticket”.
(Source: It’s About Time BPP Archive)
This second conference took place at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center (also known as the Oakland Auditorium).
On the second night, when the curtains on stage were drawn open, 1,500 bags of groceries were revealed - each with three-to-four pound chickens inside.
(Source: East Bay Times)
Here are some of the flyers from the Seale and Brown campaign...
The final conference would be held on June 24, 1972 at De Fremery Park, which was known to the Panthers and locals as “Lil Bobby Hutton” Park in honor of their first official member, Bobby Hutton (1950-1968).
The Survival Programs
Black Panthers' Grocery Bag Replica
(Source: Philadelphia Printworks)
You can see how people felt about these services.
Although a single project on this scale was never done before, serving the community was nothing new for the Panthers.
Black Panther Free Food Drive
Members of the Black Panther Party stand behind tables and distribute free hot dogs to the public, New Haven, Connecticut, late 1960s or early 1970s
Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images
This was just one of many proactive community initiatives of the organization. Party members continued to serve in other capacities such as operating police patrols, helping homeless people to find jobs and low-cost housing, providing free clothing and shoes for people in need, providing free and relevant education at their elementary school, providing tutoring and counseling, providing free breakfast for children, providing bus transportation for community members to visit incarcerated friends and family, operating free health clinics (dentistry, optometry, gynecology, etc), legal aid clinics, a defense fund, a food bank, and much more.
If your bathroom sink sprung a leak, there would be a plumber to call. If your car stopped moving, the Panthers had a mechanic ready to go. If your house needed repairs, just say the word and the handyman was on his way.
From The Black Panther, Saturday, October 21, 1972
In his book Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, published in 1970, Bobby Seale wrote about the early stages of the various programs and the motivations behind them.
Black Panther Free Clothing Drive
A young boy stares at the camera while members of the Black Panther Party distribute free clothing to the public, New Haven, Connecticut, September 28, 1969
Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images
Seale had this to say about the clothing program, which started in New York:
From The Black Panther, Saturday, September 25, 1971, page 5
Quality shoes and quality clothing. Now that's what I call Surviving in Style!
The Black Panthers instituted a program called S.A.F.E. (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment). Participants provided transportation and protection for senior citizens at the Satellite Senior Homes residential complex. The Panthers escorted them to the bank and helped them to do their shopping. Social services were a big part of the Panthers' political agenda. Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown promised to direct public funds towards the SAFE program if elected.
From The Black Panther, Saturday, January 13, 1973, page 4
The Oakland Community Learning Center (OCLC) was dubbed "a haven for the Black community" of East Oakland. Local residents of all ages were welcome to join in on the activities, which included bowling, skating, dancing, parties, card games, board games, photography, rap sessions, martial arts, and team sports 'coached by well known...personalities.'
One of the OCLC's greatest benefits was the George Jackson Peoples' Free Medical Clinic, which provided first aid, service for children, health screenings for tuberculosis and anemia, check-ups, and referrals.
Of the party's alternative schools, Seale wrote:
They're held in churches and the community centers. We see the Liberation Schools as a supplement to the existing institutions, which still teach racism to children, both White and Black.
Though they represented the majority of the student body, 'liberation schools' were not limited to Black children. Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and White students were enrolled as well.
Breakfast was served in collaboration with the school program and usually helped to gauge the public's interest in party programs. The children of Party members were the first students at these schools. Then, they grew from there. The September 13, 1969 issue of The Black Panther referred to one such instance of this process in Kansas City, Missouri.
Connected with the breakfast will be a Liberation School for the children emphasizing some of the better-known revolutionary figures during slavery, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party's 10 Point Platform and Program, and revolutionary songs.
Students at the Oakland Community School (established in January 1971 as the Intercommunal Youth Institute) were entitled to three meals per day, free medical care, and free clothing. Most of the children who attended came from poor families.
Class sizes were small but Panther graduates were well-rounded. Besides the core science, math, language arts, and social studies classes, students took Spanish, political education, environmental studies, art, dance, and drama. Believe it or not, yoga and martial arts were integrated into P.E. (physical education). On Mondays, students learned "revolutionary history". On Tuesdays, they learned "revolutionary culture". Wednesdays were for "current events." Students would look forward to a movie on Thursdays and a field trip on Fridays. Even in times of leisure, there were opportunities for learning. Museums, libraries, and parks were common destinations.
Parents and even the youth themselves were allowed to criticize the school and to participate in planning sessions.
The idea was to teach children how to think and not what to think.
From The Black Panther, Saturday, September 18, 1976
Deputy Minister of Education Keith Hinch closed his article by addressing the critics of the Panthers' 'revolutionary' curriculum.
When these children see oppression and exploitation more clearly, the ideas taught them in their childhood about socialism, revolutionary love for one another, self-confidence, and knowledge of self will form a basis from which they can carry the revolution to completion and consolidation.
The Black Panthers began their breakfast program at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in January 1969, feeding poor and inner-city children. Hot meals were served on a regular basis. These consisted of grits, sausages, bacon, eggs, toast, milk, hot chocolate, and orange juice.
The program grows naturally from our new lives-Emmett Grogan's free food baskets, the need now to feed our own kids, our desire to show the community we do something more than shoot it out with cops. We call the program a 'survival' program--survival pending revolution--not something to replace revolution or challenge the power relations demanding radical action, but an activity that strengthens us for the coming fight, a lifeboat or raft leading us safely to shore.
Black Panther Free Breakfast for Children Program at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church
Photos by Ruth-Marion Baruch
From A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers. Commissioned by the Swedish magazine Vi
(Source: University of California Santa Cruz Library Digital Collections)
Party members collected donations of food, cooking supplies, containers, and utensils from local merchants. Father Earl Neil was instrumental in this process. He testifies of his support in an article on the Panther's official alumni website.
Mrs. [Ruth] Beckford-Smith and I undertook the necessary research to facilitate the program’s opening. This included consulting with nutritionists to determine what a healthy breakfast menu should include, having the church parish hall and kitchen inspected by the health department and fire marshal to certify that we met the necessary health and safety codes...We began with 11 youngsters the first day (a Monday) and by Friday we were serving 135 students.
Bobby Seale noted that a focus on health and wellness was essential for the survival of the Black community. As such, this was the first of the party's survival programs.
By the end of the year, their local project took on 10,000 children all over the country. They were soon serving full meals to 20,000 children on a daily basis.
The program was so effective that Jesse Andrews, California state treasurer, went so far as to say the Panthers were feeding more children than the United States Government.
At the same time, there was the Free Food Program for the community at large. Each delivery contained a weeks supply of eggs, canned fruits and vegetables, chickens, milk, potatoes, rice, bread, and cereal.
Former party member Elaine Brown recalls the extent of the party's food program in her book A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story (1994)
He [Bobby Seale] created the most magnificent food giveaways. The big ones became major community events, reported often in the media. Previously, there had been only the breakfast program and other free-meal programs, but Bobby organized a campaign to give away bags of groceries to whole families, with a stalking panther printed on each bag. The community and press went wild.
The more bags that the Panthers distributed is the more their membership grew. Here's Brown again:
Bobby's giant food giveaways begat tremendous support for all our other Survival Programs. Even middle-class Blacks, theretofore reluctant to support or be identified with the party, began endorsing it and making contributions. As Bobby's spirit and leadership reached the other chapters, support for the party's free-food programs grew by leaps and bounds everywhere.
Father Neil was almost persuaded.
J. Edgar Hoover in the Oval Office at the White House on July 24, 1967
(Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto via LBJ Presidential Library/University of Texas at Austin)
In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who sought to dismantle the organization through a massive counterintelligence operation, boomed his frustrations outright:
The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the Black Panther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.
Police in Oakland, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Chicago spread lies to manipulate public opinion, conducted raids, harassed participants and children, and outright destroyed food and packaging in attempts to disrupt the party’s progress.
The media had their own take on Panther activities. After canvasing the community, they ran articles with mixed perspectives on what the breakfast program meant for the Panthers and the people they served.
The Panthers flexed their own freedom of press to push back against what they considered state-sponsored media propaganda. Here is an excerpt from the October 4, 1969 issue of their organ, The Black Panther:
The lying politicians spend billions of dollars to send someone to the moon, but when it comes to the basic needs of the people, namely, food, clothing, and shelter...,these greedy pigs could care less.
Although they worked no miracles, they fed thousands and thousands more flocked to their doors for healing. The trials and tribulations of the Panthers won them many disciples.
It would seem that even Father Neil was "baptized" a full-fledged member of the Panther congregation in May 1971. It was around that time that a sermon appeared in The Black Panther under the heading "The Role Of The Church And The Survival Program". I feel so impressed by the historical significance of this message and its relevance to the topic at hand that it would be difficult for me to cut out any majority of the speech.
The Rev. Earl Neil celebrating the independence of Namibia in 1990
(Source: The Archives of the Episcopal Church)
The Black Church was born over 350 years ago, engaged in a survival program. The Black Church was born out of an effort to deal with the concrete conditions and needs of Black People. It was born in an attempt to enable - [to] empower Black People to survive the racist and exploitative system of slavery in America. Its mission and purpose today is the same as it was 350 years ago, although at a higher level. That mission and purpose is to see to its utmost that Black People and other oppressed peoples survive, with dignity and humanity, American racism and capitalism.
Neil refers back to his earlier comments about the racist preachers of the slavery era picking out the verses that promote their oppressive agenda and the enslaved preachers (Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner) who inspired revolts by choosing to share the verses that were against the American slave system.
As Black preachers, we have to constantly drive home the reality and concrete condition of our oppression as a people and that this oppression is against the will of God.
The preacher drives his point home.
...We must deal with concrete conditions and survival in this life! The Black Panther Party...has merely put into operation the survival program that the church should have been doing anyway. The efforts of the Black Panther Party are consistent with what God wants.
Father Neil recited the words of the scripture in Mathew 25:34-36. "For I was hungry, and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came unto me."
Isn't this what the survival program of the Black Panther Party is all about?
For the past three years, Neil had already opened his church to the use of the Panthers. Now he was on a mission to the entire community.
Neil stated that other churches should follow their example and 'sponsor or co-sponsor with the Black Panther Party, the different specific survival programs.'
2. Churches can participate with the survival program of the Black Panther Party by allowing the use of their buildings as places where the survival programs can be implemented. Church buildings can be sites of Free Breakfast Programs, Liberation Schools, Health Clinics, depositories for food and clothing, and for meetings.
He suggested using church resources such as 'the money and skills of church members'. A list of members with specific areas of expertise would be assembled so that members could volunteer their services.
In conclusion, the heritage of the Black church has been inextricably bound together with the survival of Black people and with bringing an end to oppression and exploitation...The Church, the Black Panther Party, and even those who belong to neither group can work together to successfully implement the survival program. The only requirement is that we are all committed to the destruction of oppression and exploitation, so that we can return ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
The Legacy of the Black Panther Party
Most people recognize the Black Panthers for their militant resistance to the racism of their time. Angry Blacks shouting and toting guns is an image burned deep into the American psyche. But the Panthers represented so much more!
As a result of the voter registration drive of 1972, thousands of Black voters were registered. When Bobby Seale ran for mayor the next year after his release from prison (time served for his radical protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention), he came in second to the incumbent mayor John Reading out of a total of nine candidates. In 1977, Lionel Wilson (1915-1998) was elected the first Black mayor of Oakland, California - thanks in part to the work of the Black Panthers.
Long after the activism of the Black Panther Party ended with the dismantling of the group in 1982, their services continued in other forms.
Inspired by the actions of the Black Panthers, the United States Department of Agriculture revisited and permanently implemented the School Breakfast Program for children in 1975, which had begun as a two-year pilot program the same year the Black Panther Party was established. It currently feeds over 13 million students across the nation every day.
In addition to this, more than half (53%) of the infants born in the U.S. participate in the USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which was another Black Panther initiative.
The survival programs of the Black Panther Party are also detailed from their own perspective and through primary resources here.
The Black Panthers' efforts to make healthcare more accessible to Black people is perhaps the least recognized aspect of their legacy. This is partly due to the fact that securing health workers and equipment was no easy task. Still, they invited certified doctors, nurses, and lab technicians to volunteer their services towards the cause. Health professionals agreed to train party members who later passed on their skills.
Free health clinics were established in Kansas City, Brooklyn, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, Chicago, and in Rockford, Illinois. Services included first aid, blood pressure checks, testing for lead poisoning, and physical examinations.
In 1974, the Winston-Salem branch of the BPP in North Carolina instituted the People's Free Ambulance Service, which lasted for two years. At least one ambulance ran on a 24-hour basis. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. there was another ambulance, which brought patients to their doctor's appointments and stopped at the hospital to take those in recovery to their homes.
The Panthers were clear about their intentions for a healthy community. The infamous Minister of Information and party spokesperson, Eldridge Cleaver, wrote in the paper:
We are ready to see that each and every hungry child is fed.
The Panthers took medical treatment and disease prevention just as serious.
The author of another article on the danger of Sickle Cell Anemia asserted that 'every Black person should, in, fact have [the blood test]' to determine if they carry the trait for the disease. The Panthers referred to the threat this condition posed as "Black Genocide." The Panthers acknowledged that healthcare and survival go hand in hand.
In order to ourselves insure our survival, the survival of Black people, the Black Panther Party has implemented this program to test people for sickle cell anemia, as well as put out as much information and literature as possible to educate the people to this.
(Source: It’s About Time BPP Archive)
Tests were conducted at an elementary school in Chicago. An organization was formed 'in order to begin research that is truly in the interest of the people, for a cure of this deadly disease.' As part of its mission, the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation supported a local blood bank by hosting public blood donation drives and members helped to raise awareness about Sickle Cell Anemia through regular radio broadcasts.
Promotion featured in a Bay Sunday news broadcast (CBS5 KPIX-TV)
on the legacy of the Black Panther Party
Following the Oakland survival conference of 1972, the Panthers claimed to have tested 13,282 attendees for sickle cell anemia.
Ericka Huggins joined by her Black Panther friend and husband John Huggins at a “Free Huey” rally (John Huggins was gunned down by a member of the Black nationalist *US Organization at UCLA in 1969, part of a strategic operation by the FBI)
Photographer: Pirkle Jones
(Source: University of California Santa Cruz Library Digital Collections)
Black Panther Party alumnae carried on the mission of the Panthers in their own ways, especially in regards to health.
Ericka Huggins initially joined the Black Panther Party after seeing a photograph of Huey Newton on a hospital gurney bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to the stomach as an Oakland police officer stood over him 'laughing.'
The catalyst then for her interest was an emotional concern related to health. Later on, Huggins would serve as the director of the Oakland Community School.
In his book Revolutionary Suicide (1973), Huey describes how police officers handcuffed him to a trolley and beat him after he had been critically wounded in a shootout with police. When he spat blood on them, they covered his face with a towel, and beat him some more. A young doctor who treated him committed suicide after Huey’s trial. Huey suggested that it was probably related to residual trauma from his experience in the emergency room and his guilty conscience as a result of his participation in Huey's torture.
In later years, former Panthers Angela Davis and Jonina Abron became involved in the National Black Women’s Health Project.
Seated with her fellow colleagues in 1989, Abron stated in an interview:
You know, one of the points in the Black Panther Party’s program was ‘We demand decent healthcare for Black people and I see my own involvement in the Black women’s health project as, you know, part of that continuum. I’m still, you know, in my own way trying to work on that particular part of the problem.
The point she referenced was introduced on March 29, 1972 by Huey Newton to the official cannon of the Ten Point Program as a revised point number 6 - no doubt a result of the burgeoning health politics evident in the planning of the first survival conference. This demand for “COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE” read in full:
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 preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.
Medical Clinic in Boston, Massachusetts
(Source: It’s About Time BPP Archive)
We cannot afford to forget one of the most iconic figures in the history of the Black Panther Party: Fred Hampton. When Hampton said, "You can jail a revolutionary, but you can't jail revolution," the revolution that he spoke of was the same revolution that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale called for from the very beginning.
It was a revolution for the survival of our communities. In Chicago, that revolution was Hampton working in his own community to open a free health clinic, to provide heat in the winter for needy families, and to be the voice of the oppressed. Fred Hampton was a revolutionary. The cost of his revolution was persecution and assassination. And how will we remember him? How will we remember the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense?
Clearly, the Black Panther Party was at times rife with controversy but for those who have done their research, the Panthers are still known for the positive impact they made on the communities they served.
Read more about the party’s contributions to healthcare in the book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (2013).
(Source: It’s About Time BPP Archive)
The Black Community Survival Conferences were not limited to the location of the Black Panthers' center of influence in California. There is evidence that survival conferences were held in other cities across the United States, as these flyers for programs in Houston, Texas and in Detroit, Michigan confirm.
Before the survival conferences, there were National Survival Days in Chicago and in Detroit.
How Will We Survive Today?
So…how do Black communities across the nation survive in the conditions of the 21st Century? What lessons can we apply to our current struggles across the globe? Like the Panthers did in their time, we, too must answer these questions for ourselves.
As Bobby Seale once stated…
If there are no concrete programs to pull the people together…,to unify them, then we are doing nothing.
After all that has been said and done in the course of our history, with many of the same persistent challenges facing us today, one question remains…
JoNina Abron-Ervin, the last editor of The Black Panther newspaper, interviewed fellow party member Tondalela Woolfolk in 1994. As Woolfolk remembered of her time in Hampton's Chicago chapter, 'the Free Breakfast Program and the Free Health Clinic were two of the BPP's most successful programs' in Chicago. Abron-Ervin reported Woolfolk's recollections and her thoughts on the current state of the community in the Chicago Defender.
The Panthers said their breakfast programs, health clinics and other "survival" programs were created to bring a measure of relief to the lives of poor Blacks until they would do better.
As for solutions?
"What we should be involved in is setting up survival programs on a local, grassroots level following the [BPP] 10-point platform and program.
I couldn't agree more.
Woolfolk passed away two years after this interview. But if she were alive now, it is doubtful that her analysis would have changed much at all since then.
Looking at the statistics of our community in Chicago and in other cities across America, Black America can certainly use some of those survival programs once again.
If we hope to change the trend of our society, then like Bobby Seale said, we need something concrete. We need something revolutionary. Seale gives us his definition of a revolutionary program.
A revolutionary program is one set forth by revolutionaries, by those who want to change the existing system to a better system.
Bobby Seale created the revolutionary programs of the Panther Party. It was Huey who named them "survival programs." The goal was unity in the community. Huey wrote that programs like these are the preliminary step towards the revolution that we seek.
They were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America.
We are still in survival mode. If Woolfolk was right, we still have a long way to go before we reach that level of consciousness which will awaken that revolutionary love for one another, self-confidence, and knowledge of self that the Panthers made the foundation of their training.
Unity was the key to the success of the Black Panther Party.
The closeness of the group and the shared sense of purpose transform us into a harmonious, functioning body, working for the destruction of those conditions that make people suffer. Our unity has transformed us to the point where we have not compromised with the system...closeness and...consciousness is the first step toward control of a situation. We feel free as a group; we know what troubles us, and we act.
What we need are simple, concrete programs to meet our basic needs. Like Huey said, we need programs that will enable us to sustain ourselves until we can get 'completely out' of this situation we are in.
They will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding are raised to a high level, then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of the oppressors.
When we recognize the need for social change, we will live together. When we recognize the need for economic change, we will work together. When we recognize the need for political change, we will vote together.
Together, we will change the world.
Let us prepare ourselves to seize the time.
It's about time for us to draft a new Ten Point Program.
It's about time for OUR generation to leave a new legacy for the future.
It is about time for us to go down into our communities, raise our fists to the sky, then raise our voices together and proclaim loud and proud the words of our fallen comrade Fred Hampton, "I AM A REVOLUTIONARY."
He proclaimed it. When the time comes, let us be ready to reclaim it.
*post updated to respect the fact that the "US" in "US Organization" is not an abbreviation for 'United Slaves'.
That was a label imposed on them by the Panthers as an insult.
**post updated again to satisfy copyright restrictions.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Oakland Museum of California - Black Panther Party: A Black Power Alternative
University of California at Berkeley, DePaul University - What Did The Black Panthers Do For the People?
The Black Panther Party (reconsidered) (1998) by Charles Edwin Jones
For more photographs, visit the official website of photographer Steven Shames or check out his books The Black Panthers - Photographs by Stephen Shames (2006) and Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers (2016), both published in collaboration with Bobby Seale.
This article was originally posted on our Tumblr blog on March 31, 2018.
It was re-posted here and augmented on July 28, 2019.
View the original post here.
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