The Black Panthers are often misrepresented or their significance is minimized in popular thought and opinion. The everyday organizing is often lost and an overemphasis on the Panther’s clashes with law enforcement overshadow the substantial community programs, the Service to the People Programs, offered by the Black Panther Party on the local level. Additionally, the dominant narrative highlights the men of the Panther party, yet women made up 2/3 of the membership and set a community-focused revolutionary agenda. Instead of viewing Black power movements like the Panthers as the antithesis of the non-violent civil rights movement, it is important to recognize that civil rights and Black power movements such as the Black Panthers, both emanate from a centuries-long Black freedom struggle. As former Panther Ericka Huggins states, “We were making history. It wasn’t nice and clean. It was complex.”

Transcript for: The Black Panther Party and the Free Breakfast Program: Feeding a Movement

Written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, Phd

Produced and Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Elizabeth: The Black Panthers are often misrepresented or their significance is minimized in popular thought and opinion. The everyday organizing is often lost and an overemphasis on the Panther’s clashes with law enforcement overshadow the substantial community programs, the Service to the People Programs, offered by the Black Panther Party on the local level. Additionally, the dominant narrative highlights the men of the Panther party, yet women made up 2/3 of the membership and set a community-focused revolutionary agenda. Instead of viewing Black power movements like the Panthers as the antithesis of the non-violent civil rights movement, it is important to recognize that civil rights and Black power movements such as the Black Panthers, both emanate from a centuries-long Black freedom struggle. As former Panther Ericka Huggins states, “We were making history. It wasn’t nice and clean. It was complex.”[1]

Averill: Based on a platform of radical revolution, the Panthers developed a two-pronged approach of armed self-defense and community service, which propelled the Panthers as self professed leaders of the vanguard. The Black Panther Party created a wide-range of community initiatives in Black and poor communities. These included police-alert patrols, the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, free medical clinics, medical research including an emphasis on sickle-cell anemia, free food, clothing and shoes to families, a Free Breakfast Program for school-age children, the Oakland Community school, employment assistance, free buses to visit prisons, a free ambulance program, a free pest-control program, the Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (SAFE) program, among many other programs.

Elizabeth: Illinois Black Panther Party Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton summed up the Service to the People programs this way “First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM.”[2]

Averill: However, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the COINTELPRO, short for Counter Intelligence Program, deemed the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of this country.” They saw any threat to the status quo as a threat. Police and COINTELPRO agents sabotaged efforts like the Panthers Free Breakfast Program in order to “keep [them] isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it.” However, at roughly the same time Hoover was making the statements, a Market Dynamics/ABC poll showed that Black Americans believed the Black Panthers were the organization they deemed most likely to buoy the Black liberation struggle as a whole. The study found that ⅔ of Black respondents showed adoration for the Panthers.[3]

Elizabeth: Today we’ll focus on some high points of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and spend some extra time discussing a few of the Service to the People Projects that have lasting effects to this day.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Founding of BBP:

Averill: College students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defence in Oakland, California in 1966. They dropped Self Defense from their name in 1967. Newton and Seale met while they were both attending Merritt College where they were both members of the African American Association on campus but were anxious for more direct action in the face of violence and oppression against black people in Oakland. They read widely, including the writings of political and philosophical thinkers like the revolutionist Che Guavara, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Mao Zedong the leader of Communist China, and author James Baldwin. After affiliations with Merritt College’s Soul Student Advisory Council and the Revolutionary Action Movement, Newton and Seale created the Black Panthers.

Elizabeth: The black panther was originally used as a symbol by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, a black-run political party organized to defeat the white supremacist party in Alabama. The panther was chosen as a symbol because “The Black Panther is an animal that when pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death.”  The Black Panther Party developed a deep and intellectual understanding that viewed Black Americans as a colonized group, exploited by white businessmen, the government, and the police. Drawing parallels between policing, the Vietnam war, and imperialism Newton said, “The police are there in our community not to promote our welfare or for our security and our safety. They are there to contain us, to brutalize and murder us because they have their orders to do so, just as the soldiers in Vietnam have their orders to destroy the Vietnamese people.”[4] Within this revolutionary socialist ideology, understanding the liberation of oppressed people depended on their gaining control of their own communities, eventually allowing the Panthers to form alliances with the Chicano movement, Third world groups, and radical white organizations.

Averill: The ideology that would come to shape the organization grew out of rising class and racial consciousness, as well as the belief that non-violence was an inadequate political strategy to address the needs of the Black community.  The founders were also concerned with police harassment in the Black community. Newton, Seale, and other Panthers, armed with a law book and guns began policing the police to make sure black people’s civil rights were protected. It was legal to carry a firearm in California as long as it was not concealed. Therefore, when they followed police, they had their weapons clearly displayed on the seat or dashboard, showing a willingness to challenge police power and assert the right of armed self-defense for Black people. Curtis Austin writes that “‘The primary thing to understand about violence in regard to the BPP is that much of it was rhetorical flourish.’’[5] Nonetheless, during the initial building of the organization, Huey Newton spoke about both political education and the need for armed self-defense. The Panthers included weapons training for new members, close combat drills, and armed confrontations with police officers. In Newton’s memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, he explains that, “We recognized that it was ridiculous to report the police to police, but we hoped that by raising encounters to a higher level, by patrolling the police with arms, we would see a change in their behavior. Further, the community would notice this and become interested in the party. Thus our armed patrols were also a means of recruiting.”[6]

Elizabeth: When on these patrols men wore leather jackets and berets as uniforms to signify the military discipline of the Panthers as well as a new Black Power identity. Women wore dark colored tops and knee length skirts, often with boots.Their careful adherence to state gun laws was meant to protect them from being charged on weapons infractions. The organization gained world-wide media attention in May 1967 when Seale led a contingent of armed Panthers into the California state capitol building to demonstrate their opposition to a proposed law that would restrict the right to carry loaded weapons on city streets. A law that was being proposed (and supported by governor Ronald Reagan) only because the Panthers had utilized California’s open carry law and legally carried weapons for self-defense from the police, we might add.

Averill: The Panthers originally operated mostly in Oakland and Berkley, CA. Membership in the Bay Area surged and Pather units began popping up across the country. This unauthorized expansion prompted Panther leadership to only sanction officially chartered chapters. Groups that wished to join the BPP had to uphold allegiance to BPP principles and its central authority.

Ten Point Program: What We Want

Elizabeth: The BPP developed a Ten Point Program, developed in response to the social and economic conditions of the Black Oakland community. The Ten Points became part of the national party’s philosophical backbone and served as a model for many other community groups such as the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and the Red Guard. The Free Breakfast Program, along with all the Black Panther Party’s Service to the People Programs, were part of a political agenda which the BPP articulated through the Ten Points.

Averill: This founding document addressed the major issues facing urban black communities with demands for full employment and adequate housing. These are the ten points as articulated in 1966, What We Want, What We Believe :

Elizabeth: 1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities.

We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.

Averill: 2. We want full employment for our people.

We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every person employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the American businessmen will not give full employment, then the technology and means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.

Elizabeth: 3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black and oppressed communities.

We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of 40 acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50 million Black people. Therefore, we feel this is a modest demand that we make.

Averill: 4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.

We believe that if the landlords will not give decent housing to our Black and oppressed

communities, then housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that the people in

our communities, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for the people.

Elizabeth: 5. 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.

We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.

Averill: 6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.

We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.

Elizabeth: 7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.

We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self defense.

Averill: 8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

We believe that all black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.

Elizabeth: 9. 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.

We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the black community from which the black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the black community.

Averill: 10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.[7]

Elizabeth: Some of the first organizing that the BPP did began in 1967 when police killed Denzil Dowell in the early morning hours of April 1. Denzil’s brother George and several neighbors from North Richmond, California went outside after they heard 10 gunshots fired. George found his older brother Denzil lying in the street in a pool of blood. Police from the county sheriff’s department were there, but an ambulance had not been called.

The first issue of The Black Panther newspaper April 25, 1967 , on display at the Oakland Museum of California. Photo by Jim Heaphy. Use of the publication cover in the article complies with Wikipedia non-free content policy and fair use under United States copyright law

Averill: The police claimed that Denzil Dowell and another man were breaking into a liquor store and that when police arrived, the two men ran out of the back of the store and refused to stop running when police ordered them to stop. Police opened fire and shot Denzil in his back and in his head, killing him.

Elizabeth: Dowell’s family did not buy the story. There was no sign of forced entry at the liquor store that Denzil had allegedly been robbing. Also, police reported that Dowell had jumped over two fences as he was running from police yet Dowell had a bad hip and visibly limped. His family said he was unable to run. Additionally, a doctor hired by the family concluded that the bullets entered Dowell’s body while he had his hands raised. His mother publicly announced, “I believe the police murdered my son.”

Averill: The Black Panther Party rallied around the Dowell case and their very first issue of the Black Panther Party Paper asked “Why Was Denzil Dowell Killed?” The Panthers conducted their own investigation into Dowell’s death, confronting police who harassed Dowell’s family, and they organized armed street rallies in which hundreds filled out applications to join the party.

The police officers who shot Dowell were acquitted by an all white jury who believed it was “justifiable homicide” because officers shot Dowell in the midst of committing what officers believed was a felony.

Elizabeth: The Panthers linked the fight against racism with the fight against capitalism. As Newton explained, “We realize that this country became very rich upon slavery and that slavery is capitalism in the extreme. We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy both.” The Panthers understood that Black people could not achieve socialism on their own and their work building multiracial anti-capitalist coalitions flowed from that analysis. In fact, in order to join the BPP you had to read ten books relating to Black liberation and socialism just to join. Panther Elain Brown explains, “We took the position that in order for us to be free, that system [capitalism] had to be dismantled. We can not be free in a system that had oppressed us in the first place, so you have to get rid of that system.”[8]

Averill: The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service continually published articles about what was going on in Vietnam, China, Africa, and Latin America. They also highlighted stories about people who were wrongfully arrested, imprisoned, and issues that affect people living in poverty like poor housing and education, and insufficient healthcare.

Elizabeth: One of many coalitions the Panthers built was a partnership with the Third World Women’s Alliance in Oakland. The infant and maternal mortality rate in Oakland during the late 1960s and 1970s were some of the highest in the country. Panthers and the Third World Women’s Alliance went to the County Board of Supervisors and changed how the county’s hospital handled pregnant and birthing women when they came to the hospital for care. Ericka Huggins recalled, “We worked with some really amazing Southeast Asian and Central Asian organizations and they were very revolutionary. We also worked with various organizations to end the war in Vietnam. I still feel like if we could form coalitions today with like organizations, especially women, that we would be a force to contend with. That is why we did it because we were all being stalked, infiltrated, jailed, killed, and so we formed coalitions to have strength in numbers and to support one another. We saw the beauty and the power of it.”[9]

Service to the People Programs

Averill: The Panthers started community services in 1969 to build community self-determination and spread their political message. BPP groups across the country provided many different social services.

Elizabeth: In Oakland, Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (SAFE) was a nonprofit corporation founded by the Black Panthers at the request of senior citizens, with the purpose to prevent muggings against seniors, particularly when they went to the bank to cash their social security checks. At the beginning of each month, SAFE would provide free transportation and escort for residents of the Satellite Senior Home in Oakland. Organizers set a goal to provide free transportation to all low income senior citizens for shopping, medical appointments, and errands running across the city. This was a need in the community that the Panthers were attempting to help. So much so that in the present day, many cities and even Medicaid have adopted this kind of social welfare by providing transportation services to low income residents and seniors.

Averill: The Oakland Community School (OSC) was another project spearheaded by the Panthers and was an extension of point five of the Panther’s 1966 Ten Point Program and Platform. As early as 1967 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale began speaking to high schoolers at San Francisco/Bay Area public schools. In 1969, in US cities where there were strong BPP chapters, liberation schools, staffed by volunteer party members, opened in storefronts, churches and homes. These after school programs gave academic support to black and other poor youth while spreading the Panther message. The Oakland Community School  served as a revolutionary education model based on community-and child-centered education  and, among other subjects, African American and class-based history. In 1970, in Oakland, David Hilliard and Majeda Smith created the idea for the first full time liberation day school called the Children’s House where BPP party member’s children could be educated.

Elizabeth: The Children’s House was eventually renamed the Intercommunal Youth Institute (IYI). Under the leadership of Brenda Bay, the IYI served BPP families and a few nearby families in the Fruitvale area, maintaining a day school program and dormitory with 50 children, for two years. In September of 1973 Oakland Community School (OCS) opened in East Oakland.

Averill: Enrollment in the Oakland Community School started with 90 children and quickly ballooned to 150, their max capacity. Children from five-years-old through twelve were in regular classes and there was a child development center for two to four-and a-half year olds.The school always had a massive waitlist. From 1973 until 1982 the school, directed by Ericka Huggins and Donna Howell, served the extended community and its children. Staff included BPP members, former Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley Unified School District teachers, as well as new teachers looking for an innovative environment to work in. While serving as director, Huggins traveled the country delivering présentations on the schools pedagogy. Speaking in 2007, Huggins said about the school “we gave people a sense of themselves and their place in history, and their indispensable purpose on this Earth.”[10]

Elizabeth  Huggins joined the Panthers in 1968 with her husband John Huggins. They were both students at Lincoln University. They left the university and drove to California, along with a friend, in 1968 to join the Los Angeles Chapter of the Black Panther Party and quickly became leaders of the movement. However on January 17, 1969, three weeks after the birth of their daughter, John Huggins and  Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter were killed in a gun battle with members of the black nationalist group US Organization on the campus of UCLA. FBI records show that the Los Angeles FBI office was involved in creating a false vendetta between the two organizations.

Averill: After John Huggins was murdered, Ericka Huggins moved to New Haven, Connecticut to be near her late husband’s family. There she formed a New Haven Black Panther Party chapter. Three months after the murder of her husband, Ericka Huggins was arrested along with Bobby Seale for conspiring to commit murder after FBI informants had infiltrated the Panthers and a BPP member was been killed. Their arrest sparked “Free Bobby, Free Ericka” rallies and protests across the country. Huggins was imprisoned for two years before the charges were dropped. Huggins continued to serve in senior leadership in the party and ran the Oakland Community School from 1973 to 1981.

Elizabeth: One of the party’s most lasting reforms was the Free Breakfast Program, which fed hundreds of hungry children and whose model was eventually adopted by the U.S. education system. In 1968 the national School Lunch Program provided reduced-price, but not free lunches for poor children and the national School Breakfast Program was limited to a few rural schools. Understanding that students could not learn on an empty stomach, the Oakland BPP initiated the Free Breakfast Program at a church in Oakland in January 1969.  Bobby Seale planned the program with Father Earl Neil and Ruth Beckford-Smith, who coordinated the program and recruited neighborhood mothers to bring their children for the breakfasts and to volunteer if they were able. Two months later, in March of 1969, the Black Panther Party opened its second Free Breakfast Program for Children in San Francisco at the Sacred Heart Church. As word spread of the Free Breakfast Program, the Oakland Panther office was swamped with calls from Black community leaders across the country, asking how they could join the party and implement their own breakfast programs. The Breakfast Program quickly spread to Black Panther Party chapters in 23 cities by the end of the year.

Averill: Local businesses, churches and community-based organizations donated (sometimes under the threat of a boycott) space for the program and food for the breakfast. In 1969 alone, the Panthers fed more than 20,000 children nationally and by 1971, 36 cities had Black Panther Party breakfast programs. The Free Breakfast Program was so successful that at a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing, the national School Lunch Program administrator admitted that the Panthers fed more poor school children than did the State of California.

Elizabeth: David Hilliard was Instrumental to the growth of the Free Breakfast Program who stated “The original vision of the Black Panther Party was structured by the practical needs of the people, not by rhetoric and ideology. The failure of city and federal administrators to address the basic needs of the community was the reason we created our survival programs.”

Averill: By August of 1969, both Panther co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were in prison. Newton was imprisoned for allegedly killing an Oakland police officer during a traffic stop, while Seale was arrested for an alleged conspiracy to incite riots and for the murder of a suspected police informant within the BPP. They were both acquitted of all charges but spent years in jail. While in prison, management of the Panther social programs largely fell to David Hilliard and Elaine Brown.

Elizabeth: Originally, funding for various BPP programs came primarily from donations. Black-owned stores were expected to donate food and paper products to the breakfast program to demonstrate their support for the communities they benefited from financially. In return, the BPP ran advertisements for these businesses in their paper and urged community members to support them. If a business refused to support the program, the BPP was quick to call for boycotts of their business.

Averill: Hilliard and Brown created guidelines on how to set up a breakfast program for children. These guidelines included sample menus and minimum requirements for logistical operations. Buildings hosting breakfast programs must be able to feed 50 children at a time, with additional space for children who were waiting to eat plus their coats and book bags. The space must have adequate kitchen equipment for food preparation and storage. The BPP mandated a minimum of ten persons needed to run a breakfast program – two people for traffic control, two to help children cross the street, one person to manage the reception desk, one to hang coats, four to serve food, and two to cook food. Staffing was entirely BPP members, parents, and community volunteers.

Black Panther convention, Lincoln Memorial, June 19, 1970. Source: Library of Congress

Elizabeth: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover established a Counter Intelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. Originally developed to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, it was expanded to include domestic groups such as the Black Panther Party with a mission statement that read, “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black-nationalist…” organizations. Hoover recognized that the Panthers captured the loyalty of many black children, their parents, and more moderate-learning community members through the Free Breakfast Program and other such social welfare organizing. Hoover was angry that the breakfast program won liberal whites’ and moderate blacks’ support for the Panthers. Police and the FBI attempted to destroy the program by spreading rumors the food was poisoned, sending forged letters to stores to discourage them from donating food, and raiding breakfast sites while children ate.

Averill: A former member of the New York BPP, Safiya Bukhari, recounted how she was initially drawn to the BPP through her support for the Free Breakfast Program and the real need it served in the community. However, she wasn’t supportive of their politics recalling, “I still didn’t believe in what the Panthers were saying. I didn’t think that the violence was happening. I didn’t think that the conspiracies were going on.”[11] However, when she witnessed firsthand the police spreading rumors that the food the children were eating was poisoned, and she was one of the volunteers cooking the food, her politics changed. She recalled,  the police “were not making an effort to feed the children, but they didn’t want us to feed the children”[12] Bukhari saw first hand what the BPP was organizing to fight. Her participation in the Free Breakfast Program raised her consciousness on the nature of oppression of the Black community and the role of the police in maintaining this oppression.

Elizabeth: During the 1960s increased media and congressional attention turned the nation’s interest to the appalling levels of hunger in America during. In 1962 Michael Harrington published The Other America, a book that shocked readers with its depictions of poverty in the richest nation in the world. Unfortunately Harrington’s book also contributed to the troubling “culture of poverty” thesis in the age of the Moynihan report, which blamed Black poverty on family structure as opposed to social barriers. In 1968, CBS aired Hunger in America, a documentary that exposed the extreme hunger affecting many Americans across the country. The film aired just two weeks after hearings in the U.S. Senate on malnutrition culminated with the formation of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, nicknamed the McGovern Committee. These events created a long overdue focus on malnutrition, even though many Black communities had always struggled with food insecurity.  

Averill: Historian Laurie B.Green explored a program born from the Black Power movement that served as a prototype for WIC during the 1960s. WIC continues one of the most successful government programs to date for supplementing the nutritional needs of low-income women and children. In her essay “Saving Babies in Memphis,” Green documented the collaboration between the Memphis Area Project-South (MAP-South), a community organization federally funded through the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the newly opened St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. MAP-South community organizers referred malnourished children to the pediatric nutrition clinic at St. Jude and sometimes had to literally carry in the most severely undernourished babies. At St. Jude the children received emergency medical intervention, enriched baby formula, and a “food prescription” for surplus commodities from the state agriculture department. The collaboration between MAP-South and St. Jude revolutionized care for Black women and children in Memphis because most hospitals and clinics still refused to treat Black patients late into the 1960s.[13]

Elizabeth: The MAP-South/St. Jude project was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement because poor Black community organizers were the motivation behind the partnership. Black women persuaded medical professionals to become involved in anti-hunger work in their high-poverty neighborhoods. Also, the collaboration inspired medical staff at St. Jude to publicly articulate the economic explanations for malnutrition, which served as a counterargument to the prevailing characterization of poor communities as dysfunctional or pathological. The partnership contested years of social thought that tied high levels of Black infant mortality to the presumed immoral behavior of Black mothers and out-of-wedlock births. The successful program became an early model for the national implementation of WIC.

Averill: WIC became a national program in 1972 but many poor women of color had difficulty in accessing the program. Historian Annelise Orleck documented how early WIC enactment was sporadic and vulnerable to the political climate of individual states and regions. In her book Storming Caesar’s Palace, Orleck showed how community organizers in Las Vegas subverted conservative forces in Nevada, the only state that had not applied for WIC benefits by 1973. The women of Operation Life, a grassroots organization administered by poor Black women from the city’s Westside, wrote its own WIC plan for Nevada, lobbied the state legislature to accept it, and submitted their WIC proposal to the federal government. Their application was accepted in 1974, and it became the first WIC clinic in the country to be solely run by poor mothers working and volunteering as community organizers.

Elizabeth: Programs like Free School Breakfasts, WIC, and community schools are legacies of the social programs the Black Panther Party and other Black Power organizations created and championed. Many of these programs continued well after the BPP ceased to exist. The Panther’s Free Breakfast  Program spotlighted the limited scope of the national School Breakfast Program and helped pressure Congress to authorize expansion of the program to all public schools in 1975.

The End of the BPP

Averill: But the success of the Black Panther Party was largely in spite of continued harassment  by the U.S. government. In a 1967 memo sent by Hoover to FBI field offices throughout the country titled “Black Nationalist—Hate Groups” Hoover says of COINTELPRO, “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” Some of these hate groups he is speaking of include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Lest we remind you listeners, all three of these organizations practiced non-violence as a strategy to gain civil rights.

Elizabeth: Fred Hampton was a former NAACP youth organizer who became the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. At just 20 years of age, he helped the Panthers establish a breakfast for children program and a free medical clinic on the South Side of Chicago. He taught political education classes and was working to create a multiracial “rainbow coalition” of Chicago youth groups that included the Blackstone Rangers (a street gang), the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, an organization of working-class white youth. Like most of the leaders of the Black freedom movement, Hampton drew the interest of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. An FBI informant, William O’Neal, infiltrated the Chicago chapter of the Panthers and earned Hampton’s trust. O’Neal gave a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, noting which room he slept in and an outline of the bed, to the Chicago police before the police raided Hampton’s apartment.

Averill: In 1969, following months of harassment, Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death by 14 police officers as they lay sleeping in their Chicago apartment. Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s eight-month pregnant fiance’ was laying in the bed beside him when he was killed. He was only 21 years old, Mark Clark was 22. Four other Panthers were shot and taken to the hospital, and three were beaten up and taken to the Wood Street police station.

Elizabeth: While authorities claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant, evidence later emerged that the FBI (as part of COINTELPRO), the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, and the Chicago police conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. Edward Hanrahan, the state’s attorney, went on television the morning of Fred Hampton’s killing and said that the Panthers opened fire. However, a later trial proved that was not true. The police had fired 90 shots into the apartment. Only one shot was fired out from the apartment, which came from a Panther after he was hit with a bullet himself. We will link to a interview with Deborah Johnson that occurred a few months after Hampton’s murder. Survivors of the raid and Fred Hampton’s family won a $1.85 million dollar settlement from the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the FBI.

Averill: Internal debates within the party focused around where their focus should be. Former Panther Kathleen Cleavland explained it as some “did not see the Black Panther Party as a vehicle for social service, we saw it as a vehicle for political transformation, radical change, for revolution, so we couldn’t get excited about survival.”[14]

Elizabeth: Factions began to form within the group, which COINTELPRO seized upon. An internal FBI memo stated, “This dissension offers an exceptional opportunity to aggravate and possible neutralize [the Panthers] through counterintelligence.” Additionally, the cult of personality that had been built up around Huey Newton began to falter as his often erratic and violent behavior took a toll on the party.

Averill: Due to infiltration and destabilization by the FBI, the self-declared vanguard of the Black community, the Black Panther Party, ended in 1982. Some people blame the Panthers for the end of the Civil Rights Movement, while simultaneously ignoring or downplaying the role the FBI played in destroying the party. Under Hoover’s COINTELPRO, groups like the Panthers, every civil rights organization, the antiwar movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and many others were harassed, intimidated, wiretapped, infiltrated, suffered smear campaigns in the media, blackmailed, given dubious prison sentences, and murdered as in the case of Fred Hampton and others. Astoundingly,  the American public only found out about COINTELPRO because a group of peace activists broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania in order to steal draft cards and came upon the COINTELPRO documents, which they smuggled out of the office and gave to the press. 

The building broken into by the Citizen's Commission to Investigate the FBI, at One Veterans Square, Media, Pennsylvania. A brown brick building with cars in front of it.
The building broken into by the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, at One Veterans Square, Media, Pennsylvania. Creative Commons License

Elizabeth: A Senate committee, chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho, began an investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies in the early 1970s. Their 1976 report states: “The findings which have emerged from our investigation convince us that the government’s domestic intelligence policies and practices require fundamental reform. . . .The Committee’s fundamental conclusion is that intelligence activities have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens.”

Averill: In 1970 BPP membership was at its peak, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members. Women made up two-thirds of the organization’s membership, and as many male leaders were imprisoned or killed, a base of female Panthers continued to organize. Elaine Brown served as Chairwoman of the Party during the mid-1970s. The Panthers held political education classes designed to end gender bias in the black community, even as sexism was rampant both in the BPP and in society in general.

Elizabeth: The Black Panther Party declined through the decade as its leaders and members were vilified in the media and in-fighting and drug use caused expulsions and defections. It is important to know that some horrible things did happen as the Party fell apart however the infiltration of COINTELPRO cannot be overstated in the effect that it had on the movement. Evenso, the Oakland Community School Continued, as did many Service to the People programs, throughout the decade.

Averill: Even under constant police surveillance and after the murder of their leader, the Chicago chapter remained active until 1974. The Seattle chapter operated through the decade, and other chapters continued as well. However, by 1982, all programs and members were disbanded.

Elizabeth: A former BPP member explained their experience in the party: “The mission was to empower the Black community through love, community values, through breakfast programs, anything that they did to bring us together. Their mission was to protect us, and our rights as human beings. Today, you don’t feel like you belong to this country. Our country was educated by middle class White people, and those people who founded the education system did not have Blacks in mind when they created it. Thus, anything that you are taught does not have us in it. As a result, we were always seen as less than them. The BPP to me was an organization that said we mean something to the world. The BPP taught the people that our ancestors made contributions to the world, we are valued, and we are somebody. And that was too powerful for the establishment to accept. That was too much power to give to Blacks. Until this day we are still divided, some people think we are militant and the people who know the truth know what the movement was all about.”[15]

Thank you for listening. Power to the People.


Austin, Curtis. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. University of Arkansas Press. 2008.

Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. University of California Press, 2016.

Foner, Philip S. ed. The Black Panthers Speak. Lippincott. 1970.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Huggins, Ericka. “The Liberation Schools, the Children’s House, the Intercommunal Youth Institute and the Oakland Community School.” 2007.

Jones, Charles E. , ed. The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered). Black Classic Press. 1998.

Katz, Michael B. The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Levine, Susan. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. Penguin Classics. 2009.

Orleck, Annelise. Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Orleck, Annelise, and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds. The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Peniel, E.Joseph, ed. The Black Power Movement: Rethinking The Civil Rights-Black Power Era. Routledge. 2006.

Phillips, Mary. “The Power of the First-Person Narrative: Ericka Huggins and the Black Panther Party.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3/4. 2015: 33-51.

Pope, Ricky J. , Shawn T. Flanigan. “Revolution for Breakfast: Intersections of Activism, Service, and Violence in the Black Panther Party’s Community Service Programs.” Social Justice Research (2013) 26:445–470

The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. Black Panther Party : Service to the People Programs. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

Arinna Hermida. “Mapping the Black Panther Party in Key Cities.” <accessed 6/20/2020>

An Oral History with Ericka Huggins, Interviews conducted by Fiona Thompson in 2007, Oral History Center University of California, The Bancroft Library.


[1] Ericka Huggins, Vanguard of the Revolution.

[2] Fred Hampton quote in Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, ( University of California Press, 2016), 177.

[3]Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian, “What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party — but Should,” in Dyan Watson Jesse Hagopian, Wayne Au, eds. Teaching for Black Lives (Rethinking Schools, 2018), 138 – 181.

[4] Huey P. Newton, Black Panther, ca. 1966-1969, Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Archives Identifier: 12101. <accessed 6/18/2020>

[5] Curtis Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party ( University of Arkansas Press, 2008),112.

[6] Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, (Penguin Classics, 2009), 127.

[7] October 1966 Black Panther Party Platform and Program

[8] Elaine Brown, Vanguard of the Revolution.

[9] Ericka Higgings interview with Jaimee A. Swift of Black Women Radicals, “Radical Commitments: The Revolutionary Vow of Ericka Huggins,, accessed June 19, 2020.

[10] Ericka Huggins,

[11] Interview with Safiya Bukhari, Interview conducted in New York City, September 27, 1992 Arm the Spirit , 1995.

[12] Bukhari.

[13] Laurie B. Green, “Saving Babies in Memphis: The Politics of Race, Health, and Hunger during the War on Poverty,” in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980, ed. Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 140, 146.

[14] Kathleen Cleaver, Vanguard of the Revolution.

[15] Unnamed BPP member quoted in “Revolution for Breakfast: Intersections of Activism, Service, and Violence,” 465.

1 Comment

Andrew Scott Rust · March 19, 2022 at 9:19 pm

Greetings, I’m grateful to have come across your research in my own. This seems to be a wonderful website/podcast series. Much respect for being self-published. Keep up the Good Work!
Thank you!

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