The Black Panther Party Stands for Health

Remembered for Their Revolutionary Rhetoric, the Black Panthers Also Organized Community Health Clinics Across the Country

February 23, 2016

In her recent Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé, flanked by dancers in black leather and berets, paid tribute to the Black Panther Party, raising the ire of conservatives who associate the Panthers with inflammatory actions and anti-police sentiment.

Founded 50 years ago in Oakland, California, the Black Panthers are remembered for their revolutionary rhetoric. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called them “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Less well known is the group’s history of health activism and early understanding of the link between economic disparities and poor health. As part of a strategy of organizing social services in underserved communities, the Panthers operated more than a dozen clinics across the country and screened thousands for sickle cell anemia.

“It’s important to remember there was a time when we really fought as a people to make our communities as strong as possible,” says Robert Fullilove, professor of Sociomedical Sciences. “We assumed that we would have to do that ourselves. We weren’t going to wait for someone to come in and do it for us.”

In 1964 and 1965, Fullilove, then a student at Colgate University, joined Mississippi Freedom Summer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), registering voters and promoting integration in Mississippi and Louisiana. After graduating in 1966, he remained with SNCC as a community organizer in Newark, New Jersey, and soon found the situation in the North was very different. “People in Newark didn’t care about Civil Rights,” he remembers. “For them, social services were what mattered. What worked in the South did not work in the North.”

By contrast, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as they first called themselves, was organizing around the needs of inner-city blacks, starting with protection from police brutality. According to Alondra Nelson, Columbia University Dean of Social Science and author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, the group’s mission soon expanded from armed patrols to “police the police” to include what could be understood as medical self-defense.

Actualizing the self-determinist philosophy of the Black Power era, the Panthers organized a dozen or more “survival programs.” Most prominent of these was the Free Breakfast for Children program, which fed more than 20,000 children every week at a time when there weren’t any government programs to do the same. The Panthers also opened a school and offered community classes in economics, first aid, and self defense; provided drug and alcohol rehabilitation; gave away groceries and clothing; and escorted seniors to medical appointments.

In April 1970, Panther Chairman Bobby Seale directed all chapters to open healthcare clinics. At its peak, there were clinics in 13 cities where volunteers dispensed basic medical care as well as housing assistance and legal aid. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Panthers even ran an ambulance service. Clinics in Chicago and Los Angeles were established with the help of former members of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which unlike the Panthers broad social service platform, was narrowly focused on the medical needs of local communities.

 “The Black Panther Party was acutely aware of health disparities,” says Fullilove. “The language of health disparities did not exist back then, but everyone knew it. What can be done to take care of our kids, to find jobs, to protect ourselves from the police? These issues were at the core of community concerns. Responding to them, made the Panthers very popular.”

In her book, Nelson writes that the Black Panthers screened thousands for sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disease predominant in persons of African descent. They were also instrumental in raising awareness around the condition, most notably during a 1972 appearance by Party leaders on an episode of the “Mike Douglas Show,” guest hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Around the same time, the Black Panthers became involved with educational outreach and protests to shield communities of color from exploitative research—even before revelations around the Tuskegee syphilis experiment came to light. The group successfully blocked the creation of a UCLA Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, which had among its proposals an experimental brain surgery purported to remedy aggression.

In 1972, the Panthers’ Ten Point Program was formally amended to make health an explicit part of its mission. The new platform called on the government to “provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival.” At the same time, the Panthers called on health education and research programs to “give black people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.” 

After years of infighting and infiltration from the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, by the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party was in steep decline. Nevertheless, the group’s legacy can be credited with programs from the federal School Breakfast Program and campaigns for environmental justice to community-based healthcare and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Too often black history is limited to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama, and a linear idea of progress in which things always get better, says Fullilove. “But it’s so much more complicated than that. In planning for the future around questions like how communities can mobilize to meet their needs, we need to be sensitive to learn from what was done in the past.”

On February 25, join Dr. Fullilove as he recounts his Freedom Summer ’64 experience and reflects on this pivotal moment in history.