“There are millions of people who are living below subsistence”: Black Panther Party Founder Bobby Seale as Public Health Activist

By Wendy S. Salkin

Picture it: Tuesday, February 14, 2017. It is four o’clock and the Tsai Auditorium of the Center for Government and International Studies is packed to the gills, abuzz with energy. Harvard faculty, students, staff, and community members fill every seat, line the steps, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the back. They are turning would-be attendees away at the door. The occasion for such excitement is this: The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research here at Harvard hosted the event, “Bobby Seale in Conversation with Jim Sidanius.”

Jim Sidanius is the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in memory of William James and of African and African American Studies. His work spans broadly across both decades and areas of inquiry. He and his co-author Felicia Pratto are famously responsible for formulating social dominance theory, “a general model of the development and maintenance of group-based social hierarchy and social oppression.” He has also pioneered work in other areas of political psychology, including such research areas as “political ideology and cognitive functioning, the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.”

And Bobby Seale, as you may know, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). I had never before seen Bobby Seale speak and did not know what to expect. And, ultimately, I am pleased not to have watched any of his interviews in advance, as I was able to have the experience with fresh eyes. (It’s worth noting that many of his interviews and speeches are easily accessible on YouTube. It’s worth watching them, including his 2015 New York Times interview with R&B artist D’Angelo.) His energy and enthusiasm captivates his audience, as when, during his talk last week, he recited from the Declaration of Independence, and while so doing impersonated both John Wayne and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He recited this passage:

“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursu[ed] invariably…evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, [then it is the] right [of the people]…to [alter and change that] Government, and [] provide new Guards for their future security.”

For emphasis, he repeated “new Guards” at the end of this recitation. He then encouraged the audience to “make the money you can to learn to hitch your wagon to the human liberation struggle in one way, shape, fashion, form, or another.”

Among the aspects of his activism with the BPP that Seale emphasized during his talk last week was the work the Party did to develop and implement public health initiatives in several black American communities, including:

(1) The Free Breakfast for School Children Program

Set up by Seale and Huey P. Newton, the first meals were served in January 1969 at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California, and

[b]y the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were serving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day.

The breakfast program captured the attention of many, including then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who, on May 15, 1969, sent out a memo to FBI offices stating:

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.

The program became a target of local officials and was eventually dismantled. The federal government piloted a similar program, The School Breakfast Program, starting in 1966 and made the program permanent in 1975.

(2) Community health clinics across the country

The BPP was also responsible for the development of healthcare clinics across the United States. In the February 23, 2016 article, “The Black Panther Party Stands for Health,” the Community Health news site of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University recounts:

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.

Among the services offered at these clinics were screenings for sickle-cell anemia.

(3) Mission

In addition, in March 1972, the Party formally amended its Ten Point Program “to make health an explicit part of its mission.” The amended Program included the following statement on healthcare:

6. We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people. We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.

* * *

As we face the complexities and confusions of the current American political situation, both generally and specifically with respect to healthcare availability and allocation, it can be useful to remember that advocacy for and activism around public health has historically played an important role in shaping health law and health policy in the United States. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear Bobby Seale speak last week and to have been reminded of that.

For further information on the Black Panther Party and its healthcare activism, consider reading:

  1. 8 Black Panther Party Programs That Were More Empowering Than Federal Government Programs” by Nick Chiles
  2. 27 Important Facts Everyone Should Know About the Black Panthers” by Lilly Workneh and Taryn Finley
  3. Beyond Berets: The Black Panthers as Health Activists” by Dr. Mary T. Bassett
  4. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
  5. The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution by Stanley Nelson
  6. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination by Alondra Nelson

3 thoughts to ““There are millions of people who are living below subsistence”: Black Panther Party Founder Bobby Seale as Public Health Activist”

  1. There are several posts from the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog, Black Perspectives, that may interest you and readers of your post, the latest of which is by Ashley Farmer: The Black Freedom Struggle, Healthcare Activism, and the Affordable Care Act (I would provide links by experience tells me my comment will go to some spam file or not be published). Also, those wanting to learn more about the Black Panther Party programs, in addition to the sources you cited, can look at my Academia page for a bibliography on the Panthers. Finally, I have a fairly comprehensive bibliography (in English, books only) relevant to the fact that “advocacy for and activism around public health has historically played an important role in shaping health law and health policy in the United States,” titled “Health: Law, Ethics, and Social Justice,” also available on my Academia page. Should anyone want the exact links of or pdf documents for the latter two compilations they can e-mail me: patrickseamus”at”hotmail.com

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