Forty-five years ago, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a programme for free school breakfasts in a church in Oakland, California. By 1970, the following year, similar projects were being run by local chapters of the BPP across the United States, feeding thousands of school-age children a breakfast which included orange juice, eggs, bacon, toast, and grits.
These breakfast clubs were only one manifestation of the Panthers’ extensive social welfare programmes, which ranged from the provision of healthcare and legal aid, to anti-drugs projects. As Alondra Nelson has argued, these projects have gone largely unremembered
due to a failure of our collective memory. We tend to remember the Black Panther Party through iconography – the symbol of the black panther borrowed from civil rights activists in Alabama and other idiosyncratic political art; the graphic identity the organization established with its newspaper, The Black Panther; and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture.
However, the BPP’s ‘survival programmes’ were integral to its wider political aims.
The first group to take the name ‘Black Panther’ was founded in Alabama in 1965, partly by the civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. This all-black group inspired the formation of similar organisations elsewhere, and particularly in Harlem, where young African-Americans were influenced by Carmichael’s waning enthusiasm for the civil rights movement’s embrace of non-violent protest, and his formulation of a ‘Black Power’ political programme.
The most influential of these Black Panther groups was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Armed with rifles and other weapons, the initial focus of the Oakland chapter was on defending the local African-American community against the police department. However, and despite fierce and occasionally debilitating infighting within the movement, the BPP soon developed a radical vision for the political, social, and economic upliftment of African Americans.
The BPP’s Ten-Point Programme established a revolutionary agenda which, among others things, demanded equality before the law, an end to police brutality, and social rights: housing, employment, education, and ‘bread’. Creating what was, effectively, a welfare system for poor and disenfranchised African-Americans was the logical outcome of this programme. Father Earl Neil, at whose church the breakfast project was founded, remembered:
the party was focused on developing further points of their ten- point programme, and one of the things that Bobby [Seale] and Huey [Newton] used to ruminate about and discuss, is that when they went to school and then they noticed a lot of the children go to school hungry, so there was the idea of starting a breakfast programme. … We started out with 11 youngsters, and by the end of the week it was up to around 140. We didn’t need to advertise, we just had to say ‘Do you want a free breakfast?’ Of course the word spread.
Although the US Department of Agriculture had piloted a free breakfasts programme in 1966, its reach was fairly limited. Because the BPP’s project was run by individual chapters of the Party – and it was soon compulsory for each branch of the BPP to have its own breakfast programme – it was able to reach the very poorest African-American children, particularly in urban areas. The success of the programme soon drew the attention of the FBI, which labelled both free breakfasts and the BPP ‘communists’. In 1969 an FBI memo argued:
You state that the bureau should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP ‘Breakfast for Children Programme.’ … You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the program for humanitarian reasons. This program was formed by the BPP … to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.
Although police and FBI agents attempted to disrupt this and other survival programmes – even assassinating Fred Hampton, one of the BPP’s key organisers in Chicago – these efforts served only to draw support to the Free Breakfast Programme. Much to the chagrin of the FBI, one imagines, in 1975 Congress rolled out a fully funded, nation wide free breakfast programme, modelled, to some extent, on the one pioneered by the Panthers.
I am writing this shortly after South Africa’s Human Rights Day, held annually to recommit the country to upholding citizens’ human rights, and also to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. In a particularly ugly juxtapositioning, on the day before Human Rights Day, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, announced the findings of her investigation into renovations done to President Zuma’s private homestead in the rural KwaZulu-Natal village of Nkandla. She found, to no-one’s surprise, that millions of public funds were spent on upgrading his home – so much, in fact, that she argued that no single individual would ever be able to pay back that amount of money to the state.
Madonsela drew attention to the fact that spending on several of the additions to Zuma’s home – including a swimming pool, helicopter pads, amphitheatre, cattle kraal, and clinic – was justified on the grounds that these amenities would be to the benefit of the impoverished community in Nkandla. However:
Accessing the clinic would mean entering Zuma’s homestead, either by scaling the security fence or through a police checkpoint. The swimming pool has never been used by the local residents. The clinic remains without stock….
When the Mail and Guardian first reported on the development of the Nkandla homestead it added that a vegetable garden had been planted to ensure the ‘food security’ of the compound. In a country where around one fifth of all children have stunted growth because of poor nutrition, fencing off a vegetable garden seems particularly callous.
It is certainly true that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Programme was ideologically driven (and that its roll-out and operation reflected the ingrained misogyny in the BPP (breakfast programmes were run mainly by women)), but it was part of a vision for remaking American society that recognised that the fight for civil rights had to be accompanied by demands for social rights. In other words, desegregating schools had to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all children had access to the resources, like breakfast and books and transport, which would allow them to participate fully in education.
David J. Garrow, ‘Picking up the Books: The New Historiography on the Black Panther Party,’ Reviews in American History, vol. 35, no. 4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 650-670.
Nik Heynen, ‘Bending the Bars of Empire from Every Ghetto for Survival: The Black Panther Party’s Radical Antihunger Politics of Social Reproduction and Scale,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 99, no. 2 (2009), pp. 406-422.
Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
Yohuru Williams, ‘“Some abstract thing called freedom”: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3, Black Power (Jul. 2008), pp. 16-21.
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