By Marc Mascarenhas-Swan
First day back at school, and I couldn’t help but think of, and thank, the Black Panthers, when my 8 year old daughter went to go and collect the free breakfast for her class from the cafeteria. She handed out, Whole Grain Banana Bread, Low Fat Milk, and Gala Apples, pretty simple stuff really. What I love even more than the healthy food they serve, is that all the kids are offered some; not just the kids from families that qualify for free or subsidized meals, because singling out and stigmatizing kids for needing support just isn’t cool. But like the 8 hour work day, weekends, and free education, things like free breakfast in schools don’t just happen.
You can’t work for justice on an empty stomach
44 years ago, in January 1969, the Black Panther’s launched their Free Breakfast Program for children. The program rapidly expanded from feeding a handful of kids in an Oakland church, to serving over 10,000 a day before they went to school. It spoke volumes about both the deep need in the black community, and the reach and capacity of the party nationally.
“As the Party’s community survival programs entered a planning stage that year, we began planning the Free Breakfast for School Children Program. Mrs. 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
It was the first nationally organized breakfast program in the United States, either in the public or private sector”
Father Earl A. Neill – Co-organizer of the first Black Panther Breakfast Program
It marked not only the first program of its kind in the US, but indicated a sharp shift in the political direction of the Black Panther Party. For its first few years the Party had been focused on armed self defense, and patrolling the police. The shift toward survival programs was caused by multiple factors. The arrest and death of party militants, the inadequacy of community based services in their neighborhoods, and seeing the need to connect more deeply and practically with the community. Not without internal struggle , the Black Panther Party moved, in the words of scholar Alondra Nelson, “From Self Defense to Self Determination”.
“The food component of the BPP was a big part of our organizing, this included our free breakfast program.. Because one thing you can guarantee in an oppressed community, is that you’re going to find hunger. The fact the United States has more food than we need, and folks are still going hungry is a shame, it was a shame then, and it’s a shame now.”
Melvin Dickson –Organizer for free meals program for the Black Panther Party in East Oakland
The work became so effective, it drew the ire of the director of the FBI:
“The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the BPP (Black Panther Party) among naive individuals .. . And, what is more distressing, 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. ”
J Edgar Hoover, May 15, 1969
As a consequence of the FBI’s concerns, public authorities clamped down on the programs, and they made an effort to control them by requiring filing with authorities, and compliance with various state regulations. This was often beyond the modest means of the party members running the programs, or counter to the spirit and ideals of the work.
All these programs ended with the demise of the BPP, the same conditions of harassment and infiltration that tore the Panthers apart, also prevented their social programs from being sustained. As their programs folded, some ideas, like the Breakfast program were taken up by the state and institutionalized.
“There was an effort to curb their social programs by trying to force them to get various state licenses, which went against what they were trying to do which was create this organic thing. It created a lot of red tape. Their breakfast program became the Head Start program. Their ideas were taken up by the state and institutionalized.”
Alondra Nelson – Author Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination.
So in 1975 the National School Breakfast program was launched, serving free or reduced priced breakfasts to kids in need every school day. Can we argue that this was a direct result of the Black Panthers work, it’s hard to say? But it is clear that the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program scared and embarrassed the state, and highlighted the gross and endemic racialized inequalities inherent in U.S. society.
The Panthers focused their attention on the construction of institutions that provided for the communites needs. Because they knew the state response would be inadequate or non-existent, because it was an arena to politicize their community, and because they were interested in the development of a new society.
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors. If they have a need we will serve their needs and attempt to get them to understand the true reasons why they are in need in such an incredibly rich land.”
Huey Newton – To Die for the People (Book of essays)
The path toward fundamental, positive societal transformation is not a straight one. Full of obstacles, turns and steep hills. Co-optation doesn’t have to mean that we are losing, on the contrary it can mean that we are winning. What is crucial is that we remember who fought the battles, and reclaim our history by telling our children.
In the face of intertwined economic and ecological catastrophes, learning from and applying the lessons of those who built politicized, community controlled institutions of self reliance, and furthermore through them contested for power, may be our best hope for survival.