The
Black Panther Party is where BLACK MEN are. I know every black woman has to
feel proud of black men who finally decided to announce to the world that they
were putting an end to police brutality and black genocide… Become members of
the Black Panther Party for Self Defence, Sisters, ‘we got a good thing
going.'” – Barbara Arthur ( Black Against Empire, p.96)

The
ideology of black masculinity and women’s roles at the beginning of the party’s
establishment was shared by many, and is illustrated in the quotation during a
recruitment pitch aimed at women. Barbara Arthur emphasised the appeal of an organisation
led by and consisting of strong black men. This initial ideology of the party continued
to affect all men and women who subsequently joined the party.

The
Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in
Oakland, California in October, 1966. The Panthers were established at a time
of revolution, with movements such as the Women’s Liberation Movement being in
full affect, independence, with over 50 countries around the world gaining
independence in the decade before the founding of the BPP, and conflict, with
people being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. The BPP existed for 16 years and
its path was marked by heated revolutionary rhetoric, social service programmes,
clashes with the police, internal conflicts and international diplomacy. The
BPP was originally formed to end police brutality and the murder of black
people in Oakland, California.  The
Panthers also adopted a ten point programme demanding  community control of police, education,
politics and economics for the black community which attracted thousands of
recruits as it expanded beyond Oakland to sixty-one cities across the United
States.

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From
the outset, the BPP’s core practice was its armed citizens patrol of the
Oakland Police Department district. In May 1967 the Panthers carried out an
armed demonstration in Sacramento to protest the passing of the Mulford Act,
which would outlaw the carrying of loaded firearms in public. Several Panthers
were arrested in the Sacramento protest and sentenced to jail terms. Public
attention started to focus on the Panthers soon after this. Even though these
actions attracted recruits to the organisation, they severely hindered the
party’s future ideological choices as the government saw the BPP as an armed
threat to its authority. Constant intense government pressure forced the party
to go on the defensive and it became clear to some of the Panther leaders by
1969 that an armed revolution in the United States was not likely and that
reforms within the Party’s practices were necessary.

The
Party sought meaningful activities for members that would serve the community,
strengthen the Party, improve its image in the public relations battle with the
state and a way to spread the Panthers message. The BPP community programmes
began in 1969 under the leadership of Bobby Seale, one of the most prominent
being the ‘Free Breakfast For Children Programme’. This was launched at Father
Earl A. Neil’s St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in west Oakland in late January
1969. The first day the programme opened it served 11 children and by the end
of the week was serving 135 children daily. 
By April the party reported feeding more than twelve hundred children
per day at nine branches in Oakland, San Francisco and Vallejo in California;
in Chicago; and in Des Moines, Iowa. ” The Free Breakfast for School Children
is about to cover the country and be initiated in every Chapter and Branch of
the Black Panther Party… Our children need a nourishing breakfast every morning
so they can learn.” – ‘The Black Panther’, April 1969. (Survival Pending
Revolution, p.27). Breakfast Programmes became mandatory for all branches
throughout the country. They adopted a common routine, members would arrive
early to prepare the food before the children would come to eat and then head
off to school. Members would also transport some of the children from their
homes to the programme and then to school. While the children ate, members
taught them liberation lessons consisting of Party messages and black history. The
FBI worried that the programme would be used to teach children to hate police
and to spread anti-white propaganda. The government began to pay close
attention to churches which allowed the BPP to use their facilities, the FBI
also sent anonymous letters to public officials and people they thought could
sway public opinion against party efforts to start or maintain community
programmes. Another tactic was to spread rumours, the Panthers were accused of
endorsing riots or poisoning food used in the breakfast programme. The
breakfast programme continued to flourish despite these obstacles and became
the Party’s most successful and popular community activity. The success of the
Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Programme led the Party to start a range
of other community programmes including free health clinics, liberation
schools, the Free Food Distribution Programme, the Free Clothing Programme and
free housing cooperatives.

As
well as using survival programmes to change its public image the BPP also
started to have many more women in leadership roles as the reputations of many
of the male leaders had been severely damaged by political killings and run ins
with police forces. The decision to turn away from arms to community service
aided women’s rise to prominence within the Party. They kept the community
programmes alive and did most of the day to day social labour needed to keep
the chapters open. The Party recruited women to work in programmes such as the
Free Breakfast for Children Programme, reflecting traditional gender norms the
‘The Black Panther’ endorsed these programmes as primarily women’s initiatives.
 

In
its early years, especially before 1968 and the massive growth in the party’s
membership, the organisation was male centred and male dominated. The BPP was
heavily influenced by The Nation Of Islam, who argued that woman should be
“mothers of the nation” and be inferior to men in all areas other than child
rearing. Modesty, thrift and service were to be the main concern for female
members and the Party encouraged deference to men in general and strict
obedience to husbands. The
roles of women controlling the community programmes and men holding positions
of power became core beliefs of the party, as the Party’s continuing
masculinism and the society’s ingrained gender norms undercut women’s serious
battles against sexism within the Party. As more and more women began to
join the Party and their participation became increasingly important to the
running of the Party, the question of gender equality was still prominent and there
was no process in place to root out sexism and misogyny.

 Despite the Panthers’ anti sexist ideals and
the efforts of many Panther men and women to confront this problem, it still
persisted. However the community service programmes brought massive amounts of
men and women alike into the Party and actively engaged a large number of
Panthers of both genders. While women often ran many of the Free Breakfast
Programmes, male participation in the programmes was widespread. This participance highlighted the
importance of family, children and gender issues for the BPP as well as for
black communities and the larger society to many of the Panther men.

The
role of women within the Party changed in 1969 when Erika Huggins, Maude
Francis, Jeannie Wilson, Francis Carter, Rose Smith, Loretta Luckes, Peggy Hudgins
and 7 men, including Bobby Seale, were arrested and charged with murdering a
fellow Panther, Alex Rackley, who was suspected of being a police informer. This
group became known as the New Haven 14. These women were the first female
political prisoners of the BPP, and their arrests were instrumental in changing
Party’s thinking on gender roles. Francis Carter, Rose Smith and Maude Francis
were all pregnant at the time of the arrests, and two of the women gave birth
while in detention. Female Panthers argued that if they were risking their
lives and getting arrested like their fellow male Party members they deserved
to have the same responsibilities and leadership roles within the Party. Eldridge
Cleaver, who was one of the most influential leaders of the BPP, had an
especially noteworthy shift in opinion. In 1969, ‘The Black Panther’ published
a long letter from Eldridge Cleaver to Erika Huggins, where he praised the
courage and commitment of Panther Women. In the letter he called on all men to
drop all manifestations of chauvinist behaviour and regard women as equal
partners in the struggle saying “We must too recognise that a woman can be just
as revolutionary as a man and that she has an equal stature, along with men,
and that we cannot prejudice her in any manner, that we cannot relegate her to
an inferior position.” (Black Against Empire, p.305).

Given
that the BPP’s main concerns were improving the rights of black citizens,
issues of gender often took a backseat. Many women within the Party believed
that you were “betraying brothers if you criticised what was going on with
sisters in a general way.” (Black Against Empire, p.308). This belief was
expressed by Erika Huggins saying “In those days we fought to get rid of
racism so we could stay alive. We didn’t even think about sexism except when it
reared its head.” (Black Against Empire, p.308). Despite
these difficulties, many young women probably would have never have had the
opportunity to exercise any political opinion, power or responsibility at all
if it had not been for the Panthers, especially so early in their lives.

The
success’ of women in the Party should not be overlooked because male chauvinism
was not completely defeated, and the Panthers also deserve credit for the areas
in which they did make progress. The role of women toward the end of the
Party’s existence was a far cry from the role they were being presented with by
Barbara Arthur in the recruitment pitch at the time of the Party’s
establishment. Women achieved positions of trust and responsibility because
they fought for them and demanded respect while highlighting contradictions
between rhetoric and practice.  

1.   
Review of the research procesS

I
chose to research the Black Panther Party as I’m hugely interested in the black
rights movement and the era in which the Panthers existed. I wanted to learn
more about what organisations existed and what women’s roles were within these
organisations. I wanted to research the Black Panthers specifically after
seeing a documentary on Netflix about the Party. I then further researched the
Panthers and through this I found that many people only saw the Panthers as an armed
violent group, and that many of the survival programmes they ran went unnoticed.
I wanted to find out more about these programmes and the role they played in the
Party’s existence. I found it difficult to find sources that were unbiased as
most of the research that has emerged since the Party was dissolved in 1982 was
written by leaders and former members. What I also found difficult was as the
Panthers were a primarily American organisation there were not sources in my
local library about them so I ordered my sources from American universities. Watching
the documentary really helped put everything into context and break down each
area of the Party. The two books were very insightful as they went into much
greater detail about the Party and gave me a better understanding of the
organisation overall. This project has taught me skills such a note taking, editing,
and being objective which is difficult to do with a project of this nature. I
believe I’ve successfully achieved the aims I set myself when beginning my
research.

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