A few years ago, Ed came home one day with a book called “Black Against Empire,” a story of The Black Panther Party, the work they did for their community, and the struggle to overcome the intersectional challenges it dealt with within its ranks. I can appreciate the reality that no organization will be perfect, but that only makes it easier to both appreciate the headway the Panthers made, while also learning from their pitfalls.
I make a lot of noise for what the Panthers inadvertently did for gun control in California… but do people know what else the Panthers contributed to public policy?
Under the leadership of Bobby Seale, a community organizer with experience working in Oakland’s government poverty program, the Black Panther Party created its Free Breakfast for Children Program in January of 1969 as one component of the Party’s many “survival programs” they were creating. The St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in West Oakland hosted the program, led by Father Earl A. Neil and coordinated by Parishoner Ruth Beckford-Smith, which allowed the church to serve as a place where young children could come to not only eat, but be mentored and, yes, learn that “power in a community begins with people who care.”
“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[source]
Only a couple of months later, the second Free Breakfast for Children Program opened at Sacred Heart Church in San Francisco and, before long, almost ten facilities were feeding 1,200 children of every cultural background from Northern California to Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa.
As leaders were constantly swapped in and out of the Party, so went Bobby Seale. When he left to do a prison bid in August ’69, David Hilliard took control and made the program his top priority, resulting in 23 cities picking up the program from Seattle to NYC by the end of November that same year. During the year that followed, the Party developed free health clinics, a Free Food Distribution Program, Free Shoe Program, Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation, free housing co-ops, Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program, legal aid, a Senior Escorts Program, and a Free Ambulance Program among others… but that breakfast program remained as the key program the party was known for.
From Black Against Empire:
The Free Breakfast for Children Programs adopted a rigorous common routine. Members had to be at the sites early in the morning, in time to prepare the food and be ready for the arriving children before they ate and then headed off to school. Transporting some of the children from home to the site and then to school was another vital yet often trying logistical job. While the children ate their meal, members taught them liberation lessons consisting of Party messages and black history. Miriam Ma’am-Ka-Re Monges recalled that in the breakfast program at the Ralph Avenue Community Center in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, “Party Members and students cooked and served large pots of grits and eggs. We cajoled supermarkets for donations and we fed hundreds of children. Most importantly, we also nourished their minds with Black History lessons as they ate their meals. Sometimes we fed parents, too.”
Bloom, Joshua, et al. Black Against Empire. University of California Press, 2013. Pp. 184-185
The Party was smart about their operations. In order to convince potential donors, they’d need press coverage to highlight not only the work they do, but the potential positive media coverage businesses could get from giving to the Party. Local supermarkets and other businesses serving the Panthers’ communities often gave, as did sympathetic white members of nearby communities who believed the Panthers were doing important work.
That sympathy might be what set the ground work for Nixon’s attempts to infiltrate and destroy the Party.What REALLY made Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover target The Black Panther Party? They were feeding kids. Click To Tweet
What’s this got to do with former President Richard Nixon? Tricky Dick and his advisers saw the Panther Party as a threat. With one hand, he was utilizing the FBI to find ways to either catch the Party members and leaders in illicit activities, or find a way to pin charges on them; with the other hand, he was deconstructing what he saw as programs that appealed to the public and trying to find ways to incorporate them into American policy. Anything they could do to “cut the head off the dragon.”
“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 [source]
The Party genuinely believed children who went hungry were children who could not learn, and saw their opening in the gaping hole the US government left behind with faulty poverty policy, but that wouldn’t last long. Nixon, as did many others in that era, feared the spread of Communism, and saw the Free Breakfast Program as a contributor to that spread. The Panther Party used terms like “comrade” often, and earned much of its early money selling Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, filled with quotations from Communist China’s leader, at 300% profit.
At the same time the Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program was flourishing, Nixon had two problems rear their ugly heads at the same time: dealing with what his administration saw as an insurgency of armed and learned oppressed communities, and the desire to expand agriculture in the US. Believing that developing and maintaining a stable food supply was a solid way to secure votes for the Republican Party, Nixon urged the Secretary of Agriculture at the time, known racist Earl “Get Big or Get Out” Butz, to find ways to grow the farming industry.
Butz is essentially responsible for the proliferation of corn growth in the US today. Whereas a prior Secretary of Agriculture paid farmers to not grow corn, Butz stripped that, forcing farmers to grow it in abundance in order to break even, since flooding the market with corn would make food more plentiful, yes, but also drive down the cost. Since the overarching goal was to increase access to food on a national level, in an attempt to earn the support of people who were intrigued by the work the Panthers did, this was what Butz wanted.
The perpetuation of the Free Breakfast for Children Program became an increasingly large problem for not only the White House, but local police precincts, too. The Black Panthers developed a reputation for being ‘the ones who cared about whether the kids ate.’ Why would the police be messing with them? When George McGovern, the US Senator who inadvertently took on the meat industry once, was asked whether the Panthers had fed more hungry children than the entire state of California, his answer was simple. “Probably.” Watching the FBI and local police squads try to dismiss the Panthers’ work as “a front for indoctrinating children with Panther propaganda,” the public was left to choose: side with the people who are trying to separate us from the organization that’s feeding us, or side with the people who care about the welfare of our children.
From Black Against Empire:
Police and federal agents regularly harassed and intimidated program participants, supporters, and Party workers and sought to scare away donors and organizations that housed the programs, like churches and community centers. Safiya A. Bukhari discovered that participation in one of the Harlem free breakfast programs fell off after the police spread a false rumor among black parents that the children were being fed “poisoned food.” A police disinformation campaign in Richmond, California, suggested that the Party used the Free Breakfast for Children Program to spread racism and to foment school riots. Student participation began to decline, forcing local Panther leaders to combat the official disinformation.
Bloom, Joshua, et al. Black Against Empire. University of California Press, 2013. p. 186
While J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was doing every shady, sneaky thing it could to target the Panthers and other civil rights leaders—and, apparently, nothing was out of bounds for these scumbags—Butz was trying to figure out ways to put all this extra corn, soy, and wheat to use. He certainly created a farming bubble, but how else could he create opportunities for farmers to put their yields to use? Enter, a tiny pilot program that served as an aside to the National School Lunch Program in 1966, intended to only service children in poor communities. But what communities, you ask, since they clearly weren’t in any of the cities—major US cities—where the Panthers’ programs were and, even if they were, the 500,000 children they fed nation-wide wouldn’t encompass the countless families combating poverty in these cities.
Here’s an idea: let’s create a program where schools are paid by the meal to serve children free breakfast. This way, farmers get paid to put their corn to use and can grow their farms in accordance with the “get big or get out” edict, schools can feed their kids, points can be scored for the Republican party, and then, ideally, there’d be no need for the Panthers to continue this program or for people to believe Communism is the only way to ensure an end to hunger, right?
In 1975, the Republican President solidified “free breakfast for children” as a permanent fixture in policy, making it the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture. Two birds, one stone.
There’s a lesson to be learned, here.
It should be noted that the poor who were served and protected by the Panthers—because they for damn sure weren’t protected or served by the police in those communities—were an unimportant blip on the then-President’s radar until it seemed as though they could be galvanized to make serious impact. These were people who, ultimately, were political pawns. There was no genuine care or concern for their well-being on behalf of the politicians then, and there isn’t now. It becomes a weird cycle, too—people are poor and become disenchanted with the system and, because they’re not voting, the politicians don’t bother feigning concern about what impacts them the most, which only contributes to further disenfranchising the poor. The unfortunate side of that cycle, however, is the fact that while there are people who can vote who don’t, there are people who can’t vote but would, and because politicians don’t bother to go to them where they are, those people are left out in the cold, too.
In a memo addressed to the FBI special agent in San Francisco, 1969:
You state that the Bureau under [COINTELPRO] should not attack programs of community interest such as the [Free Breakfast for Children Program]. You state that this is because many prominent “humanitarians,” both black and white, are interested in the program as well as churches which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point […] You must recognize that one of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the [Party] is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks.” —J. Edgar Hoover, 1969
Bloom, Joshua, et al. Black Against Empire. University of California Press, 2013. p. 211
It cannot be stressed enough—the FBI wasn’t afraid of the Panthers’ gun-toting or “murder” or their likeness to “terrorism”—they were afraid of what would happen if they fed the poor.
“If you read the FBI files you will see that even Mr. J. Edgar Hoover himself had to say that it was not the guns that were the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America; it was not the guns, it was the Free Children’s Breakfast Program that was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America. Grits. Now why was it the Free Children’s Breakfast Program? It […] engendered a certain following on the Black community’s part, a certain respect on the Black community’s part. I mean, nobody can argue with free grits. So Hoover saw it as a kind of, he saw the Free Children’s Breakfast Program as a kind of, what’s the word he used? He said it was a kind of, look in the file, you’ll see, he said it was a kind of infiltration. That’s ridiculous isn’t it? Infiltration? How are Black people, who are born and raised in the Black community, who live and work in the Black community, going to infiltrate their own Black community? If anybody’s infiltrating I think its J. Edgar Hoover.” —Roger Guenveur Smith, Hoover and the F.B.I.
The government was afraid of them currying favor with the public, afraid of the spread of ideals of Communism, afraid of an “insurgency” being built within the country that could be taken advantage of by the opposing political party. Taking down the Black Panther Party without replacing the Breakfast Program would only result in even more chapters of the Party resurfacing, because the people needed food, and were willing to go where necessary to get it. This was chess, not checkers, and the poor—and their needs—were mere pawns.
The Panther Party, much like any small collective that gains power increasingly quickly, ultimately succumbed to the egos and demons of its leaders, often young men suffering from both an invincibility complex and an obsessive devotion to The Cause. Efforts to evolve and re-evaluate their understanding of revolutionary thought—like, for example, women’s rights—came, unfortunately, too late. The impact of their most powerful programs, however, is lasting.
The Panthers taught Nixon and his administration the importance of feeding the people, and what happens when they’re left neglected. Finding a valuable way to fold feeding children into public policy in a way that provides benefits to American farmers meant that there will always be someone to advocate for feeding children. Finding a way to show the public you’re tending to the needs of underprivileged children can impact the anti-government and, by extension, anti-American principles people can adopt when they’re left feeling neglected and their children are left starving, feeling disenfranchised.What REALLY made Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover target The Black Panthers? They were feeding kids. Click To Tweet
When you take a look around today, what do you see? Disenfranchised people, hungry for someone to represent their best interests instead of feeling like pawns in a larger game, eager to find a community to help them understand what’s wrong and take steps towards making it right. Maybe it’s time to revisit that history—perhaps we all could learn a lesson or two, here.
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