Women of the Black Panther Party

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This mural honoring women of the Black Panther Party is a part of the West Oakland Mural Project and sits on the corner of Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way in Oakland, California. The public art installation sits on the side of activist Jilchristina Vest’s house to honor the #SayHerName Movement with artwork by James Shields.

Recently, Warner Bros., via HBO Max, released Judas and the Black Messiah. This film chronicles the rise and fall of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1960s, and the deceptive web that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) weaved within the Black Power Movement to discredit rising Black leaders. They feared a Black Messiah would rise and threaten the American political structure. 

 

Black Power Rising

In 1966, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, travelled to Mississippi to march, alongside Martin Luther King and others, to finish the March Against Fear started by James Meredith. When they made it to Greenwood, Carmichael gave a speech where he infamously and passionately shouted out “Black Power”, eventually galvanizing generations of Black people to fight for their rights in solidarity and self-determination.   

Out of this call for Black Power mobilization, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) began. In California’s Bay Area – Oakland to be exact – 24-year-old Huey P. Newton and 30-year-old Bobby Seale thought of a masterplan, specifically a ten-point program, to acquire more freedom for and enrich the Black community. Some highlights include: 

“To those poor souls who don’t know Black history, the beliefs and desires of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense may seem unreasonable. To Black people, the ten points covered are absolutely essential to survival. We have listened to the riot producing words ‘these things take time’ for 400 years. The Black Panther Party knows what Black people want and need. Black unity and self-defense will make these demands a reality.

What We Want

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.

2. We want full employment for our people.

3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black community.

4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter [of] human beings.

5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.

6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.

8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails.

9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black communities. As defined by the constitution of the United States.

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.”

The Self-Defense portion of BPP saw the actualization of armed Black men and women, equipping themselves to fight against police brutality and killings of innocent Black people. In a short period of time, the BPP organized over 45 chapters across the United States with over 5,000 organizers helping to provide services for the community. 

Because of their uncompromising demeanor and actions, they were targeted by police and the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for decades, described them as the “number one threat to the security of the United States.” The latter carried out many plots against BPP – ranging from harassment to espionage to downright murdering BPP leaders – which was later discovered after the group, Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, illegally seized documents from the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiatives. 

When thinking of messianic movements throughout history, the role of women has always played an integral part. For example, during Jesus’ time, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus’ resurrection and the first to tell of the Good News. Similarly, women were an integral part of the BPP movement. Here are a few unsung heroines from that time:

Ericka Huggins

For fifteen years – the longest duration of time in Black Panther Party history – Ericka Huggins served as its leader. In 1968, at the age of 18, she took the helm of the Los Angeles chapter of the BPP alongside her husband, John Huggins. The next year – three months after the birth of their daughter – her husband was killed in a shootout with the US Organization, which was a Black nationalist group founded by Hakim Jamal and Ron Karenga, who is also the founder of Kwanzaa. The shooter, Claude “Chuchessa” Hubert, was never caught, but brothers Lary Watani” and George Stiner turned themselves in and took the blame for the bloodshed. The release of COINTELPRO documents revealed that the FBI was responsible for heightening tensions between the two groups. They sent falsified documents with death threats and humiliating literature to one group allegedly from the other and vice versa. 

When Ericka Huggins buried her husband in his home in New Haven, Connecticut, she was asked to start a BPP chapter there. With help from Bobby Seale, Huggins laid the groundwork for grassroots organizing in New Haven until the two were charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy after members of the group tortured and murdered a suspected informant – Alex Rackley. Although her voice on the recording of Rackley’s interrogation was used against her in court, Huggins and Seale were acquitted after two years in solitary confinement while Warren Kimbro and George Sams, Jr. were convicted of murder and Lonnie McLucas was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. 

While speaking at a Bioneers Conference in 2016, Huggins said, “Did you know that we had 65 community survival programs? You probably didn’t. What you know is what you saw and what was fed to you. Young Black men in Black leather jackets with guns. I am not that. And the people I served with are not just that. And we created with our breakfast for children program for the federal government to create the National Free Breakfast and Lunch Program.”

Kathleen Cleaver

In 1967, Denzil Dowell, an unarmed young man, was shot in the back six to ten times by the police in North Richmond, California. This was one of the police brutality cases that mobilized the BPP to fight against inhumane treatment and innocent killings of Black men from at the hands of law enforcement. In the first ever issue of the BPP newspaper, the headline read, “Why was Denzil Dowell killed?” As the BPP began to arm themselves, thanks to the open carry laws in California, the state, under the leadership of then Governor Ronald Reagan, began to take notice and decided to make the open carry laws stricter. 

That same year, Kathleen Cleaver met Eldridge Cleaver, moved to San Francisco from Atlanta, where she was working with SNCC, and then got married. Huey P. Newton was in jail at the time; he was charged for killing Officer John Frey in a shootout with the police. Cleaver was instrumental in the Free Huey campaign. She became the Communications Secretary where she organized press conferences and demonstration, created pamphlets and literature, and spoke at rallies. Cleaver was also the first woman with the power to make decisions within the BPP.

The Cleavers received numerous death threats and were the victims of a 1968 police raid. The same year, Eldridge Cleaver ambushed Oakland police officers, which resulted in a shootout, leading to the death of Bobby Hutton – the third leader of the BPP. Cleaver was then charged with attempted murder after two officers were injured in the exchange. He fled to Cuba and then to Algeria where Kathleen joined him. They gave birth to two children while they were in exile and began a slow descent away from the social programs of BPP in favor of a more militant viewpoint. They eventually started the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. 

However, because of their exile, the organization did not gain much success. The Cleavers eventually came back to the US in 1974 where Eldridge faced charges for crimes committed 6 years prior. Cleaver supported him during this time, setting up a defense fund to free him from jail. He received 5 years of probation and 2,000 hours of community service. 

Kathleen Cleaver divorced Eldridge in 1987. She completed her undergraduate studies and law school at Yale University. Her legacy is her work to change the unequal levels of imprisonment, access to resources, and access to health through the BPP survival programs.

Elaine Brown

Elaine Brown grew up in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She went to a gifted school from Kindergarten until she graduated high school where she was one of two Black attendees. It was there, while observing her affluent Jewish classmates, that Brown realized the disparities and distinctions between whites and Blacks. She then attended Temple University, UCLA, Mills College, and the Southwestern University School of Law; Brown is also a classically-trained pianist and songwriter. 

Brown joined the BPP two years after it was founded in 1968. She was 25 at the time. She would eventually serve as the Minister of Information, replacing Eldridge Cleaver. In that role, she was the spokesperson for the BPP and the editor of the BPP newspaper, which sold 250,000 newspapers/week across the nation at its height. Brown then served in the role of chairwoman of the BPP from 1974 to 1977. The position was assigned to her by Huey P. Newton who, at the time, was in exile in Cuba. Bobby Seales had left the party by that time. 

As chairwoman, she consolidated a lot of BPP’s resources, including its arsenal of guns, property, and funds. In the midst of serving in various roles in the BPP, Brown and Seale (before he left the party) ran for public office at the behest of Newton. Though unsuccessful, Seale ran for mayor and Brown ran for city councilmember of the city of Oakland. 

Assata Shakur

In the movie Queen and Slim, the aforementioned characters are driving in a car after their first date when stopped by a policeman. Tensions run high, a tussle ensues, and the policeman is shot dead. Queen and Slim then panic and run away from the scene of the crime. Though loosely based on the tale of bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, the movie can also draw parallels to the real life story of Assata Shakur.

Born Joanne Chesimard in Queens, New York, Shakur moved to Oakland, California in 1967 to join the Black Panther Party and then returned to New York to lead the chapter in Harlem, New York. She was heavily involved in several of the BPP survival programs. She later left because of male chauvinism and joined the Black Liberation Army – a more militant arm of BPP and the Republic of New Afrika – where she was known as “The Soul of the Black Liberation Army”.

On a Spring night in 1973, Shakur, who was in the front passenger seat, Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in East New Brunswick by NJ State Troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper.  A shootout ensued and Officer Foerster was shot in the head twice with his own gun while Shakur and Acoli were injured and Zayd Shakur was killed. “I was shot with my arms in the air, then shot again in the back, and then left on the ground to die,” Shakur told Ralph Penza in a 1998 interview for NBC News.

She continues, “Harper, who was the other policeman, started to shoot. After that everything was foggy…it was horrible. It was like a prolonged version of hell…and the next thing I knew, they were coming by me and saying, ‘Is she dead, yet?’ I was later taken to a hospital and I was beaten. I was tortured.” 

Even though there was no gun residue found on her clothing or hands, the police accused Shakur of starting the altercation. They claim that she pulled a 9mm gun out of her purse and began shooting. Needless to say, an all-white jury convicted Shakur of murder and received a sentence of life imprisonment plus 33 years. Though, to this day, she swears by her innocence. In fear of her life, she escaped from a Clinton, New Jersey prison with the help of three men in 1979. Though Queen and Slim were gunned down before being able to board a plane that would grant them escape to Cuba, Shakur was able to getaway to the island, claiming political asylum under the protection of Fidel Castro, where she still lives to this day. 

However, that hasn’t stopped police from wanting to find her and “bring her to justice”. In 1997, the superintendent of the New Jersey Police, Carl Williams, wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II while he was traveling to Cuba at the time. A year later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution asking Cuba to extradite Shakur. Forty years after the incident in 2013 – as tensions were high across the U.S. after the Boston Marathon bombing a month prior – she became the first woman ever to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.

Mother Akua Njeri

Within the Chicago Chapter of the BPP, led by Fred Hampton, there were many women in leadership positions. Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson, remembers her first encounter with the BPP. “My younger brother brought this sheet home – it was just a white piece of notebook paper – and it had this black panther that looked like it was walking across the page. And to go along with that, I had heard of these crazy Black Panthers taking over these classrooms at Wilson Junior College…..They would stand up say, ‘We want an education that tells our true history and our role in a present-day society.’ And I said…they bad!”

She then witnessed Fred Hampton, Bobby Rush, and Iris and Alveno Shinn talking on a television show. What was supposed to be a 30- minute segment turned out to be an hour long speech given by Hampton. Njeri was compelled to witness BPP in action when they gave a speech at her college, Wilbur Wright College, making sure she sat in the front seat. She was a member of the Black Student Union there and said that on that night, among other things, Hampton talked about the core of the work that BPP does –  the survival programs which center around fighting for land, housing, clothing, education, justice, and peace. 

Njeri then began visiting the BPP offices on West Madison Street in Chicago. The BPP received lots of support from the community; Njeri remembers that people used to throw money out of their car window while driving by. They didn’t want to be caught supporting BPP in fear of retaliation from the police, but they did want to endorse the BPP survival programs. She was also witness to the start of the Rainbow Coalition that brought together community groups of all races and backgrounds to work against a common enemy to bring about change. She worked for the free prison busing, food, and medical programs. 

The Illinois BPP created the Spurgeon “Jake” Winters Free People’s Medical Care Center. According to the American Journal of Public Health published in 1972, over a period of 14 months it saw 1,400 patients at least once, and during the sample week of April 1971 served the needs of 75 patient. The principals of the BPP health clinics were: 

1) Health care is a right and must be free at the point of delivery; 2) the community served must have the controlling interest in the planning, organization and administration of the clinics; 3) humanity, dignity and concern for the patient must be the mode in which health care is delivered; and 4) the present health care system is a failure and the free clinics offer a model for a new health care delivery system.

Njeri was thrown in jail, while pregnant with Fred Hampton, Jr., after she survived the 1964 FBI raid and ambush that resulted in the assassination of her husband. She is still involved with BPP today. She chairs the December 4th Committee which strives to remember the legacy of BPP and her son, Fred Hampton, Jr., is the leader of the Black Panther Party Cubs. Njeri maintains an active role in the BPP survival programs, including giving away free clothing and fresh vegetables.

Most notable of all the women of the Black Power Movement is Angela Davis who was an affiliate of the Black Panther Party. Other notables are Afeni Shakur, rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother; Joan Tarika Lewis; and Nancy Johnson.

BPP Survival Programs

GEORGE JACKSON MEDICAL CLINIC – Provided free medical treatment and preventative medical care for the people.

THE SICKLE CELL ANEMIA RESEARCH FOUNDATION – Established to test and create a cure for Sickle Cell Anemia. The foundation informs people about Sickle Cell Anemia and maintains an advisory committee of doctors researching this crippling disease.

PEOPLE’S FREE DENTAL & OPTOMETRY PROGRAM – Provided free dental check-ups, treatment and an educational program for dental hygiene; provided free eye examinations, treatment, and eyeglasses for the people.

PEOPLE’S FREE AMBULANCE PROGRAM – Provided free, rapid transportation for sick or injured people without time-consuming checks into the patients’ financial status or means.

FREE FOOD/FREE BREAKFAST PROGRAMS  Provided free food to Black and other oppressed people; provided children with a free nourishing, hot breakfast every school morning.

FOOD COOPERATIVE PROGRAM – Provided food for people through community participation and community cooperative buying.

INTERCOMMUNAL NEWS SERVICE (NEWSPAPER) – Provided news and information about the world and Black and oppressed communities.

PEOPLE’S FREE COMMUNITY EMPLOYMENT PROGRAM – Provided free job-finding services to poor and oppressed People.

PEOPLE’S FREE CLOTHING PROGRAM/SHOE PROGRAM – Provided new, stylish and quality clothing free to people; provided free shoes, made at the People’s Free Shoe Factory, to the people.

PEOPLE’S FREE LEGAL AID AND EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM – Provided legal aid classes and full legal assistance to people who are in need.

FREE BUSING TO PRISONS PROGRAM/ FREE COMMISSARY FOR PRISONERS PROGRAM – Provided free transportation to prisons for families and friends of prisoners; provided imprisoned men and women with funds to purchase necessary commissary items.

SENIORS AGAINST A FEARFUL Environment (S.A.F.E.) Program – Provided free transportation and escort service for senior citizens to and from community banks on the first of each month.

PEOPLE’S COOPERATIVE HOUSING PROGRAM – Provided, with federal government aid, decent, low-cost and high-quality housing for Black and poor communities.

PEOPLE’S FREE PLUMBING AND MAINTENANCE PROGRAM – Provided free plumbing and repair services to improve people’s homes.

FREE PEST CONTROL – Free household extermination of rats, roaches, and other disease carrying pests and rodents.

OAKLAND COMMUNITY SCHOOL – Provided Black and other oppressed children with a scientific method of thinking about and analyzing things. This method develops basic skills for living in this society.

CHILD DEVELOPMENT CENTER – Provided 24-hour childcare facilities for infants and children between the ages of 2 months and three years. Youth are engaged in a scientific program to develop their physical and mental facilities at the earliest ages

For my friend

 

Someday when the heroes of today

have all been rendered to

song and all the garlands

have withered and are cast aside,

you will remember that the 

songs they sang were only words,

that all the garlands were 

just colored paper flowers.

You will remember then that

my love was real, that 

it was not words (because I

told you more in a touch) and 

it was never created to be beautiful

(because our conditions, our lives 

are so ugly).

You will remember then – if you

too are not a hero in a song –

that I listened when all camaraderie

was relegated to a handshake

and no more. I was there, 

I understand your desire for freedom…

You will remember then 

and when you do, you will know 

that I was real; that I did not pretend,

or intend to crush you when I leaned.

You will remember and when you do-

maybe I will still be there,

somewhere among the songs 

and garlands — a memory.

July, 1972 

 

©1975 Huey P. Newton and Ericka Huggins

City Lights Press

DeAnna enjoys reading and writing and experiencing city life with all its amenities with her fellow citizens. When she’s not uncovering the truth as it needs to be told, she visits museums and spends time with friends and family.