Black Berets, White Coats :The Black Panther Party for Medical Self-Defense
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded 45 years ago this month by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, is generally remembered for its black berets, revolutionary rhetoric and shootouts with the police.
The Black Panthers’ health activism is less well known. This little recalled aspect of the Party’s work nevertheless remains one of its more durable legacies. This month’s anniversary occasions a reappraisal of the organization in light of its health politics.
Newton and Seale set out to champion and protect black communities. This ambition infamously took the form of armed neighborhood patrols intended to curb police brutality that too often devolved into violent confrontations.
The Black Panthers’ protective impulse was more productively channeled into campaigns of medical self-defense.
The Party fought to shield disenfranchised communities from exploitative medical research. Such was the case in the spring of 1973 when the University of California at Los Angeles announced plans to establish the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. Praised by Governor Ronald Reagan as a cornerstone of his “law and order” administration, the center was to be dedicated to biomedical studies of violence. Among these planned studies were ones that disproportionately singled-out black and Latino prisoners and public school students as research subjects. Another project proposed controversial, invasive brain surgery to remedy aggression.
Through their attorney, the Black Panthers’ argued before the California legislature that the urban violence on the 1960s and 1970s was not attributable to the innate pathology of black and brown bodies but was, as H. Rap Brown had poetically put it a few years prior, a social and political phenomenon as “American as cherry pie.” The center would be successfully stalled owing in no small part to the Party’s intervention.
In addition to safeguarding the poor from bad medicine, the Party disseminated health education and dispensed medical care. For example, in their popular newspaper and on national television—including an appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono—they demanded attention for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that predominantly affects persons of African descent. The Panthers also provided free sickle cell anemia screening at venues ranging from private homes to public parks.
The activists also offered free medical services at its clinics. Impoverished blacks remained second-class citizens in the American health care system despite recent civil rights strides. They received pitiable care at over-crowded, understaffed and often faraway public hospitals. The Black Panthers’ clinics, by contrast, while modest, offered basic health care from trusted providers at neighborhood-based sites.
The legacy of the Party’s clinics persists today. The Carolyn Downs Medical Center in Seattle bears the name and extends the work of a Black Panther who played an integral role in establishing the group’s free health services in that community in 1968.
The Panther imprint is also present in post-Katrina New Orleans. The idea for the Common Ground Health Clinic, which arose fill the gap left by the collapse of the city’s medical infrastructure, was inspired by similar programs that co-founder Malik Rahim developed as a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Party. Now an established institution, this Black Panther-inspired clinic has served more than sixty thousand people since it was established in September 2005.
We tend to remember the Party through imagery such as the organization’s iconic cat symbol and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture—defiant faces, stiff spines, loaded guns, and leather jackets. Many continue to regard militancy and ephemera as the Party’s most significant bequest.
Lost in the hail of gunfire and the heat of the culture wars is the fact that the Panthers also wore the white coats of medicine. Peering through the lens of health activism, we gain new insights into what was most considerable and lasting about the Party.
The Black Panthers asserted health as a right. They demanded universal access to health care. Well before July 1972, when the Tuskegee syphilis study would become a national allegory of race and medical power, the Party shined a light on health inequities.
To reappraise the Black Panthers’ as health activists is not to canonize them, but to contemplate civil rights militancy through a more multifaceted prism.