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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

From the Kitchen to the Front Line: Women in the Black Panther Party

by Maisha Simmons
UC Berkeley Student
Faculty Mentor: Professor Robert Allen

American society is filled with historical examples of women who moved from the kitchen to the front line. Along with Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, thousands of African American women have challenged sexism and other forms of oppression to give a real voice to the organizational power of women. In an attempt to further analyze the role of women in social movements, I will examine the organizational impact of women on the Black Panther Party and how their presence reshaped and redefined the Party at its core.
While the strategic roles and media attention went most often to the men in the Party, the women served as sustaining forces in terms of day-to-day operations, fundraising, and implementation of programs. Through my research, I want to examine why the women in the BPP proved so capable of functioning without recognition, and why the ``grunt" work and less desirable duties that were at the heart of driving the organization became their responsibility. I also want to show that, without the "backbone" women provided, the Party would not have accomplished some of the radical social groundwork it did during the latter part of the 1960s and up through the late 1970s.
I am studying the role of women in the Black Panther Party, one of the most important "Black Power" organizations in the 1960's. Throughout history black women have always participated in political activism, ranging from the private to the public realms. In addition to being the homemakers, caregivers of children, and the support behind successful men, women have been key organizers of the daily activities of various organizations. From the early abolition movement to the civil rights movement, women have organized and led struggles for fair housing, suffrage, temperance, anti-lynching laws, abolition of Jim Crow laws, full employment--for themselves as well as for their men-- and for equal educational opportunities for their children (Crawford, 1990, xvii).
The role of the woman in the forementioned movements has been nothing less than extraordinary. However society, media coverage and academic research often focuses on the male leadership, leaving not as many published accounts that document the major role women played in the modern movement for social change. The accomplishments of women generally became overshadowed by the actions of men. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was not an exception. In this paper I want to examine the multiplicity of roles women played as well at to reveal perspectives on the movement from the standpoint of the women in the Black Panther Party. I will analyze the diverse perspectives and experiences of four women, to provide insight on the role of women in the Party. The women I will discuss are average women: not necessarily just women who held high leadership positions in the Party. However they are women who played a great part in the development of the Party's community programs. I will look at areas such as why they joined, what their specific roles were, and their involvement in specific programs.
Historical Background
The 1960s were years of social change in the country. People were struggling against the brutal legacy of slavery and oppression in the United States. A global movement for liberation was taking place. The United States was being faced with the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King was in full force, and white backlash was becoming significant. The Civil War ended the institution of slavery; however, blacks were still denied basic human rights such as the right to vote, to worship, and to use public facilities. Even after a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the integration of public schools, blacks were still struggling to become integrated into society.
Many organizations existed to address the concerns of the black community. The goal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was to promote integration of blacks into society as citizens. The Nation of Islam promoted black nationalism and self-reliance. However, at the same time many new organizations began to emerge to actively combat the injustice and discrimination. One such organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized "sit-ins" in all-white public facilities, and other nonviolent protests. Under the guidance and nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, millions of blacks and whites marched together for freedom and justice for people of color. Boycotts, protests, and marches were successful in leading to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public facilites. This progress, and later the securing of black voting rights, resulted in reprisal attacks and beatings of blacks by racists--including but not limited to the police and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)--who were murdering and lynching blacks. Images of non-violent blacks and other civil rights demonstrators being beaten, jailed, attacked by police dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses merely for protesting social injustices, were broadcast across American television screens.
Young urban youth, watching these images, rejected nonviolence. A fatal beating of a black man in Watts (Los Angeles), California, resulted in a violent protest. This 1965 rebellion marked the start of other such violent responses to police brutality. By 1967 urban rebellions had occurred in more than 100 major black cities. In addition, the Vietnam war erupted in 1965, revealing the horrors inflicted on an oppressed people by American soldiers. American youth, black and white, became openly hostile to the status quo and began building organizations to protest.
Founding of the Black Panther Party
In 1966, in the midst of the urban rebellions, an upsurge in white racist brutality, and the earlier assassination of black leader Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and his longtime friend Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense to curb police brutality in Oakland, California, and to mobilize blacks for the fight for equality. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense called for a complete end to all forms of oppression of blacks and offered revolution as an option. Later "Self Defense" would be dropped from the name, among other efforts to attract more members, and the organization simply became known as the Black Panther Party (BPP).
The founders and first young members were disillusioned with the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights organizations. In their opinion, if violence was used against black activists, then they should be able to use violence in self defense. They were determined to have an organization that embraced Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" tactics for liberation and one that addressed the concern for immediate change. The Black Panther Party would become one of the only black organizations that promoted armed self defense of the black community.
Almost immediately after the founding of the BPP, Newton and Seale developed a Ten Point Platform and Program, titled "What We Want--What We Believe," the platform included the demands of the organization, which included full employment for black people, the exemption of all black men from military service, an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, and the power for blacks to determine the destiny of their community (Seale, 1991, 66). In addition to this Ten Point Platform, rules were established which each member of the party had to follow. Each member had to know all the rules and apply them daily.
The BPP created community-based programs to address the needs of the community. Immediate community needs led to the formation of what was referred to as the ``Survival Programs.'' These ``survival programs'' not only benefited the black community, but anyone who needed support. Elaine Brown explains:
There were the hundreds of thousands of people, black people and Latino people and Asian people and white people, who participated in or benefited from our free food programs, our free medical clinics and legal aid programs, our prison programs, our school and education programs, our service programs for seniors and teens and abused children and battered women and homeless people (Brown, E., 1992, 16).
Male leadership continued to remain the focus of media attention even though women played significant roles from 1967 until the 1980s. ``Female BPP members held leadership positions at local levels as well as national levels, delivered speeches at rallies, and participated in the BPP community survival programs'' (Brown, A., 1993, 135). Initially this was due to the fact that the women remained in the background. However, after women started to come more into public view, I think the media as well as the public choose not to acknowledge these women's contributions. Kathleen Cleaver, who became communications secretary around 1968, and the first woman included in the central committee, said ``No one ever asks what a man's place in the revolution is'' (Moore, 1995, 43). Cleaver was speaking directly to those critics who questioned the role of women in the revolution. These same critics were the ones who often overlooked the contributions of women.
In the beginning, many of the women members who joined the founding chapter (Oakland Chapter) were in local high schools or community colleges. These women were often the same young women who were activists on their respective campuses. Like the male members, these women were also from lower-class communities in the Oakland area. They understood the oppression which their communities faced and were willing to give their time and energy to the movement. ``There was no difference between the men and the women in the Black Panther Party. We were all working to serve the community,'' stated Fredrika Newton, the widow of Huey P. Newton (Moore, 1995, 44).
As in other organizations, women tended to do most of the organizing and behind-the-scenes work. Kathleen Cleaver stated that women were ``the most anxious, the most quick to understand the problem and quick to move'' (Giddings,1984, 317). Therefore, women tended to be the creators, organizers and implementors of most of the Black Panther Party's reform programs. Directly through their involvement in these programs, women learned how to make their voices heard, how to organize, and how to lead and follow when needed. In addition, they developed a deeper understanding of political activism.
According to Bobby Seale, the central committee ``wanted to establish a system based on the goal of absolute equality, of all people, [which] must be established on the principle of from each and every person, both male and female, according to their ability, and to each and every person, both male and female, according to their needs'' (Seale, 1991, 394). If a sister could defend herself and learn how to shoot, like the brothers, she could prove to the men that she was a revolutionary.
In 1967, the Black Panther Party welcomed women into the party. Tarika Lewis, a mutual friend of both Newton and Seale, would become the ``first sister'' in the Party. Lewis, a 16-year-old high school student, was instrumental in starting the Black Student Union at her high school, Oakland Tech. She also participated in sit-ins demanding more Black faculty and staff members. Lewis joined the Black Panther Party because she was ``down for the revolution,'' and felt that the BPP could be her outlet for further political activism. At that time, Lewis stated that her family obligations took a back seat. She felt a greater need to make a difference in her community.
Lewis stated that when she entered the party, she erased a lot of stereotypical images of what women were capable of doing. For example, some men did not think a woman should be armed and fighting against the police, like the men. However, Bobby Seale's philosophy was, ``if you could do the job, you were assigned the task.'' Because of this philosophy, ``women did everything the men did--from peeling potatoes and answering the phones to teaching political education classes,'' commented Lewis.
Soon after Lewis joined the party, she became assistant to Emory Douglass, the party's minister of culture, while working on the party newspaper, the Black Panther. Lewis drew radical drawings for the newspaper. These drawings would be the reason she and a fellow comrade sister had to assume different names while moving from city to city. They had become two of many targets of the CIA and FBI's efforts to destroy the Party.
Lewis said she and other women earned the respect of the brothers because they worked as hard and even harder than some of the men. In addition to drawing and selling papers, right next to the brothers, Lewis began to climb the ranks. She went from artist to lieutenant and began teaching political education classes. Some of the men challenged the notion of a woman teaching them. They doubted the ability of women to teach them anything, especially how to shoot. Nevertheless, Lewis taught men how to shoot and would challenge any man in target practice who doubted her ability to teach the class.
Lewis did many jobs and made many sacrifices for the Party. However, she felt that her sacrifices were minimal, compared to the impact the Party had on the community. The Party gave the community a much-needed voice. Through the distribution of the newspaper and organization of students and community members, the Party was able to hold politicians accountable, provide legal advice and create a Black agenda. Currently Lewis resides in the Bay Area, where she often speaks on panels at local schools about her experience in the Black Panther Party.
Arti McMillian (formerly Seale) was the wife of Party cofounder Bobby Seale. McMillian met Seale at the age of 17 after graduating from Berkeley High School. Because her parents were very overbearing, she was a very sheltered and naive young woman. She said she did not ``fit the role'' of a politically active person as a teenager--meaning she had not been involved in any organizations or clubs at school. In fact, her day consisted of attending school, going straight home to complete her homework and then participating in piano lessons. She was not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio.
After she and Seale married and had their son, again her role was limited exclusively to mother and homemaker. McMillian, who was not an ``official'' member of the Party in the beginning; but she was the one who typed the ten-point platform and many other documents at the request of her husband and Newton. Later, after women began joining the founding chapter, McMillian also became a member. Shortly thereafter, she became secretary of the national headquarters. Slowly her role, as well as many other women's roles, began to change. Women, as well as men, began to realize that women too could be the victims of police brutality and could participate in action to combat it. McMillian stated:
At first, when Bobby and Huey were just starting the organization, the women hung back. They felt they belonged at home in the kitchens because that had always been their role. But we began to find out that the pigs don't care that we were women. So we had to change our way of looking at ourselves (Haven, Lewis, Butcher, et al., 1990).
Seale argues that the news media only portrayed male leadership, especially in a negative way, while ignoring the strength of the women in the Party. Regardless of their perceived role--as whores, cheerleaders, psychiatrists, and cooks--women were the backbone of the organization. Currently McMillian leads a different lifestyle. She and Bobby Seale are divorced and she uses her maiden name--McMillian. She says this makes it easier for her to get a job.
JoNina Abron joined the Black Panther Party in June of 1972, in Detroit Michigan. Abron, became editor of the Black Panther newspaper and served in that role until the paper ceased publication in 1981. Abron became interested in the Party because, she said, ``Black people need to be a part of an organization that was making social change.'' The Black Panther Party was raising the community's consciousness, fighting against police brutality and instilling pride in black people. Abron was specifically interested in the Breakfast Program. Unlike McMillian and Lewis, Abron was in her late twenties and married, and had a masters degree in communications from Purdue University when she joined the Party. She quickly became involved in her Michigan chapter before being transferred to the Oakland chapter. Before becoming editor of the newspaper, she did everything from selling papers to teaching language arts at the Party's community school.
Another program that Abron mentioned was the Busing to Prison Program, in which the Party would drive families of prisoners out to the prison for visits. Many people in the community had no other transportation to visit their loved ones who were behind bars. In many instances, Abron and other women drove the buses (vans) to the prisons. ``For some reason many of the men did not have driver's licenses . . . so women drove men around,'' stated Abron.
Abron pointed out that ``leadership fell on the sisters when the brothers were not there . . . they did the day to day work.'' Many of the brothers were either being killed, thrown in jail by the police, or going underground. The FBI's counterintelligence program was aimed at destroying the Party, mostly by eliminating the male leadership. When the FBI realized that the women Panthers had strength, they then began trying to destroy the women leaders also.
Gender relations did play a part in the organization. However, Abron argues that ``this organization was no more sexist than any organization. Because the members in the Party are products of this sexist society, they brought with them existing ideas about gender relations. It would be rather difficult to have an organization free of sexism in the United States for this reason.'' Abrons says that if a woman made suggestions, they might not be carried through--unless men agreed and made the same suggestion. Kathleen Cleaver noted that she had to ``genuflect'' when it came to offering her opinion in the organization.
. . . if I suggested them, suggestions might be rejected; if they were suggested by a man the suggestion would be implemented. The suggestion itself was never viewed objectively. The fact that the suggestion came for a woman gave it some lesser value. And it seemed that it had something to do with the egos of the men involved (Giddings, 1984, 316).
Since the end of the Black Panther Party, Abron has remained active in her community. While still living in the Oakland area, Abron became the editor of the Black Scholar Magazine from 1988-1990. She worked on the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign and has participated in several anti-apartheid demonstrations. Currently Abron resides and teaches in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She stated that she trys keep in touch with other Panthers because they are her extended family.
Elaine Brown, the first woman in the United States to head a paramilitary organization, held the position of party chairperson from 1974 until 1977. Brown grew up in North Philadelphia, where she attended the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. She then attended the University of California at Los Angeles and Mills College in Oakland. Brown was involved in several organizations before joinging the Black Panther Party. She began a newsletter for the Black Student Union at UCLA and was also instrumental in organizing the Southern California College Black Student Alliance.
Brown joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 after meeting Alprentice ``Bunchy'' Carter, then the organizer and leading member of the Southern California chapter. After working in the local chapter selling papers and serving in the free breakfast program for children, among other duties, Brown became deputy minister of information for the Southern California chapter. By 1971, she had moved up the ranks to become minister of information for the Oakland Chapter. And by 1974, due to the exile of Chairman Huey Newton, Brown became chairperson of the organization.
But the party Brown inherited was in serious trouble: nearly destroyed by the FBI, engaging in a number of underground financial activities, fundamentally undemocratic, and structured around a gender hierarchy. When she became ``chairman'' she quickly recognized the difficulties of her position, including the challenge that faced anyone who would succeed Newton, and also the particular challenges that she would be faced with as a woman. She realized that the party to which she had devoted her life did not value women:
A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. A woman attempting the role of leadership, was, to my proud black Brothers, making an alliance with the ``counter-revolutionary, man hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches.'' It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was left undefined. If a black women assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of black people (Brown, E., 1992, 357).
However, Brown noted that ``sexism was a secondary problem. Capitalism and racism were primary. I had maintained that position even in the face of my exasperation with chauvinism of Black Panther men in particular'' (Brown, E., 1992, 367). Nevertheless, under the leadership of Brown, the Black Panther Party became an influential political force, specifically in Oakland. Voter registration activities helped elect Oakland's first Black mayor, Lionel Wilson (1977). Both Brown and Bobby Seale campaigned unsuccessfully in Oakland elections. Brown campaigned for city government positions in 1973 and 1976, and in 1976 was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic Party's national convention.
During Brown's time as party chair, the BPP created and operated a model school for inner-city black children, built survival programs, and formed progressive alliances. The party also began to realign the gender hierarchy allowing women greater access to positions of leadership and power. Finally, the party gained a degree of financial stability and solvency it had never known. These were considerable achievements.
In addition to reshaping the organizational structure of the Black Panther Party, Brown held other board positions in other organizations. She was executive director and chaired the board of the Executive Opportunities Corporation (EDC), a nonprofit corporation that operated the Oakland Community School and the community learning center. Presently Brown divides time between France and the Bay Area, working with the Dr. Huey P Newton Foundation of which she is a board member. Brown is the author of A Taste of Power, her autobiographical memoir. As a singer/songwriter, she has released two albums, including several songs based on her experiences while a member of the Black Panther Party.
When studying the history of the United States, I often find myself asking, ``What about women? Why are the women not acknowledged?'' Because of this, I studied the women in the Black Panther Party. I wanted to examine the extent of their role, to understand why women are often left out of the history books. Madalynn Rucker and JoNina Abron write in their book, Comrade Sisters (1996), ``Throughout their history in the United Stated, African American women have experienced and reacted to racial and sexual oppression. However, little has been written about black women's involvement in revolutionary political movements in America '' (139).
Although I still do not know all the answers to my question, I now know that women have truly redefined organizations at their core and have made tremendous contributions to American society. More research should be completed on black women in political organizations. In further researching the women in the Black Panther Party, several topics can be addressed, including: male chauvinism and its emotional and/or physical effects on women; the notion of motherhood and activism; and the concept of incarceration, especially for women with children. My research has shown that the women in the Black Panther Party played an integral role in the development and success of the Black Panther Party. These women's achievements should not go unacknowledged. In closing, I would like to reflect on the words of Johnny Spain:
If there were no women in the Black Panther Party, there would not have been a Party. Men would not have gone as far without women. And if men were excluded from the Party, there would still be a Black Panther Party today! (Author interview, July 8, 1997).
Brown, Angela. (1993). Elaine Brown. In Hine, D. C. (Ed.), Black women in America: An historical encyclopedia. New York: Carlson Publishing Inc.
Brown, Elaine. (1992). A taste of power. New York: Anchor Books.
Crawford, Vicki. (1990). Women in the civil rights movement. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Giddings, Paula. (1984). When and where I enter: The impact of black women on race and sex in America. New York: Quill, William Morrow
Haven, Lewis, Butcher, et. al. (1990). Voices of Black Panther women. (Booth Auditorium, Boalt Hall, U.C. Berkeley, October 26). Berkeley: U.C. Berkeley Graduate Assembly.
Moore, Joe Louis. (1995). The legacy of the Panthers: A photographic exhibition. Berkeley, CA: Publishing and Printing.
Rucker, M. & Abron, J. (1996). Comrade sisters. New York and London: Routledge.
Seale, Bobby. (1991). Seize the time: The story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Netwon. Baltimore: Classic Press.

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