How the Black Panthers Worked

Panther Words and Works
An unidentified member of the Black Panthers peeks around a bullet-pocked door which police blasted with gunfire during a predawn raid. A poster shows some of the Panthers' social programs. Bettmann/Getty Images

Militancy aside, the Black Panthers were known for emphasizing the importance of words and good works in furthering the civil rights cause. Serving the community was of paramount importance, as they believed that the only way for the black community to begin to rise above oppression was first to help them meet their basic needs. One of the ways the group accomplished this was by starting a Free Breakfast for Children program at a Berkeley-area church, which eventually spread and fed as many as 20,000 children daily in 19 cities across the country [source: Chiles].

They also set up and ran free clinics called People's Free Medical Centers (PFMC), which offered certain vaccines, testing for diseases like tuberculosis and diabetes, treatment for basic illnesses and even cancer screenings. At one point, such sites were present in 13 cities [source: Chiles]. This was a major boon for poor and underserved people who previously had little to no access to affordable health care.

The Oakland Community school was another crown jewel of the party's accomplishments. Largely free to students (it was mostly subsidized through fundraising and private donations), the school boasted small class sizes and subjects like poetry, Spanish and current events — even yoga. The idea was to empower students from a young age to know themselves (black history was part of the curriculum) and have the confidence, education and problem-solving skills to achieve their goals. Influential figures like Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks visited the school and its pupils. The school operated from 1973 until 1982 [source: Drummond].

The group also stressed education and progressive thinking among active party members, often handing out books and political magazines. Written and spoken words were tools that they used to vividly communicate the party's stances. Party leader Kathleen Cleaver recounted to CNN the story of one young man who joined the party hoping to get a gun. Instead he was handed a stack of books. The young man said to the leader of the meeting, "I thought you were going to arm me." He replied, "I just did" [source: Blake].

Contrary to popular belief, the party was unlike some other black rights groups in that the collective organization didn't label all whites as oppressors. In fact, the Panthers spoke out against elite African-Americans who encouraged oppression of the downtrodden working class, and allied themselves with progressive white groups and other minority organizations with similar philosophies [source: Duncan]. Still, all the forged friendships in the world were unable to keep the party from imploding, especially once major powers got involved.