A Conversation With Prof. Alondra Nelson on the Black Panther Party’s Fight for Health Care

We might want to think of the Black Panther Party as engaged in medical self-defense— Alondra Nelson

Co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, began answering a calling to serve the community long before the Party was officially created. So, once the Party was established in 1966, Newton was somewhat accustomed to serving the people.

Community service was the Party’s footing. According to Newton’s doctoral dissertation, “War Against The Panthers: A Study of Repression In America,” the Party was formed as a unit of poverty-stricken blacks and persons united by the same ideal, which Newton called, “revolutionary intercommunalism.” Newton’s firsthand experience with poverty and its corollaries shaped his thoughts and ideals, which, along with the experiences of the community and its proximity to poverty as well, produced the Panther’s survival programs. For example, the Party’s 10-point platform was culled from a list of complaints from Oakland, Calif., residents, who wanted protection against police brutality, land, bread and clothing, to name a few.

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One of the contributions of the Party less-talked about in popular discourse, is its organizing and work around health care. The Panthers fought to protect blacks and other marginalized populations from dangerous medical research like UCLA’s plan to establish the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence that wanted to test inner-city children and other vulnerable groups for supposed genetic and biological predisposition to violence. The Party also established health care clinics for Black people in the community and worked to raise awareness about sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that predominantly affects people of African descent.

Alondra Nelson, formerly Columbia University professor of sociology and gender studies, and now professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The book examines BPP health clinics, discrimination, clinic sustainability and their residual affects on society today.

Prof. Alondra Nelson: The situation or the conditions that lead to the creation of the Black Panther Clinics can be thought of in two ways. One was the actual experiences of the leadership and the rank and file members of the Party; their actual individual experiences with the mainstream medicine. We have to understand that part of the response to medical discrimination was not dissimilar from their response to police harassment. We might want to think of the Black Panther Party as engaged in medical self-defense.

Like with police harassment, the Party starts initially with policing the police. They were also identifying the inadequacies of mainstream [medicine], of how the poor in black communities … were being treated unfairly at [the] hospitals and clinics they went to, because they were Black or because they were poor, or both.

Social welfare and discrimination against women

I write a little bit about Black women being subjected, forced or coerced sterilization or not receiving good reproductive health care. They [Black Panthers] were aware; they had their eyes on the needs of the community. It was part of what the Party was about. It’s the same way that they were looking at the institution of criminal justice and the police; they were also looking at health care as one of the needs of the people of the community that they wanted to attend to.

And, you see this reflected a little bit in the Party’s founding Ten-Point Platform — that there is an articulate vision about social welfare issues. They say that people should have land, food, health and justice. So, social welfare was always part of what the Party was doing. At the same time, I think that what made these concerns more pressing was the individual experience of the members of the party.

Huey Newton’s experience with health care discrimination

In 1967, for example, Huey Newton had quite an infamous shootout with Oakland police. At one point, one officer was injured, one officer was killed and Huey Newton is wounded as well; he’s shot in the stomach.

Court transcripts from his account appear, among other places, in Joan Didion’s collection of essays, White Album, [where] she quoted excerpts from them. Newton talks about the nurse on duty at Highland Hospital in Oakland on the night that he was brought in. Her account talks about Newton writhing in pain on the gurney. It tells us that Newton was handcuffed to the gurney. So we know that Newton personally experienced being treated inhumanely in the hospital.

The assumption was that he had to be chained down to the gurney. The nurse recalls Newton saying, ‘I’m really in pain, why won’t you help me? Can I have some medicine? Can I see a doctor?’ And, the nurse says, ‘Well, I needed to find out first whether or not you’re covered by our health insurance plan.’ And, she says to him, ‘Are you a member of the Kaiser plan?’ Newton says, ‘Yes, I am, but that shouldn’t matter. I need to see a doctor. Get someone to get me some help.’ They go on and on. Fundamentally the nurse doesn’t believe that he is a member of the Kaiser Insurance Plan. And, in fact, Didion finds out that he was.

And, so that scenario in 1967 tells us that Newton understood from experience that there was a way in which a black man or black person in a hospital was never a sympathetic figure. He could never be a sympathetic patient. I think we need to imagine that experience of Newton very much shaping how he thought about health care, how black people might be treated.

Black Panther clinics and the media

By 1969, there were starting to be articles about the Panthers starting a health program in the newspaper, The Daily World, there is an article that appears that’s titled, “The Panthers Map a People’s Health Plan.” And, part of what they’re saying is, ‘We need health care for ourselves. We are people who are working in the community. Working 18-, 20-hour days, we’re getting sick, we’re not taking care of ourselves, we’re stressed out.’ There were just things that they needed for themselves as activists.

And, this is something that we see with today’s activists. Although I think 21st-century activists are a bit wiser about this: these are activists who want to talk about the health care that they need for themselves, so they can do the work that they want to do in the world. Part of what the Party is articulating when they’re first mapping out the expansion of their social welfare programs, and the expansion of health in particular, is the recognition that they need health care for themselves, health care facilities, health care services, and to be the focus of medical research, which at the time was neglecting things like sickle cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affected [people of] African descent.

Clinic sustainability

Sustaining the clinics was difficult. In the 1970s, Bobby Seale sent a mandate to all of the Panther chapters that says, ‘ if you’re going to be a chapter of the Black Panther Party, you have to sell the Black Panther Party newspaper, you have to have a Free Breakfast for Children Program, and you have to have a clinic.’ All of the money from the newspaper went to the central headquarters, it didn’t go to the local chapters. The central headquarters didn’t provide resources for them to set up the clinics; they just told every chapter that they had to have them. One of the things that I say often when I’m talking about the clinics, is that in some ways the clinics and the breakfast programs are the most grassroots manifestation of Panther’s work, because it really has to come out of the network and human labor of rank and file members of the Party and individual clinics in local communities. Leadership can teach the rank and file on how to frame issues of medical discrimination and how to frame issues of medical neglect. But, fundamentally these clinics were responding to local needs. They were local institutions and community- based institutions and they also had to mobilize local resources.

Unlike other forms of activism, health activism often required that you collaborate with health professionals. You can’t just put up a clinic and not have someone in the clinic that doesn’t know anything about health care. So, there were nursing students, medical students, doctors and nurses who were also working with the clinic. But, they were also committed to training rank-and-file members of the Party and people in the local community to do basic health care services. The evidence varies about how the Panthers supported their clinics. Some of them didn’t do that well because some communities just couldn’t pull together the resources they required.

Panthers working with professional doctors

There’s evidence that Pete O’Neal worked with a white physician by the name of Michael Wilkins, who worked with him to get a clinic together, but they never quite pulled it off. They didn’t have the people, [or] the money they needed to pull it together.

But Chicago had a very sophisticated clinic. They had several different examination rooms, they had a system of triage, and they could actually do care in the clinics themselves. And that’s because they happened to have a multiracial network of radical activists, doctors, health and medical students, including a white doctor by the name of Quentin Young, who had been a member of [the Medical Committee for Human Rights] and had worked on the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 as a medical student. Young came back to Chicago to work with Fred Hampton to establish that clinic with other members of the Black Panther Party.

The clinics ranged from barely getting off the ground to being entirely successful like the Chicago clinic, and places in between. They were funded all sorts of ways. They were funded through donations; the Winston Salem, N.C. chapter had ambulance services as part of their health activism; that ambulance service was funded in part with donations. And, we know from evidence in the Panther archive at Stanford, that there’s a paper trail of letters from a Japanese-American doctor to Huey Newton that say, ‘You know, I’m an optometrist and I want to come and offer my optometry services in the clinic.’

They really pulled these clinics together the best they could. They were truly a manifestation of grassroots organization .

Longest running clinics

The Portland clinic became a project with the University of Oregon Medical School. They actually had two clinics in Portland; they also had a dental clinic that ran for four or five years, maybe longer. Because it had institutional support from the University of Oregon, I think it probably ran quite a long time compared to some of the other clinics.

We also know that the Seattle chapter ran for a long time too,well after some of the Party chapters started to wane, by the time you get to the late 1970s.

The answer to the question also depends on how you want to think about what a Black Panther clinic is. One answer to the question is that there’s a clinic in Seattle that’s still running today that some might regard as a Black Panther clinic. It’s still in the neighborhood where the Black Panther clinic was and it’s named for Carolyn Downs, a former member of the Party in Seattle, who helped establish the Panther’s successful clinic and died a couple years after it launched. So, that still goes on.

Panther members studying nursing in China

One of the political and philosophical role models for the Black Panther Party was Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China. Part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was to change the way health care operated in China. That transformation included the emergence and training of foot doctors, members of society who were not trained in elite medicine but had expertise as healthcare workers. This was a manifestation of the belief that there is some traditional Chinese medicine and practices that should attend to and keep and that we shouldn’t get rid of these practices and move to a Western scientific model.

And, it was also the case that these barefoot doctors were meant to valorize the role of the people and the people’s experience with illness as being important for the healing process.

I think two or three Panthers go to China between the course of 1970 and 1972. And, during one of these tours, a doctor named Dr. Tolbert Small [went]. He never formally joined the Black Panther Party, but he worked with them for years.

Dr. Small goes on one of these tours of China and he gets introduced to acupuncture, a traditional form of Chinese healing and medicine. When Dr. Small comes back to the U.S. and he opens the Harriet Tubman Clinic in Oakland that still runs today.

Ed note: This interview was conducted by telephone on December 4, 2013 and had been edited for clarity.

Written by

staff writer at vibe.com. contributor at salon. educated: columbia univ. bylines: XXL, Black Perspectives, Washington Post, among others blogs.

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