The Black Panther Party may be the most famous political group to come out of Oakland and also its most controversial. But for many East Bay activists the lasting legacy of the Panthers isn’t about militancy, but food security and social justice.
In addition to opposing white supremacy and police brutality, the Black Panther Party focused on improving and helping the Black community. A major part of that was providing meals to children.
“From coast to coast feeding the community has always been a part of being a Panther,” said Billy X Jennings, a former Panther and member of It’s About Time, the Black Panther Legacy and Alumni Project.
While the causes that led to the creation of the Black Panther Party were myriad, Jennings explained that they were most pronounced “where concentrated Black communities living under the poverty level were going unassisted by the government.”
“You had a situation in Oakland particularly where young kids would fall over and faint from hunger,” said Jennings. “The school’s solution was to send the kids home to eat. But that didn’t really follow logic. If there was food at home, then kids wouldn’t be fainting.”
The solution was the Free Breakfast for Children Program. Started in January 1969, the Panthers cooked and served full breakfasts to school-aged children at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Oakland. The program became a central organizing event for the party.
“From there on it was mandatory that every chapter of the Black Panther Party had a breakfast program,” said Jennings. “Get kids fed so they can learn.”
The Panthers set up similar kitchens to provide free breakfast to children in 19 cities across the country.
“As a student, you just wanted to do something. And the breakfast program was the main thing to do,” said Dennis Terry. Though never a party member himself, Terry volunteered as a cook with the free breakfast program at St. Augustine’s from 1970 to 1971 while he was a student at Laney College.
“We would go early to supermarkets, around 6 or 7 a.m., get groceries and then make a hot breakfast for kids before they went to school. Pancakes, bacon and eggs, that kind of thing,” said Terry. “School kids were the main focus. Only focus really.”
Today Terry manages the market stall for R Kelley Farms, a Black-owned and operated farm in Sacramento County, at the Freedom Farmers Market in Temescal. The market features Black farmers growing “legacy foods,” or crops associated with African American heritage, such as collard greens, crowder peas, okra and yams. Terry is also in the midst of producing “Seeds of Struggle,” a documentary on Black farmers and the food justice movement in the East Bay. He describes his new work as “activism of a different kind.”
According to Terry, the social problems the Panthers addressed never really went away. “We’re still trying to deal with the problem of food access,” said Terry.
The free breakfast program may be the most notable of food justice efforts started by the Panthers, but it was hardly the only one. The group also organized grocery giveaways at San Pablo Park in Berkeley. “We would give away maybe 4,000 bags of groceries in a weekend,” said Jennings. The party promised “a chicken in every bag,” along with cereal, noodles, beans, and a dozen eggs.
“We would give away maybe 4,000 bags of groceries in a weekend,” said Jennings. The party promised “a chicken in every bag,” along with cereal, noodles, beans, and a dozen eggs.
“Enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a family of four,” said Jennings. “We had students from UC Berkeley come with slide rules to measure the bags. We had it down to a science.”
Around the time the Black Panthers began grocery giveaways, they also started a program called SAFE – Senior Citizens Against a Fearful Environment. SAFE began as a security service. Panthers would escort seniors while they handled personal finances. But it soon evolved into purchasing food for seniors, and then community cooperative grocery programs.
Today, 23 community-run services — what the party called “Survival Programs” — have their roots in the Black Panther Party.
“The Panthers inform most of what movements are built here in the Bay Area,” said Kanchan Dawn Hunter, co-director of Spiral Gardens, a nonprofit organic community garden in Berkeley focused on providing more and better access to healthy, affordable food to local residents. “Any food security movement is born out of the free breakfast program.”
Spiral Gardens sits on a city-owned parcel of land at 2838 Sacramento St., currently on a 99-year-lease from the city of Berkeley. It offers low-cost, “culturally specific seedlings” — that is, herbs and vegetables used in the cuisines of the communities served by Spiral Gardens, such as hot peppers from Southeast Asia and herbs from West Africa and the Caribbean. Across the street on the north side of Oregon Street, Spiral Gardens offers space in its free community farm for Berkeley residents who would like to grow their own produce and free courses every other Sunday on topics ranging from container gardening to herbal medicine. The philosophy can best be summed up by what Hunter refers to as “food sovereignty.”
“The fact that anybody can come here, do this, learn this, participate in harvesting and eating nourishing food that’s grown locally by local hands — that’s food sovereignty,” said Hunter. “It’s being able to say what you want to grow, eat what you want to grow, and grow what you want to eat.”
Spiral Gardens came about because of an unaddressed need in the neighborhood for low-cost healthy foods. “This area was historically a food desert,” said Hunter. “People here were dying seven to 10 years earlier than residents on the east side of Sacramento Street and from completely treatable diseases related to lack of nutrition.”
Hunter considers Spiral Gardens more of a spiritual descendant rather than a direct descendent of the food justice efforts begun by Panther Party. But for Hunter the legacy is clear.
“They were the first ones to step out in front of everybody and just say, ‘We are going to do this because our people are dying unnecessarily. And this is an easy way to save them, right? Let’s feed our people.’” said Hunter. “That’s at the foundation of any food justice work you’re going to see in the Bay Area. And probably anywhere else on the planet. When you hear ‘food justice’ you definitely got to think ‘Panthers’ first.”
In Oakland, the Oakland Food Policy Council is among the other spiritual descendants of the Black Panthers. It has a strong community component, racial equity focus and its goals and visions parallel the Ten Point Program of the Black Panthers, a document drafted in 1966 by Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
“OFPC’s food policy work is driven by the belief that we can grow our food in Oakland as an act of independence from, and resistance to, an unjust food system that is structurally racist, economically oppressive and environmentally toxic,” OFPC executive director Shaniece Alexander wrote in an email.
“The Black Panther’s centered their community food work around self-sufficiency and food sovereignty; creating sustainable food access, health, and community driven empowerment around food. OFPC centers our work following the same values.”
Adrionna Fike, an Oakland Food Policy council member and Mandela Foods Cooperative co-founder, agrees. Mandela Foods Coop is a worker-owned cooperative grocery store in West Oakland. While Mandela has no direct ties to the Black Panther Party, it does have myriad indirect and intimate ties through family and community. “We’re a place-based descendant, because of where we are, but also a literal descendant because of who shops at our store,” said Fike.
Fike also keeps a booth at the Freedom Farmers Market. She sees a clear connection between the intention behind Mandela Foods Cooperative and the social justice efforts of the Panthers. “Behind what they did and behind what we do, is dignity,” said Fike. “Dignity is the underlying quality of all the things we do and want. Dignity in our lives. Dignity in our jobs. We want dignified food, dignified relationships with our farmers, with the makers, with the consumers.”
Dignity is more than an idea or an intangible quality to Fike. “When it’s there you can feel it,” she said.
Recently there has been a revival of interest in the Black Panther Party owing to a decision by the city of Oakland to sell a plot of land in West Oakland to a housing nonprofit headed by former Black Panther Elaine Brown. Brown was the first and only woman to chair the Black Panther Party beginning in 1974. She resigned in 1977 over issues of sexism and patriarchy within the party. Currently, Brown’s organization, Oakland and the World Enterprises operates a farm on the .71 acre sized parcel at the corner of Seventh and Campbell streets.
“I haven’t given up on the principles that I adhered to back in the days when I was in the Black Panther Party,” said Brown in a video with AJ Plus. “One thing we did right here in West Oakland is we started a program of gardens in the ghetto, believe it or not. And secondly of course as everyone knows we had a lot of food programs because we recognized that one of the greatest needs of the poor is food.”
The West Oakland farm is intimately connected to the history of the Black Panther party. It is the site where Oakland Police Officer John Frey was shot and killed in 1967 while arresting Newton. The event was the subject of the play “This Land was Made,” produced earlier this summer in Oakland by Ubuntu Theater Project. Newton was imprisoned, though the conviction was overturned on appeal. Twenty-two years later in 1989, Newton was murdered by a drug dealer on Ninth Street, just a few blocks away, in the very same neighborhood where the Panther Party began.
Brown has maintained from the start that the plan for the Lower Bottoms plot had always been to develop the land into more than just a farm, starting by offering job training programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. The city of Oakland agreed to sell the plot — valued at $1.4 million — to Brown’s organization for a fraction of its market value on the condition that it be developed into affordable housing. To ensure these ends, the city offered a $2.6 million loan to subsidize construction.
The decision has not come without controversy. Oakland and the World Enterprises has been accused of improperly receiving $710,000 of county funding from District 5 Supervisor Keith Carson’s office. And on March 24, the California Attorney General’s Office sent a letter that could potentially throw the organization’s status as a nonprofit in jeopardy due to its failure to disclose 2014 and 2015 tax returns.
Nevertheless, plans seem to be moving forward, and in addition to affordable housing, Brown hopes to continue the job training program, in addition to a gym, a grocery store, and a tech center available to all members of the community.
Jennings is glad for the number of East Bay organizations carrying forward the legacy of food justice but is measured in his enthusiasm.
“The conditions that made the Panthers come about are still there. They’re magnified,” said Jennings. “The situation is pretty much the same. The only thing that’s different now is the clothes.”
The Black Panther Party no longer exists. It was disbanded in 1982. “Officially any Panther than calls themselves a Panther has to be at least 60 years old,” said Jennings.
But the tools of social justice the party helped create and distribute are still present and strong in the East Bay. Just one block east of Elaine Brown’s farm, and four blocks west of Mandela Foods Cooperative, a white board hangs above the register at Revolution Cafe. Besides the list of menu items there is that signature image of a panther drawn in black marker, and beneath it, the words, “Long live the spirit of the panther!!!”