In January 1969, 11 school children gathered around a table at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California sharing in a breakfast of grits, fruit, toast, eggs, and milk. By the end of the week, there were 135 children there for breakfast. By the end of that year, over 20,000 children were served breakfast in similar settings across the country.
The breakfast was provided by The Black Panther Party (BPP), a political organization founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers called for an immediate end to police brutality, prison reform, and equal employment and housing opportunities for the Black community. Pictured in the media donning their iconic black berets and leather jackets, armed to patrol their communities, the Panther party was reviled as a dangerous, extremist organization largely feared by those intimidated by their message and tactics.
Who were the Black Panthers?
Though the media showed the Panthers as extremists, the main goal of the BPP was to uplift and serve the Black community by any means necessary. One way the Panthers served their community was their Free Breakfast Program. Many in BPP were inspired by research showing that eating breakfast in the morning improves students’ academic performance and raises test scores through increased concentration and energy levels.
The Panthers realized that low-income and Black children in their communities could not do as well in school because of constant hunger that interfered with their concentration and schoolwork. After the start of their first breakfast served in Oakland in 1969, the Panthers expanded the program to Black Panther Party chapters in 36 cities feeding 20,000 low-income children. In 1969, the administrator for the U.S. National Lunch Program confessed that the Panthers were feeding more low-income children than the State of California.
The program was successful in increasing students’ academic successes, with school officials reporting huge improvements with kids who were served free breakfast before school. Ruth Beckford, who helped with the program, later said “the school principal came down and told us how different the children were. They weren’t falling asleep in class, they weren’t crying with stomach cramps.”
With food in their bellies, the kids were able to focus on their schoolwork. However, despite these successes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) felt threatened by the BPP, referring to it as “a communist organization and an enemy of the United States government.” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover named the BPP as “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.”
“The school principal came down and told us how different the children were. They weren’t falling asleep in class, they weren’t crying with stomach cramps.”
-Ruth Beckford, Free Breakfast Program volunteer
After all, the BPP threatened the white dominant status quo by demanding decent housing, full employment, education that included African-American history, and an end to police brutality for the Black community. They created social and community programs for low-income and Black communities, providing free breakfast for children, free food for families, liberation schools, local transportation, free healthcare clinics with affordable testing for sickle-cell anemia (a blood disease that is common in the Black community), and legal aid.
Due to this perceived threat, the federal government launched their plan to discredit the Panthers and the Free Breakfast Program. They were determined to dismantle and abolish the BPP and worked to directly destroy their programs and services through tactically creating rumors, stoking fear and mistrust, and conducting raids of their homes and organizations’ sites.
One FBI raid in Chicago ended with smashing and urinating on all the food that was to be used for the children’s breakfast program. The FBI successfully instilled fear around the BPP, several leaders were killed by police, and the party was officially dismantled throughout the following years. The Seattle BPP chapter was the last standing chapter and ended in 1977.
Though the federal government intentionally discredited and dismantled the BPP, they largely expanded their own national Free and Reduced-Price Meal Programs, which today reach 14.57 million children. At Solid Ground, we recognize that hunger and health disparities are not due to a lack of sufficient food, but rather the inequities that have been designed into the food system (a system rooted in racism).
To address this reality, our Community Food Education (CFE) team works in communities and schools disproportionately impacted by the inequities of our current food system, largely communities of color, engaging students in conversations around food security, food justice, and the farm-to-table system. We directly see the results of the Free and Reduced-Price Meal Programs in the schools we teach in, and we know that food should never be a barrier to kids learning – and we want to pay homage to this legacy of the BPP, which inspired the expansion of this program that benefits so many school-age children each year.
The BPP’s programs and platform were largely misunderstood at the time and now – similar to the often misunderstood modern racial justice movement with similar goals of Black dignity and an end to police brutality – the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Black Lives Matter today
As we are in the midst of the largest civil rights uprising in modern history, it is important to acknowledge and reflect on the work of those who came before us in this work. We acknowledge the Black Panther Party for all the ways they showed up in solidarity, through direct action, and through mutual aid for each other and for the Black and low-income communities. We also reflect in the knowledge that this work and progress is not done; the systems of racism and oppression that the Panthers were fighting to dismantle are still present today, and more than 50 years later, we are still working toward the same goals that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale fought for when they started the BPP.
The BLM movement today has reignited and reawakened many of us – especially white Americans – to the enormity of racial disparities and systemic racism that exists within our police force and institutions, revealing the uncomfortable truth that our nation still does not offer equal opportunities to all people – that our nation still deeply fears acknowledging our racist past and present – and fears the Black community gaining economic equality and successes.
Our current government’s response to the BLM movement exemplifies this – clearing away protesters with tear gas, calling the Black Lives Matter mural painted on Fifth Avenue in New York City a “symbol of hate,” and other racist and fear mongering rhetoric – similar to Hoover calling the BPP “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security” to justify raiding BPP members’ homes. We must acknowledge the way that history continues to repeat itself unless we decide to challenge the status quo.
Interested in learning more? Check out the resources below!
- The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
- How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government
- The Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program
(If possible, purchase books from Black-owned bookstores.)
- Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
- Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin