In the context of memory, it is important to understand that the Black Panther’s breakfast program for children occurred during the civil rights era for African Americans in the 1960’s. During this period, the civil rights witnessed the influential figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Though MLK called for nonviolent protests to achieve civil rights, the black panther party possessed opposing ideas as they favored the ideologies of Malcolm X and the call for immediate action through impending violence to achieve their goals of social equality. Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the organization was founded in Oakland, CA in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton as a means to serve the black community and to protect against police brutality (Flanigan, Pope). As an aside, this draws parallels to the current “Black Lives Matter” initiative that exists today as it almost shows how this memory is still prevalent. At this time, the BPP and many other African-Americans had grown restless and tired of the exclusion of society that they faced. This idea of exclusion and the fact of having unequal rights leads one to realize why the BPP was noted for committing acts of violence. In many ways, the BPP represented individuals in the African American community that had reached their breaking point.
What was the Free Breakfast Program?
The free breakfast program for children, which was initiated by the Black Panther party, was a program that was formed in January 1969 at St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Oakland, California (Robertson). The objective of the program was to feed less fortunate children a nice warm meal for breakfast, something that many of these children were not accustom to. The majority of the children who received these meals were apart of families that struggled to provide them with proper nutrition. Many, if not all, the children that the BPP served were African American, as the BPP primarily sought out to help and serve the black community. “We know that youngsters can’t learn at school if they are hungry, they rebel against learning and say the hell with school,” as stated by Randolph Albury, who was first in charge of the breakfast program (Stein). Notably, many of the children found members of the Black Panthers to be “very nice” and even “groovy” for providing these meals for them (Stein). The communities that the BPP served viewed the breakfast program as an act of kindness and love, as the BPP helped when no one else would. As far as what was served at the first site of the breakfast program, the children were able to enjoy eggs, cereal, oranges, various meats, and hot chocolate (Stein). In order to provide these services and meals, the BPP sent out letters to various grocers and producers in the Oakland area asking for food donations to help fund the program. When first starting out, the success rate by these providers was approximately fifty percent, which was enough for the BPP to begin serving the meals (Stein). At the very first breakfast, the party served only 11 children, but by the end of that same week, the party was feeding 135 (Robertson). Due to the great need, breakfast programs were expanding into various communities where the BPP operated. At the peak of its operation, the BPP fed over 1,200 children each week at the Los Angeles Breakfast program location (Robertson). As a result of the program’s success, the BPP required all chapters to include a free breakfast location in their given community. The requirement for all of the locations was for there to be seating for at least 50 children and for 10 individuals to be working the site (Robertson). Though BPP members worked at the locations, many people who worked the breakfast were simply volunteers or everyday people who were members of the community. Some of the Individuals who worked the breakfast included church members and parents of the children that were receiving the meals. Without help from the community, the program wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Despite the good that was brought by the program, the initiative was no more as the BPP was hardly existent by the late 1980s (Robertson). Due to there being multiple locations to where the breakfasts were served, there is no single site representing this memory of black power. The Breakfast program was started by the BPP, but in many ways was owned by the community; representing how this is a communal memory bringing together African Americans. Though they may not be designated, individuals can visit the old locations, like St. Augustine church, to see where the meals were served.
Threatening the dominant memory
This project by the Panthers represents a humanitarian side to the organization, something that goes against the dominant white memory of the political organization as it represents a side of the BPP that is hardly remembered or discussed. The main American memory of the Black Panthers that is prevalent today is one that paints the BPP as a radical hate group of African American individuals, who wore all black clothing wielding guns. This dominant memory may be due to the efforts of the federal government and the FBI to silence the Black Panthers. According to released COINTELPRO surveillance files from 1969, which covered the Black Panthers, the FBI is noted in the documents for referring to the BPP as a “black nationalist hate group. (COINTELPRO)” COINTELPRO was notably a counterintelligence program led by FBI director Edgar J. Hoover that strived to stop the influence of the BPP on the black community and to ultimately destroy the black panther party as an organization (Robertson). The FBI noted in these files that the BPP was an organization that supported “the use of guns and guerrilla tactic in its revolutionary programs to end the oppression of the black man (COINTELPRO).” The FBI also stated that the BPP called for the “killing of policemen and followed the doctrine of the Chinese communists (COINTELPRO).” When looking at the breakfast program for children, the files also reveal that the FBI felt the program was simply a means to indoctrinate the children into the BPP’s ideals and beliefs. The FBI sought to “prove the program is being utilized by the BPP to indoctrinate the youngsters in hate and violence (COINTELPRO).” Countering this hegemony, former Black Panthers member Melvin Dickson is noted as claiming that the FBI did not like their efforts because it revealed how the government did not appropriately tackle the issues of poverty in various communities. Dickson has stated: “the U.S. government have all this money, but here we are, a grassroots organization feeding kids all across the U.S.” With this being said, there are various aspects of the breakfast program that may have caused the FBI to feel this way. For example, the BPP would record the name and addresses of each child who appeared at one of their breakfast locations and then visit the homes of their families (Stein). Though this idea of influencing the children into violence and hate is debatable, it is understandable to see these breakfast programs as a means to gain the likeness and favorability of the community. A community service act, such as the free breakfast program, could garner the acceptance of individuals within the area and cause an increase in the BPP membership. Even with some of the violent acts that the BPP may have been a part of, the dependence on their services of free food may have caused people within the community to not question the BPP’s tactics and views. Desperate people will take food from anyone. In poor communities such as Oakland, where the government did not provide necessary programs or aid, the BPP was able to use this free breakfast program as a powerful tool as many families were dependent upon this service to feed their children. The fact that this program confronts a basic need makes it even more powerful.
Youth is the Future
Looking at the youth as the future of society or even possibly the future of the BPP may have been one of the underlying factors for creating this breakfast program. The Southern California Chapter of the BPP in 1969 once stated that “the youth we are feeding will surely feed the revolution. All power to the people. (Flanigan, Pope)” The BPP even had their own magazine titled the “The Black Panther.” One of their issues in 1969, the same year the breakfast program started, featured a black child raising up a fist with the caption “youth makes the revolution. (Flanigan, Pope)” Particularly, the Breakfast program was marketed as being a self-defense against hunger. The BPP viewed the breakfast program as a means to “build the strength necessary to survive and overthrow the current state, and then build a better one (Flanigan, Pope).” The service initiatives created by the BPP could even be viewed as a tool for protest, as it divulged the issues within society and how communities were forced to provide for themselves instead of receiving needed help from the government. With the support from the BPP, it is understandable to see how a child may be inclined to favoring the BPP and potentially joining them when they came of age. This memory site of black power ultimately shows how the BPP was able to rally together impoverished communities through free social services. Despite the criticism, it is hard to argue the good that it did by providing thousands of children with much-needed food that they otherwise could not have obtained on their own.
Looking through the lens of Zelizer, the memory of the BPP and the breakfast program can be viewed as “processual” as the idea of the organization and its efforts may transform over time as society becomes more and more aware of their efforts. This memory of the breakfast program is partial as it only represents a fraction of the efforts committed by the BPP, despite its importance. Even with the BPP breakfast program being no more, the memory is “usable” as the influence of the program can still be seen today. For example, many education systems offer free meals to students who are less well off in many modern day schools. Though plagued with controversy, the Black Panther party did, in fact, provide positive contributions to society.
COINTELPRO FBI surveillance files for April-June 1969. (1969). United States
Pope, R. J., & Flanigan, S. T. (2013). Revolution for Breakfast: Intersections of Activism, Service, and Violence in the Black Panther Party’s Community Service Programs, 1(1)
Robertson, D. (02-26-16). The Black Panther Party and the Free Breakfast for Children Program. Retrieved from http://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-party/
Stein, R. (03-11-69). PANTHERS SERVE FREE BREAKFAST TO BLACK SCHOOL CHILDREN. Sun Reporter
The Badge of the Black Panther Party. (06-11-14). IMAGE. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/intothemusic/black-panther-badge/5511960
The Black Panther- Youth Makes the Revolution. IMAGE. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/4433299608944962/
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution | Free Breakfast Program | PBS. VIDEO (01-26-16). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyBQidWtDBs