With Free Medical Clinics and Patient Advocacy, the Black Panthers Created a Legacy in Community Health That Still Exists Amid COVID-19Historians in the News
tags: African American history, public health, Black Panther Party, medical racism
In the first minutes of the new film Judas and the Black Messiah, released Feb. 12, it shows archival footage of the free ambulance service started by the Black Panther Party’s Winston-Salem, N.C., chapter in 1972. And the party’s Illinois chairman Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, sums up the risks of going to a hospital for a Black American, “We think it’s normal for us to go to the hospital with a runny nose and come home in a body bag.”
These scenes are a glimpse at a lesser-known aspect of the Black Panther Party’s community health work of the 1960s and 1970s that has become more widely recognized in recent years. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a new appreciation for the Black Panthers and attempts have been made to recast their image in history and highlight the work they did in their communities, such as serving free breakfast to children and setting up more than a dozen medical clinics nationwide. It’s public health work that also demonstrates the long history of problems activists are still trying to solve today.
“Everybody could benefit from taking a look at the Ten-Point platform that [the Black Panthers] had,” says Dr. Mary Bassett, former NYC Health Commissioner in Mayor de Blasio’s administration, whose career in public health started as a volunteer at the Panthers’ free clinic in Boston. “It’s fully in the tradition of documents like the Declaration of Independence or the ANC’s freedom charter. And to understand that [the Black Panthers] were about much more than the berets that they sported and the guns that they carried. They were about building a society that supports human dignity.”
The Black Panthers’ emphasis on providing community health services grew out of a deep distrust in minority communities towards the traditional health care system, which they saw as potentially dangerous to themselves and their families.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration rolled out its Great Society and War on Poverty programs in the mid-1960s. The Black Panthers didn’t think the programs did enough to help the poor, with some members even doubting if equal access to quality healthcare could exist in a capitalist society. President Nixon signed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Act in May 1972 to provide funding for research and prevention of the disease that’s most common in Black Americans. The Black Panthers saw the move as lip service to Black voters, worried that the funding would not go the communities that needed the resources the most, according to sociologist Alondra Nelson.