Survival Programs: Improve Lives & Recruit Revolutionaries

Black Panthers, Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Survival Programs, Free Breakfast Program

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party founders, in October 1966.

The survival programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP) delivered services and goods to black Californian Bay Area residents in need. At the height of their operations members of the BPP ran around 65 of these programs. Some programs such as the Free Breakfast Program and the food pantry delivered food. Others provided medical care, clothing, or education to black communities. They ran The Black Panther newspaper and the Intercommunal Youth Institute, a school in Oakland.

The history of the BPP is full of violence, state oppression and infiltration, hypocritical public stances on ‘violence by black people’, and effective community organizing projects. Their effective organizing strategies are important here.     

The revolutionary black nationalist and socialist party formed in 1966, the year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They monitored the Oakland Police Department and protected black communities from police brutality. Their initial operations involved armed self-defence of black communities. They would follow Oakland police around with guns. Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were the founders of the organization which would collapse 16 years later in 1982 because of harassment from the FBI through COINTELPRO, and internal political fractures.

Huey P. Newton On The Survival Programs

Newton described the programs in his first book of essays, “To Die For The People”:

Charles Bursey serves children at the BPP Free Breakfast Program. Photo Credit: Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

“…We recognized that in order to bring the people to the level of consciousness where they would seize the time, it would be necessary to serve their interests in survival by developing programs which would help them to meet their daily needs. For a long time we have had such programs not only for survival but for organizational purposes. Now we not only have a breakfast program for schoolchildren, we have clothing programs, we have health clinics which provide free medical and dental services, we have programs for prisoners and their families, and we are opening clothing and shoe factories to provide for more of the needs of the community. Most recently we have begun a testing and research program on sickle-cell anemia, and we know that 98 percent of the victims of this disease are Black. To fail to combat this disease is to submit to genocide; to battle it is survival.

“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.

“All of our survival programs are free. We have never charged the community a dime to receive the things they need from any of our programs and we will not do so. We will not get caught up in a lot of embarrassing questions or paperwork which alienate the people. If they have a need we will serve their needs and attempt to get them to understand the true reasons why they are in need in such an incredibly rich land. Survival programs will always be operated without charge to those who need them and benefit by them…”

Organize Effectively By Governing

Black Panthers, community organizing community self-defense

Black Panthers open-carrying rifles on the steps of the Californian State Capitol. Photo Credit: ?

These programs performed a dual-function for the BPP and other groups who had used them. They provided all kinds of services (check out this list of 65 of their programs) to people with little access to them and they exposed those communities to the revolutionary ideology of the party. They were both humanitarian and recruitment programs.

The BPP formed to address the impact of white supremacy on police brutality, a problem which Black Lives Matter still fights today. They used a variety of strategies to fight for the rights of black Americans. The FBI also used a deluge of disinformation, infiltration, murder, and other ‘creative’ strategies to sow discord in the membership. The BPP had a ten-point platform of demands asking for things like self-determination, decent housing, and equal treatment under law. In the decades since the 80’s these points have barely improved for the black community. Black families still experience higher rates of homelessness than white families, they are less educated, and die younger. The counter-intelligence program run by the FBI helped neuter the BPP, but the strategies they employed could still be effective at mobilizing the public today.

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