New Book Highlights Black Panther Party’s Radical Healthcare Activism

Author Alondra Nelson says the Panthers's history of healthcare activism is an inspiration for all people.

Posted: 12/22/2011 04:17 PM EST

(Photo: Univ Of Minnesota Press)

Mentioning the Black Panther Party often brings to mind stock images of stoic, young, Afro'ed Black men and women donning berets and black leather, and clutching assault rifles. But a new book from Columbia University professor Alondra Nelson shows that the Panthers' most revolutionary ideas may have been those surrounding community-based free healthcare, which they provided to many African-Americans in the late 1960s and '70s.

In her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Nelson cuts through some of the romanticized elements of the party’s legacy to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party’s struggle for healthcare justice. After successes with running health clinics in the late 1960s, the Black Panthers decided in 1970 that all chapters of the organization would be required to operate free medical clinics. The organization also included "completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people" in its 10-point platform.

 “The clinics were established to not only help the broader communities that the Panthers were working in, but to help the Panthers themselves," Nelson told "In interviewing about the clinics, people conveyed to me that this was a place that they felt comfortable going to, that was nearby, and it was also the case that the Panther clinics were open late in the evenings, say 5 to 9, so people could go after work and seek medical care.”

However impressive the success of the clinics, Nelson says it was mostly the Party’s involvement in a self-constructed sickle cell screening program that piqued her interest in the organization’s healthcare work and served as the inspiration for the book.

“I thought to myself, 'These are people who are teenagers and in their early 20s doing a large-scale genetic screening program — talk about revolutionary!'” she said.

Although the national leadership of the organization mandated the clinics, no funding was provided, so local members had to band together within their communities to get supplies, staff and other resources to operate each clinic. The Panthers felt they were providing vital services to their communities that the U.S. government should have.

“We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care,” the Panthers wrote.

Nelson believes the Panthers’ ideals can serve as an inspiration to all people.

“I think it’s a really powerful story about people being empowered and being agents and getting access to healthcare,” she said. “Healthcare can be dangerous, where it can be a place of mistreatment or people being distrustful. The Panthers say to us today, 'Get in there and get access to your healthcare, ask questions, demand a right to have healthcare, demand a right to ask questions about the way medical power is framing questions about poor people and Black people’s health.'”

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