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Body and Soul

The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

Alondra Nelson

Publication Year: 2011

Between its founding in 1966 and its formal end in 1980, the Black Panther Party blazed a distinctive trail in American political culture. The Black Panthers are most often remembered for their revolutionary rhetoric and militant action. Here Alondra Nelson deftly recovers an indispensable but lesser-known aspect of the organization’s broader struggle for social justice: health care. The Black Panther Party’s health activism—its network of free health clinics, its campaign to raise awareness about genetic disease, and its challenges to medical discrimination—was an expression of its founding political philosophy and also a recognition that poor blacks were both underserved by mainstream medicine and overexposed to its harms.

Drawing on extensive historical research as well as interviews with former members of the Black Panther Party, Nelson argues that the Party’s focus on health care was both practical and ideological. Building on a long tradition of medical self-sufficiency among African Americans, the Panthers’ People’s Free Medical Clinics administered basic preventive care, tested for lead poisoning and hypertension, and helped with housing, employment, and social services. In 1971, the party launched a campaign to address sickle-cell anemia. In addition to establishing screening programs and educational outreach efforts, it exposed the racial biases of the medical system that had largely ignored sickle-cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affected people of African descent.

The Black Panther Party’s understanding of health as a basic human right and its engagement with the social implications of genetics anticipated current debates about the politics of health and race. That legacy—and that struggle—continues today in the commitment of health activists and the fight for universal health care.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xvi

Milestones in health and medicine are conveyed as bearing on the broadest political and social ideals. The recent tenth anniversary of the decoding of the human genome, for example, brought with it cautious hope for the progression of genetic science from the lab bench...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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Introduction: Serving the People Body and Soul

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pp. 1-22

Over three days in the spring of 1972, the Black Panther Party, the radical political organization that had emerged in Oakland, California, almost six years prior, held a Black Community Survival Conference— a gathering that combined elements of a rally, a street...

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1. African American Responses to Medical Discrimination before 1966

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pp. 23-48

In 1962 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading and largest civil rights organization of the twentieth century, filed suit on behalf of a group of African American medical professionals and their patients in opposition to “separate but...

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2. Origins of Black Panther Party Health Activism

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pp. 49-74

As the ranks of the Black Panther organization rapidly swelled after its founding in 1966, community service became progressively central to its mission. In 1968 Party headquarters mandated that all chapters inaugurate “serve the people” programs. Within two years...

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3. The People’s Free Medical Clinics

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pp. 75-114

A February 1970 issue of the Black Panther featured two articles that dramatized how mainstream medicine could fail poor communities. One account told of the untimely death of James Anthony Nero, an African American infant, in Brooklyn, New York. Suffering...

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4. Spin Doctors: The Politics of Sickle Cell Anemia

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pp. 115-152

On March 29, 1972, in Oakland, California, the Party launched a three- day Black Community Survival Conference at De Fremery Park, known to the Panthers as Bobby Hutton Memorial Park after the first member of the Party besides Newton and Seale.1 This park...

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5. As American as Cherry Pie: Contesting the Biologization of Violence

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pp. 153-180

In 1973 the Black Panthers became involved in a challenge to the formation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles that would be dedicated partly to investigating the biological etiology of violence....

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Conclusion: Race and Health in the Post–Civil Rights Era

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pp. 181-187

The effects of the Black Panther Party’s health activism have been multiform, registering in the evolution of individual lives, in the ebb and flow of institutions, and in the persistent struggle for healthcare access. Many former Panthers continued their work on healthcare...

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pp. 189-196

It would have been impossible for me to complete this work without the encouragement, support, and guidance of a host of extraordinary and extraordinarily gracious people who, in ways small and large, collectively inspired me, prodded me along, and sustained me....


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pp. 197-257


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pp. 259-289

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678754
E-ISBN-10: 0816678758
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816676484

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011