Body and Soul
The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination
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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PREFACE: POLITICS BY OTHER MEANS
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...the broadest political and social ideals. The recent tenth anniver-sary of the decoding of the human genome, for example, brought with it cautious hope for the progression of genetic science from the lab bench to the bedside. This scientific landmark was notably accompanied by then president Bill Clinton’s proclamation that this feat had established ...
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Introduction: Serving the People Body and Soul
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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 Sur-vival Conference— a gathering that combined elements of a rally, a street fair, and a block party— in that city’s De Fremery Park.1 On March 27, standing before a large banner carrying the slogan “Serve the People Body and Soul,” the Party’s chairman and cofounder Bobby Seale spoke ...
1. African American Responses to Medical Discrimination before 1966
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In 1962 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading and largest civil rights organization of the twen-tieth century, filed suit on behalf of a group of African American medical professionals and their patients in opposition to “separate but equal” medical facilities, in hopes of toppling the edifice of racism, improving healthcare for blacks, and according a modicum of dignity to those most likely to treat them. A centerpiece of the “medical civil ...
2. Origins of Black Panther Party Health Activism
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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, attention to medical issues and the provision of healthcare played a con-siderable role in the Party’s service endeavors. By 1970 the establish-ment of People’s Free Medical Clinics was a chapterwide requirement. ...
3. The People’s Free Medical Clinics
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A February 1970 issue of the Black Panther featured two articles that dramatized how mainstream medicine could fail poor commu-nities. One account told of the untimely death of James Anthony Nero, an African American infant, in Brooklyn, New York. Suffering from fever and chest congestion, James was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital. Doctors “hurriedly” examined the baby and al-legedly sent him home with medication, but without a proper diagnosis.1 ...
4. Spin Doctors: The Politics of Sickle Cell Anemia
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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 held much meaning for the group. “Defremery was a tattered park,” Elaine Brown recalled. “Its thinning grass reflected the poverty of West Oakland, where Bobby . . . lived and died. But it was our park now, the ...
5. As American as Cherry Pie: Contesting the Biologization of Violence
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In 1973 the Black Panthers became involved in a challenge to the for-mation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, a re-search center at the University of California at Los Angeles that would be dedicated partly to investigating the biological etiology of violence. In this instance, the Party tilted emphasis from providing healthcare to underserved communities, with attention to medical mistreatment that characterized its ongoing clinic work and sickle cell activism, to focus-...
Conclusion: Race and Health in the Post–Civil Rights Era
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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 health-care access. Many former Panthers continued their work on healthcare issues, with some remaining activists and others going on to careers in the medical professions, in public health administration, and in health- related community programs. Although the Seattle chapter’s break with ...
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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, col-Thanks are heartily extended to the librarians of both the Special Collections Department and the University Archives at the University of California, Los Angeles Young Research Library, for their assistance, among them Dennis Bitterich, Charlotte Brown, and Jeff Rankin. The ...
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...1. This statement is inspired by Bruno Latour’s now- famous assertion, “Science . . . is politics by other means.” See Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of 2. “White House Remarks on Decoding of Genome,” New York Times, 3. David Hinckley, “Health Care Bill Triggers Eruption from Rush Lim-baugh, Glenn Beck, and John Gambling,” New York Daily News, March 22, 2010, ...
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ALONDRA NELSON is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also holds an appointment in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is coeditor of Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life and Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, ...
Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011