- An Interview with Comrade Sister Betty Powell
When did you join the Black Panther Party?1
I joined the Black Panther Party in 1970. The Party had an office uptown on St. Thomas Street. I would go by the political education classes and stuff that they had. They were teaching Black history that I didn’t get in school, so that got my attention. The classes were held outside. I would go by the office and do some volunteering. I would do some light typing, but was not interested in selling newspapers. We had a brother named Chuckie [Charles Scott] who said one day, “Sister, I bet you can sell some papers.” I replied, “Not me.” Eventually, I did sell papers and enjoyed it. I looked forward to it.
How old were you when you joined the Black Panther Party?
I was about 19 or 20 years old. I actually did not have any intentions of joining the party. I was just interested in visiting the classes and things, but I was there the night [September 14, 1970] that the two undercover police agents were exposed and I just didn’t leave after I saw what was going on.
Why couldn’t you leave?
They had what was called the “People’s Court” and that exposed all the information and stuff that the agents were doing. I saw what the party was doing. The party was having a positive effect in the community. They had the Free Breakfast program going on, and they were out with cans soliciting donations for it. Not only that, they built a relationship with the community, and the children really rallied around the party. There were young people my age that could really relate to them. I remember my daddy saying when I was between 13 or 15 years old that if Martin Luther King ever came this way [New Orleans] that he would march with him. That was his time, the nonviolent march. But when the Panthers came, it seems like my memory might be vague, but I think I was still in school at the time when the governor said that we were not going to let them [the Panthers] get a foothold here. [End Page 163] I wanted to see for myself. I was curious. I had my own mind and I had to check it out for myself.
What were your duties as a member of the New Orleans Black Panther Party chapter?
A lot of times, I was out in the field selling Panther papers and buttons. I didn’t actually do any classes myself. I worked the Free Breakfast programs, which I did faithfully. I remember working on the sickle cell anemia program. Although I didn’t do any testing, I remember getting people there.
How did the community support the New Orleans BPP chapter?
The community really backed us. At the political education classes, they were out in numbers. They donated when we were out there shakin’ the cans. They donated and contributed to the Free Breakfast Program. They would stop and converse with us and gave their opinions and let us know that they were with us. But when I really, really saw how the people supported us was after the first shootout [Piety Street shootout, September 15, 1970]. Those 26 people were incarcerated and were going to trial. I remember standing on the corner of Tulane and Broad and the courthouse was surrounded with people from the community. We were still doing the paper deal. We were trying to let them know what was going on in the courthouse. The people were there in masses. If the people had not been there we might still be languishing in jail today. After the first shootout, I like to say that it was more of a raid rather than shootout. The people were there. They came out of their houses once the police got the comrades out of the building. You know that most of the time people will standoff and look from their windows. These people came out of their houses...