Black berets and white coats: The Black Panther Party’s public health intervention

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Radical. Violent. Rebels. Guns. Berets. A series of words and images often thrown around when describing the Black Panther Party (BPP) and wielded reductively and unfairly to project a negative image of the Party. After reading Alondra Nelson’s 2011 work Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, I would like to offer another description of the organization: a public health powerhouse.

In 1972, the Party added the following demand to their central platform: “Completely Free Health Care for All Black and Oppressed People.” (4) Shortly thereafter, the BPP implemented myriad medical and health services in various cities populated by low-income African Americans. Importantly the services were both tangible, like free clinics, and intangible, like ensuring doctors working in the clinics were using laypeople terms instead of inaccessible medical jargon. As I read, the breadth of services seemed never-ending:

  • People’s Free Medical Clinics
  • Free Breakfast for Children
  • Patient Advocates
  • Community Health Workers
  • Screening for sickle cell anemia
  • Screening for hypertension
  • Testing for lead poisoning
  • Referrals to other facilities and specialists
  • Free clothes giveaways
  • Free grocery giveaways
  • People’s Free Dental Clinic
  • Health conferences
  • Pharmacies
  • Self-health – training women to self-assess their reproductive health (self-examinations, diagnoses, etc.)
  • Medical training for volunteers to serve as medical assistants
  • Sexual health resources
  • Free ambulance service with certified EMTs
  • Bus service for people to visit incarcerated family and friends
  • Escorts to medical appointments
  • Assistance navigating social services: housing, welfare, employment

While reading, I was most intrigued by the BPP’s clear understanding that health goes far beyond the medical. In providing services related to housing, such as lead poisoning tests, or considering the difficulty for some people to get to appointments, or connecting patients to other social services, BPP was effectively addressing issues stemming from what we now refer to as social determinants of health. Some of the services they provided are ones that MassHealth is aiming to roll out this year through the 1115 waiver and Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP). The Party identified these issues and acted to counter them over 45 years ago, without government support financially or politically. I say this not to criticize current efforts which are being fiercely advocated for and implemented. Rather, I hope that in Nelson’s presenting this history of the Black Panther Party, we recognize two things. First, how ingrained these barriers to health issues have been for low-income people, African American people, and other individuals long relegated to the margins of our society. Second, I urge us to add more words to the description of the Black Panther Party: Health providers. Educators. Community advocates. Volunteers. White coats.

 Nelson, Alondra. (2011) Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Ceylon Auguste-Nelson, BA

Research Associate