People’s History, Episode 4: “Free Breakfast”
People’s History Podcast an audio series about struggles in the United States, produced in collaboration with Jacobin and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Each six-episode season covers one local story, told from the viewpoint of working-class people.
Our first season, The Point, traces a social history of Boston from the urban rebellions of the 1960s, through busing in the 70s, into the Clinton era. People’s History Podcast was created with listening in mind, so we encourage everyone who is able to listen to the audio either below or via Jacobin Radio. A transcript of this episode is available below.
[Calypso song: “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Men’s Hell,” recording from Muhammad’s Temple № 11, 1960]
Here in America, all of our religious training
Has been gotten by the preacher.
He has told us of a heaven way up in the sky.
That we can’t enjoy now, but rather after we die.
But all of the years that we’re living,
For us there’s nothing but hell, pain, torture, and misgiving.
Yet the Bible speaks of a heaven filled with material luxury,
Which the white man and the preacher has right here, so we see.
So, my friend, take it for what it’s worth:
Your heaven and your hell is right here on this Earth.
So let’s check back, into history,
which rewards all research and tells us plainly.
That before the white man gained entry to the East,
he was living in the caves of Europe, a ravenous beast.
Eating juniper roots and eating flesh raw,
-Til God sent Moses to civilize him and teach him the law.
Then following Marco Polo, an explorer,
He gained entry into Asia and Africa.
From China, he took silk and gunpowder.
From India, he took jute, manganese, and rubber.
He raped Africa of her diamonds and her gold.
From the Mideast he took barrels of oil untold.
Raping, robbing, and murdering everything in his path,
The whole black world has tasted of the white man’s wrath.
So, my friend, it’s not hard to tell:
A white man’s heaven, is a black man’s hell.
Alejandro: In 1968, the US war in Vietnam was raging. American troops had occupied the country for over ten years, carrying on a French colonial project. Now they were in the middle of an aggressive bombing and ground campaign.
Two million Vietnamese people were killed over the course of the war.
Ho Chi Minh (in English): Independence must be achieved if there’s to be real peace.
But the people of Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, used guerilla and conventional war tactics to successfully fight off the United States — the biggest and most technologically advanced military in the world.
During the war, anger and confusion spread among the troops. Here’s Cappy Pinderhughes, professor of sociology:
Cappy Pinderhughes: Things got so bad within the military, that there were these instances of “fragging.”
Fragging: When U.S. soldiers threw grenades at un-suspecting commanders. There were reports of at least 800 such attempts in the Army and Marines.
Cappy: I mean it was so prevalent they had a manual by the US government for dealing with fragging.
Conor: At home, the anti-war movement was swelling in size, with more and more people burning their draft cards and refusing to be deployed.
Muhammad Ali, 1967: I will not go 10,000 miles to help murder another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.
The boxer Muhammad Ali was drafted, but refused to go.
Muhammad Ali: I said it once and I will say it again: The real enemies of my people are right here, not in Vietnam.
Cappy: I think the majority of the black community agreed with Muhammad Ali. “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger,” he said.
Martin Luther King: He is a conscientious objector to war in general and to this particular war in Vietnam and I would strongly endorse his actions on the basis of conscience.
The city of Boston was a hub of anti-war activity. Starting in 1965, there were a series of public demonstrations. In 1968, 15,000 protestors watched 200 soldiers turn in their draft cards. The Mothers for Adequate Welfare joined the march. They walked downtown carrying posters. One said: “STOP THE WAR NOW! Black men should fight white racism, not Vietnamese Freedom Fighters.”
Howard Zinn, October 1969: The fact is we have been fighting against a basically decent revolutionary movement in Vietnam.
In 1969, a record-breaking 100,000 people gathered on the Boston Common in protest of the war. Howard Zinn spoke at the demonstration.
Zinn: Is it any wonder that the people in Africa, the people in Latin America, the people in the Middle East, the people in Asia, want to make revolutions and want to change their lives? And what are we doing about that? We’re sending our military troops all over the world to keep them down.
At the center of this anti-war movement stood a growing political party called the Black Panthers. The Panthers combined community service programs with a political program of self-determination and socialist revolution.
Kim Holland: And basically the idea that it was important for people to have the power to determine their own destinies. And that it was impossible for young children to learn if they had hungry bellies.
Here’s Kim Holland, who worked with the Panthers in Boston and New Bedford.
The Black Panther Party was about service to the community and one of the ways to do that was to provide food.
Alison Bruzek: And when did you join the party?
Holland: Well I tried to join the party when I was 14 [laughs]—no, 15 and they sent me home. I ran to the party when I was in 7th or 8th grade.
As a teenager, Kim Holland’s role was to help out with one of their flagship community service programs, called Free Breakfast for School Children.
Holland: And we got up at 5:30 every morning, and went to the projects, opened up the kitchen, and cooked it all up and served it, and then they went off to school.
Public housing projects, including Columbia Point, provided a space where the Panthers could gather people and organize. Especially as projects brought together increasing numbers of the black poor working class, who the Panthers saw as the most revolutionary force in society.
New Bedford resident 1: We gonna arm, certainly we gonna arm. We gonna arm because we tired of getting shot at and beat on the head!
New Bedford resident 2: We’re tired of sitting down here waiting for the government to go ahead and say, “Well, we’re going to take care of you.” Hell with it. We’ll take care of ourselves. We’ll get what we want our own way! If we need to wipe out the city to do it, we’ll do it!
Resident 3: 1970 — year of the revolution!
Resident 1: The revolution is come! Yeah!
We’re devoting this episode to the story of the Black Panthers. It’s a chapter when Columbia Point tenants took their struggle for welfare and better housing conditions, and advanced it to a new, socialist stage.
[Theme music: “Bella Ciao” by Marisa Anderson]
Tenant 1: See what types of resources we have in Columbia Point. None! We have none, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Tenant 2: 5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, y’know. Nothing.
From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.
Tenant 3: People from the inside experienced love, tenacity, willpower.
You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called “The Point.”
Tenant 5: The point was not valued like it is today, in terms of being a piece of property.
Tenant 6: They’re like we want this property, we want people gone.
Tenant 7: Splitting families, c’mon now! That’s wrong!
Tenant 8: This is real intimidation. This is honest to goodness… this is life or death, here.
Tenant 9: The police invaded Columbia Point, so the men picked up their arms.
I’m Alejandro Ramirez, reporting with my co-producer Conor Gillies. This is Episode Four: Free Breakfast.
Angie Irving: You know the Black Panthers were there. You know. They were our friends. I mean, they were of us. And they were sharing and educating us to some of the issues. And how to fight back.
Alejandro: This is Angie Irving. She’s a supporter of the Black Panther Party, who grew up in a family of community activists.
Angie Irving: So I’m from a family of 12. 6 boys and 6 girls. So there’s 14 of us. I don’t know if we all lived in Columbia Point all at the same time at the same apartment, because there was age range is like a twenty-year span. My mother was a nurse, but after having so many children she put that on hold until late ‘50s. And my dad was primarily business, he was CPA. Public accountant. They called him Al Irving. He was also a business manager of the Columbia Point Health Center.
It was so funny because we could not find real fault in Columbia Point infrastructure until much later as we matured as we realized these issues going on. But our parents knew, and took active and leadership roles within the community to keep us safe. Making sure we were getting all the benefits from Boston Housing that we should get.
Linda Wade: Panthers at Columbia Point started here at Winthrop Street Roxbury, right here. Right across from the library here.
This is Angie’s sister Linda. She and her late brother Juno became Panther organizers. We spoke with Linda at a library in Roxbury.
Linda: For me, I was a kid. I had my school uniform on. I went to Cardinal Cushing High School, had my catholic school uniform on, and I skipped right in the door and wanted to sell papers — and they give me a bunch of papers to sell, you know?
This was their famous weekly newspaper, called The Black Panther. The paper featured news about current events and illustrations by the artist Emory Douglas. At its peak, it had a circulation of 300,000.
Linda: I stood out the middle of the street down here and sold papers the Black Panther papers for quarter. Yeah so that was my beginning and then I bought them all home with me. All home to my mother and father. Yeah and they used to have the local education meetings and some awareness type meetings in our little propaganda stuff that we still love to talk about.
And my brother my oldest brother was also a Panther. He was a Panther. My brother Juno he’s passed away. He would have been in the mid 70s. And he was great. He was an artist he was. And very prominent in the Black Panther Party and in this community also.
But the Black Panther Party. That’s how I began. They brought them all home to mom and I love to hear the politics and the different points — give me another perspective. I want to hear it all. I want to know all of it. So what is the red book, and all this. I want to know lots of things my parents couldn’t give me so they gave me the side of all of that.
Conor: When Linda and Angie hosted Panther meetings in their Columbia Point apartment, they discussed articles in the Black Panther newspaper, along with the little red book by Mao Zedong, and the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program.
Ten-Point Program: Number one: we want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community. Number two: We want full employment for our people. Number three: We want an end to the robbery by the white men of our Black Community. Number four: We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
The program was both a summary of what the Party was all about and a list of demands based on everyday needs of life.
Ten-Point Program continued: Number seven: We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people. Number eight: We want all black people to be released from the many prisons, city, county, and state jails that they are now being held in.
Cappy: And you have those summarized by point ten.
Ten-Point program continued: Number ten: We want land, justice, housing, education, clothing, and peace. And as a major political objective, a United Nations supervised plebiscite, to be held throughout the black colonies of America and in which only black people will participate to decide and determine the will of black people as to their national destiny.
Cappy: We want land, bread, education, clothing, housing, justice and peace…. So that kind of pulled it together, Panthers actually being socialist- and Marxist-minded.
Cappy Pinderhughes is a sociologist and former Panther. He sometimes joined Linda and Angie during those meetings at the Point. These days Cappy teaches at Essex County College, where he teaches a course on the Black Panthers, and so we asked him to give us some background. He described how the Party was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, but in Boston the party didn’t really take off until the summer of 1968.
Cappy: When Huey Newton went on trial summer of ’68, the Panthers made the choice of making it a political trial.
Huey: In my case it’s definitely a confrontation between the police department in particular and the colonized black people in general.
A documentary by the late Agnes Varda captures the scene in Oakland, 1968. Huey Newton had been arrested, and the party held a political rally outside the courthouse jail where he was detained.
From Agnes Varda documentary: Left, left, left, left.
Varda: On this Sunday, August 1968, their purpose is to have one of their leaders, Huey Newton, released from jail. When they sing, they sing “Free Huey!,” when they dance, they clench their fists.
People across the United States were seeing images of the Black Panthers more and more on television and hearing their songs.
[Singing: “We got to free Hu-ey!”]
Cappy: Republicans had a Rooster, the Democrats had a donkey, so they had a black cat: The Panther. And that was the origin of that.
Agnes: The Panther was chosen as its symbol. It’s a beautiful black cat that defends itself ferociously.
Varda interviewed Newton in jail, three months after he was arrested.
Huey: It’s a Marxist-Leninist program and I was greatly influenced by the Cuban revolution. And Black Panther Party are practical revolutionaries. We identify with the armed struggle of the colonized people around the world.
[soul music — The Lumpen “Free Bobby Now”]
Kwame Ture: We say Huey P. Newton is a prisoner of war!
Kwame Ture was at the rally outside, speaking in solidarity. After serving as chairman of SNCC, he had joined the Panthers in a leading role.
Ture: The United States, to this day, has not declared war on Vietnam. They did not declare war in North Korea. And they certainly did not declare war on the Indians, they just wiped them out.
Ture and Newton had a lot in common. They both believed that black people in the United States represented an internally-colonized African nation. And they saw the police as the enforcers of that colonization.
Cappy: Yes, any time you have systematic subordination across a range of areas including public health and safety, education, employment, housing. And the group is systematically subordinated and geographically located, you got a colony.
And both Ture and Newton agreed with the political principle that “power grows from the barrel of a gun.”
Women chanting: Off the pig! Bang bang!
Unidentified Panther 1: The Black Panther Party are not anarchists. We believe in a government that serves the people.
But at the same time, there was a growing divide between the two which had a dramatic effect on the Boston chapter. Ture, for his part, adhered to black nationalism more along the lines of the Nation of Islam. Huey Newton, as a Marxist, stressed the need for a class-based revolution.
Unidentified Panther 2: Huey P. Newton says every Black man, every Mexican American, every Indian, and every white radical. Has gotta get yourself armed. So we can have the power in our hands! So we can have the power in our hands!
Conor: There was a sort of– kind of split. Does that — ?
Hardwick: That’s true, I remember that.
This is Floyd Hardwick, the Boston Minister of Education. He says the old Boston Black Panther leaders, including a man named Chico Neblett, supported Kwame Ture.
Hardwick: Chico Neblett. Him and his wife were good people, very Afro-centric, very American black, and that was their main thing. They were more like– I can’t remember what we called people like.
Hardwick: Yeah they were more like that. Ron Karenga and all that. Somehow or another it didn’t work for me. You know, I thought– I thought it was suicidal.
The rift grew, and Ture was then pushed out of the organization. At the end of 1968 into 1969, his followers in Boston were iced out. The new leadership included Doug Miranda, who coordinated activity across the Northeast.
Hardwick: Doug, Doug was a master at fundraising. There was one guy who would get guns from the Italian section. Somewhere he had a connection, would get guns.
And the Boston chapter leader was a woman named Audrea Jones.
Hardwick: She was. Very decisive. She was tough. She was good. And… And we all loved her. I still do. You know, she could take the hard line. But make the hard line sweet.
With the chapter now re-established as a Marxist organization, there was an explosion of Panther activity in Boston from 1969 to 1972.
Alejandro: At Columbia Point, the Irving family and their neighbors played a key role in recruiting and orienting new Panthers. They started a Free Clothing program.
Linda: Most of the Panthers that were here in Boston work from Boston there from points of California New York Chicago and and so so did know much of the neighborhoods they didn’t know so much of the history and the politics of Commonwealth or the city Boston — let alone you know what’s going or what Columbia Point is.
So we brought them up to date the speed to put you know over the years of what was going on and how they could be more effective in our community. This is where we pull them into. You know we had the space the means the time and all we needed was the food the money and the shoes you know whatever else they wanted to bring out to us to. For any people that needed what they needed.
You know and so that’s where that began. Those meetings were led into… those little political meetings just turned into discussions on how to improve ourselves and how to help others in the neighborhood in any little little way we can in any little kind of way. And that included just anything from food to couple of dollars you know to shoes anything! we had to program for shoes. Quincy bargain center. They didn’t know they were donating to the Black Panther Party but they were. And at least the kids didn’t have all the issues and they had hats and gloves on their head.
But for myself I like I said they brought them all home to my mother and father. They became friends over the years you know. So you know that’s how the Panthers came to be at Columbia Point.
Free Clothing was just one of many “serve-the-people programs”: Programs that gave direct services to the community.
Cappy: What was first called “people’s programs” and then after ’71 they changed the political line to “survival pending revolution.” They started being called survival programs. Free Breakfast, the Free Health Clinics, free groceries, and so forth.
There were political education classes, drug programs to help people with addiction, free bus transportation to visit loved ones in prison.
When a man named Joseph Fontes moved into an Irish section of Dorchester, a white segregationist threw a brick through his window, and injured him. So, throughout June and July of 1969, the Panthers provided round-the-clock protection for the family. The chapter went on to establish a hotline for Boston residents who were being threatened by neighbors and the police.
They launched their most-well known program, Free Breakfast for School Children, in May of 1969.
Cappy: I think it was one of the programs which really helped many people understand that the Panthers really did have an interest, a fundamental interest, in the welfare of the people. We talked about serving the people, being servants of the people all the time, and I think this is a good example of doing that.
It started in Mission Hill, a black housing project in Roxbury, where they fed over 250 children each week. Then it spread to other projects like Columbia Point.
Linda: 1971 was free breakfast. ‘70, ‘71. And so all of us women, men in the community a real community effort.
Angie: and this is a philosophy from the Panthers that you know children who were fed learned better they were better participants in their classroom. Because Columbia Point was becoming a place for emergency housing a lot of the families were much poorer people who were homeless or what you know for whatever reason emergency were coming, and so they were the neediest of groups…
Angie: …that we were working with. And because of that the Panthers came in right behind that they knew working in Chicago and other places, when you create this kind of blight, that if you don’t have the community support to support the families in there it’s just going to be you know a lot of problems.
Hardwick: I worked in it. Kids are kids and it’s a good thing to see and be around and see them eating and see them happy and be supporting them and giving them food, giving them what they needed. It was really enjoyable. Waking up in the morning and seeing their smiling faces. I think we all loved the Breakfast Program just because of how kids are.
[Slow soul music, The Lumpen “No More”]
Angie: We’ll start at 830 so we’d get there on six thirty seven so on open up the door. So my job was to make the pancakes and I don’t know remember how the kids… they came in droves… So there’s a little kitchen off on the second floor and then there’s a big like auditorium big open space and all the kids would be in this big open space and there would be a big screen or something.
Linda: I was trying to set these tables
Angie: and the kids would come and they all sit around there’ll be a lot of noise and excitement and we’d get them fed with their pancakes as that was my job mixing that pancakes and getting those pancakes out there.
Harwick: Eating, they were eating. and I don’t think they would have been eating if they weren’t there eating. And there was so much innocence in their eyes! [Impersonates a child] “I want some more eggs!” [laughs] “I want some more grits!”
Angie: So we started around 630 and by 930 10:00… and my kids were babies and I had them on my back cooking. One little kid on my back and another one you know holding on to my shirt my pants leg as I cooked. And then after that you know I wasn’t working at the time so and then after they went home after we cleaned up and then got ready for the next day and we did that how many days a week?
Linda: Four days a week and the only day we didn’t do was Friday.
Angie: And at the same time we’re educating our young people and families about the issues of Vietnam War the atrocities that were going on.
The program was as much about service as it was about political education. The Panthers used the breakfast gathering to show videos about imperialism in Vietnam and connect it to what was going on at Columbia Point.
Angie: They were showing how Americans were using babies as bait. So I thought it was eye opening that’s why I became involved when I saw you know we always knew there was issues in America but not to that extent I could not believe that the war was built– you know. I thought we were trying to protect America when I realized where it was more the interest of land, you know– not about protecting America but about taking someone else’s land you know for a whole different perspective. There were resources that when the other area. But how they were doing it — the the way that they were fighting and they were using babies. But you know it’s a reminder what this country was doing.
Angie: And then how it all mirrored what was going on in Columbia Point out that these are all connected. So we’re always trying to think, “Oh gosh, I’m safe I’m here in Columbia point I ain’t gonna happen to me.” And it was happening to us all the time.
We don’t know exactly what film they were showing, but there were many instances in which American troops in Vietnam were ordered to destroy the homes of civilians, killing children and babies. The mass murder at Mai Lai was just one example of the US military using tactics of terror, rape, and genocide to try and shock the Vietnamese people into submission.
Linda: Of course the Vietnam War was very, very prevalent and very– a part of our community because we did have people that went to Vietnam didn’t come back that died. And the ones that did come back were…
Angie: A lot of people became drug addicts and more mental instability than I ever could ever imagine. I remember growing up with these young men you know who were pretty strong and pretty active when they came back, they’re not the same people at all in fact you know because of their condition I had to distance myself from them because of drugs and other behaviors. I one guy I really liked a lot, who I thought could be President, came back all messed up. He was a thief pickpocketing people, so zoned out. He also asked me to prostitute. All across the community, even my family in Connecticut: Same thing. They were not the same anymore.
Linda: I just feel that the men that we had in col point. Nobody lived to be 65 years old. No one lived to be even 60. They all passed away before that. And it was due to war injuries — which they had inadequate care for during that time — and PTSD which wasn’t diagnosed I don’t think during that time, or was just beginning to. Those were the things that they suffered. And we saw a lot of broken people broken soldiers men and women — and that that was happening along the lines of everyone else in the country too. We had seen our kids, our guys come home from the point with nobody to greet them will see them and it become kind of zombie-like.
Angie: And we were thinking that it was the same person when they came back and found out. No way in the world.
The brutality of police only intensified as the Panthers ramped up their survival programs.
Angie: The police were the culprits. Once we started doing these kind of programs you know suddenly the police were in our faces. Every time we turn around and we did something someone was saying the police is coming you know and we were doing the right thing. But it became like we’re gonna get arrested for feeding the kids or we’re gonna get arrested for having you know congregating in some way shape or form. So everything became military and they were creating dissension within the ranks of the community.
Angie: One thing the Panthers taught us how to… protect ourselves, our bodies. You know if there was a police raid how to drop roll and you know to keep body in, you know cover your head you know things like that how to get into a ball. I remember learning those kinds of things because those things did happen to other people where there were raids police raids and you know if you stood up straight you were gonna get it really really bad. And they taught us how to you know drop and roll.
Angie: There was always you know there were there were these raids. The police would come in these big armored trucks and you could see them coming in.
The Panthers “people’s news service,” a newsletter started by Cappy Pinderhughes, documents one particularly violent episode from June 1970.
One day, a black Columbia Point mother was with her kids out in the parking lot of the local Stop & Shop. An off-duty cop, passing by, began angrily shouting at the children, calling them “dogs and savages,” and using the n word. The mother protested. But then the cop got angrier, and called in backup: 12 cruisers, and 3 paddywagons.
Meanwhile, Lucille Sealey was back home at Columbia Point. She was a mother of four sons.
Lucille Sealey: For young men, and they played basketball. The Sealey boys, John Sealey, Alvin Sealey, David Sealey.
She heard of something happening down the street, and became worried, because Alvin was at the Stop and Shop with his friend.
Lucille Sealey: I don’t know what was going on over there, and they didn’t either. The young man that Alvin went with, his mother had sent him to the store to get something and they walked into that.
The scene exploded. When the cops showed up they started assaulting and arresting any black person they saw. A pregnant woman saw her nephew being arrested by 6 cops, and asked what was going on. She was thrown into the back of a truck and kicked. The cops attacked a 12 year old girl. Her brother, Philip, came in to defend her. “Don’t hit my sister again,” he said. The cops arrested the brother for assault and battery. A man named Mr. Kindell was arrested along with his sons, and beaten, too.
Alvin started running home to the project, to tell his mom what was happening.
Lucille Sealey: And they started running and one of those guys, the police or something, thought they was in it but they wasn’t.
Cops shot at the 16-year-old boy, thankfully missing. Alvin froze in place, but then the cop came up with the butt of his gun.
Lucille Sealey: And Alvin got hit.
After police beat him with a gun, they arrested him.
In their article, the Panthers describe these events as clear examples of terrorism, connected to an escalating war on black people. The new stage of this war was marked by the construction of a State Police “barracks” right on Carson Beach, next to Columbia Point. The Panthers described the building as an outpost — where the State Police could keep a close check on the project and make it easier to “carry out fascist tactics on the people.” The article ends: “To the people of Columbia Point, and all poor and oppressed people… It’s either arm yourselves or harm yourselves! … Fascism must be wiped out with people power.”
Montage, singing and clapping: “Black is beautiful — Free Huey! — No more brothers in jail! Off the pigs! — The revolution is come!”
Conor: As was the case around the country, the Boston Panthers were subject to an intense, sustained campaign of harassment by the local police. The FBI was a major ally to the cops, subverting the activities of the Panthers and preventing them from gaining access to public city spaces. FBI agents wrote to the Boston Housing Authority, to prevent the Panthers from hosting breakfast programs in housing projects. So, the BHA shut down the Mission Hill program in the summer of 1970. The Panthers were asked by residents of another project, Orchard Park, to bring the breakfast program to them. But, going along with the FBI, the BHA refused.
In fact, throughout the whole of the civil rights movement, the government had used the FBI to harass a broad range of black militant groups. It was a massive Counterintelligence Program — known as COINTELPRO — which used infiltration, harassment, and assassination to try and quote “neutralize” left-wing groups. The FBI’s main target was the Black Panthers, which the head of the FBI identified as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”
Hoover Archive: The Communists in this country have organized very intently, and have tried to create racial discord and discontent within the country.
In fact, of the 295 COINTELPRO operations, 233 targeted the Panthers.
Linda: There were raids when I was there. You know about some Boston police regularly kick the door in and you know those were violation of rights and everything else. It was just terror acts. They sit there with guns pointed and you can hear their rifles or whatever shotguns and you know it’s terrifying. And it was just for terror. And then they drive away and then come back.
Linda: This is real intimidation. This is real–this is life or death here! I was at this office at Winthrop Street, and the police decided to raid it. They had a whole police force. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t take a breath. Of course they did it in Chicago too. I couldn’t breathe.
Alejandro: But the Panthers — and the growing militant movement — would not be so easily repressed. In 1970, back in Boston, police shot and killed an unarmed black man named Franklin Lynch in a hospital. The officer, Mark Duggan, was found “not guilty” by the city court. So, the Panthers responded to the Lynch shooting with one of their most important survival programs.
The Franklin Lynch People’s Free Health Center opened in May of 1970. It was a small clinic in a trailer on land cleared for a highway project. The clinic provided first aid and basic medical information to the surrounding community, and served as a first-line emergency center. When patients with more serious problems arrived at the clinic, the Panthers would provide transportation to hospitals and advocate for the rights of black patients, who were frequently mistreated by Boston doctors and nurses. The clinic was also where the Party tested patients for sickle-cell anemia, a genetic condition that was overlooked by Boston’s medical establishment.
Kim Holland: When the Black Panther Party was operating there was minimal if any attention to sickle cell anemia because it was a quote “black disease.” And so there was no testing, no education.
Here’s Kim Holland again. She helped screen patients and worked at the trailer cleaning floors.
Holland: We did screening in New Bedford, screening in Rhode Island, we did screening in Boston. I remember having little lancets, how to prick people’s fingers, how to get the blood out and put it in the little tubes. And doing education about what this meant. The Black Panther Party was the first to talk about health inequities in that way.
Holland’s hometown of New Bedford, 60 miles south of Boston, had a lot of similarities to the community at Columbia Point. It was suffering from issues of white flight, austerity, and unemployment.
Archive tape: There are a lot of jobs out there to be had, but they’re just not giving them to black girls. And a lot of us are qualified for them.
A black carpenter described the feeling to a reporter in 1970, “We are trapped here,” he said. “we can’t get out.”
In July 1970, with the support of the Black Panthers, the people of New Bedford decided they’d had enough.
Ray Richardson: Tonight we are presenting a special program on the black rebellion in New Bedford.
The producer Ray Richardson covered the event in a pioneering documentary for the program “Say Brother,” on Boston public television.
Richardson: The Masonic lodge and another historic building were burned down.
It intensified after white teenagers breached barricades erected on Kempton St and murdered a black teenager named Lester Lima. They also wounded 3 others, including Kim Holland, with a shotgun.
Holland: I remember being 15, and after I was shot after whichever of the three white guys it was. Changed the venue of the trial to an all-white town, to an all-white jury. And the man admitted in court he had done the killing. And he still got off.
Richardson: A dusk-to-dawn curfew was enacted.
On July 13th, the panther Parky Grace led a takeover of Pieraccini’s Variety Store which had been burned out during the early stages of the revolt. Joined by other Panthers and young people in the West End , they fortified the store with sandbags and named it the local headquarters of the National Committee to Combat Fascism.
WGBH: People erected barricades in the west and south ends to defend themselves.
Archive sound: And right now we have got unity! And tomorrow and next week and next year! From now on! / Would you call it a rebellion? / I’d call it a revolution, that’s a better word. / I’d call it the start of somthing new.
Archive Sound: The black community, our reach right now is definitely exceeding our grasp, because we can grab everything that’s downtown. We don’t want everything that’s downtown. We want everything for the black community that’s here. Not here in New Bedford, but here. For a long time New Bedford has been a sleeping giant, and now the giant has woke up.
The ray of hope only lasted so long. On July 31st, a white New Bedford resident claimed he had been shot at from the office — a bullet had grazed his ankle as he drove by. That was the excuse the New Bedford police needed to shutdown the headquarters. 75 local and state police officers raided the headquarters, seized weapons, and arrested 21 people.
The charges against the arrestees would eventually be dropped. Former Panthers speculated that the cases were dismissed to prevent further civil disturbances.
Conor: The rebellion in New Bedford marked one of the last major acts for the local Panthers. Internal issues and conflict within the party never left, and constant police repression and infiltration — as well as the impact of drugs — made worse those internal contradictions.
Cappy: The party started its slow decline from ’71 to ’82. The Panthers moved to a more moderate position, dissolved the chapter, and then people who were willing move into the Oakland area so Bobby Seale could run for mayor late 1972 and into ‘73.
The more moderate Panthers attempted to bring about reform within the electoral system. Audrea Jones and Doug Miranda left the city to work on Seale’s electoral campaign, and lost. Pinderhughes stayed in Boston, where he continued to work as a journalist, but he says the organizing climate was starting to change.
Cappy: That was when — summer of ’72 — was when I developed Struggle newspaper. In terms of radical politics, there was some people like Progressive Labor Party but they really didn’t really speak to the immediate demands of the black community so they never really had much of a following.
At Columbia Point, the Panthers were now gone and conditions were still getting worse with an increased police presence, and total neglect on the part of the BHA.
Linda: They had a military agenda militarily and they accomplished that but then they were under siege demoralize and humiliate and they did that. That really was effective with the people: despair, anguish, fear those things effectively worked through the neighborhood. And then then losing more funding. Holding back more funding. And all of the other things services… not being rendered there properly.
In 1973, the Columbia Point tenant council, led by Deborah Meyers, sent letters to embassies of Sweden, China, and the Soviet Union, among other places, requesting international aid. It read: “While President Nixon is adding millions of dollars to the US military budget… to rebuild cities destroyed by US bombs, he is cutting back millions of dollars from vitally needed social services to poor people in Columbia Point and across the whole United States.”
Linda: That to me was the beginning and it seemed like a big blank hole was in the point then you know it was blank. And that was it as far as The Point.
But the forces of reaction were growing stronger as well. In Irish South Boston, just across the bay, a movement against school desegregation empowered a growing trend of white nationalism.
Archive busing sound: I am white and I want MY rights!
In September, 1974, was unleashed in full force.
Cappy: They were looking for a controlled explosion and they got what they wanted.
That’s next time on People’s History.
People’s History is produced by Alison Bruzek, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez, Alejandro Ramirez, Conor Gillies, Rosie Gillies, and Qainat Khan.
Research and production help from Patrick King, Caitlin Rose, and Ed Paget. Fact-checking and editing from Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis.
Our theme music by Marisa Anderson. Our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.
People’s History Podcast is an independent radio series. It is not associated with Howard Zinn’s book or related projects.
It is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Thank you for listening.
Conor Gillies is an audio producer at Radio Open Source and specializes in cultural documentaries.
Co-published with Jacobin.