The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City

Burke-PortlandBlackPanthersFrom Ferguson, Missouri to Flint, Michigan, African American communities across the nation continue to struggle for the same basic rights, protections, and social services demanded by the civil rights movement exactly a half century ago. In their timely new book, The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City, authors Lucas N. N. Burke and Judson Jeffries remind us of an earlier case of concerned citizens, in a similarly overlooked black community, who took matters into their own hands when they felt they weren’t being heard by local leaders. While most of us easily associate the Black Panthers with berets and bullet belts, Burke and Jeffries show us that the Portland branch, which was much smaller than its more infamous counterparts in the Bay area, was more concerned with taking care of neighborhood kids and opening a free health clinic for the community.

Though there definitely are stories of violence, angry protests, police brutality, and other more dramatic episodes in their book, the excerpt I’ve chosen focuses on the group’s early attempts (before it was an official Black Panther branch) to start a free breakfast program for kids in the Albina district. I chose this passage for several reasons. For starters, it’s a warm, “feel good” moment that demonstrates the Portland Panthers’ ability to build community, countering the stereotype that portrays them only as angry and combative. Instead, we see Kent Ford and other Portland Panthers working to secure food donations, and organizing early morning schedules for cooks and servers, actions that clearly take a great deal of planning and effort. Secondly, we see through the press coverage how the Portland branch challenged those very preconceived notions about the Black Panthers. Reporters came in expecting militant ideology and instead found pancakes and syrup.

Finally, I chose this particular excerpt because it also speaks to the vision of the Panthers. Providing free breakfast to school kids might seem like a minor thing, but, as they argued, the idea that everyone is entitled to a healthy diet is truly a revolutionary concept. These days that concept is known as the “food justice” movement, but, as the authors show, it was being fought for in Portland long before it had an official name. Though the Portland Black Panthers branch dissolved by the 1980s, its legacy lives on in the city through the various activist groups fighting for fair housing, living wages, environmental justice, and an end to police brutality, among other issues. By shining the spotlight on the little known Portland Black Panther branch, Burke and Jeffries show us how even the smallest group—in the unlikeliest of places—can affect major change by building up its community and relentlessly pushing back against the powers that be.

Ranjit Arab, Senior Editor

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City, by Lucas N. N. Burke and Judson Jeffries:

Even though they were not yet card-carrying members of the Black Panther Party, NCCF (National Committee to Combat Fascism) members in Portland worked diligently in the fall of 1969 to establish a free breakfast program for school kids. “The government had money to fight a war thousands and thousands of miles away . . . and send astronauts to the moon,” Kent Ford said, “but ensuring that kids received a well-balanced meal before heading off to school was not a priority . . . so the Panthers made it a priority.” In 1967, the US government spent a mere $600,000 on breakfast programs nationwide. But as more and more Panther branches started their own free breakfast programs, government-sponsored breakfast initiatives proliferated. By 1972, government-sponsored breakfast programs were feeding more than a million children of the approximately five million who qualified for such aid.

Doing the work of a Panther without being acknowledged as a Panther frustrated some of the Portland members. Their community survival initiatives, among other things, were indicative of the NCCF’s burning desire and commitment to be recognized as full-fledged Panthers. Becoming an official Panther came with a tremendous amount of responsibility, but to some it was not significantly different from what they had become accustomed to doing as members of the NCCF. Oscar Johnson remembers how he structured his days around Panther activities: “My work as a Panther was not all that different than what I was doing as a member of the NCCF. I worked nights, so I was the driver. I’d finish my shift and pick up kids who needed a ride to breakfast. Go home and sleep. We solicited cash and food from neighborhood businesses in the afternoon and attended political education classes at night. It felt good. . . . We were doing something. We had the respect of the community.” Drawing on a small but diverse group of young working-class and student activists, these African American men and women used a variety of networks and connections to build a robust breakfast program. The Portland NCCF made the announcement that it was going to start a free breakfast program at a community meeting. “From the outset, people were receptive to the program,” said Black Panther Patty (Hampton) Carter. Believing the program to be a worthwhile endeavor, Rev. Samuel L. Johnson, head pastor of the Highland United Church of Christ, offered his church as the venue for the program. The church, located at 4635 NE Ninth Ave, was ideal, as it was spacious, met building and health code inspections, and was in close proximity to Martin Luther King Elementary School, which was located at 4906 NE Sixth Avenue. One week into the 1969–70 school year, NCCF members distributed leaflets (outlining the schedule, goals, and objective of the free breakfast program) to various community groups and passed them out to kids as they walked to and from school. Ford remembered that “people were so supportive of the program. . . . Rev. Johnson didn’t charge us a dime . . . neither did the Wonder Bread company that gave us fifty loaves of bread each week, no questions asked . . . then there was this one nice lady who (within a month of starting the breakfast program) came in one day with seventy-five cartons of eggs. When I attempted to pay her for her trouble, she turned me down flat saying, ‘You guys are doing good work.’ ”

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“Serving the people –Black Panthers Kent Ford supervises children from King School, who get a free hot breakfast under a Panther program. Ford says the free breakfast, and free dental and medical clinics sponsored by the Panthers, are ‘to help our people survive.'” Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

By early 1970, the NCCF cadre was serving between 75 and 125 children each weekday morning. Panther supporters who had experience working in child care and child development programs helped prepare the menus, which varied depending on the contributions of area businesses and supermarkets. Percy Hampton noted that to have a breakfast program, “We all had to get the approval of the health department . . . we all had to get food handlers’ cards in order to serve food.” The program ran from Monday through Friday. Service was interrupted on holidays, when school was cancelled due to inclement weather, and during the summer months. The kids ate well, including “sweet rolls from Wonder Bread, ground beef from McDonald’s, milk from Standard Dairy, produce from Cornos,” said Ford. One of the program’s best cooks was a middle-aged volunteer name Robert “Bob” Frost. A former Navy man and reportedly a native of Ohio, Frost claimed to have been a professional chef. Said Ford, “Frost was an old-school southern style cook who could whip up anything at the drop of a hat and it would be delicious.” Sandra Ford’s praise of Frost was equaling glowing: “He could cook out of this world.” While Frost is remembered for his superior culinary skills, the majority of the cooks were women. “The men mainly kept order, passed out the utensils . . . stuff like that,” said Ford.

Rick Goodfellow, a writer for the Pioneer Log (Lewis and Clark College’s student newspaper), wrote a four-part series on what he described as the Portland Panthers (although they were actually an office of the NCCF at the time), chronicling in great detail his visit to the breakfast program. According to Goodfellow,

We had expected some idealist whose blurred dogma interfered with their work. What we saw were four people just working. There were no propaganda posters on the wall, no black berets on the men’s heads, and, at least at that moment, no talk of party ideology. Of course, we soon came to an obvious conclusion—if anybody wanted to feed a bunch of kids every morning, they had to get up and work. There was no time for politics. By 7:30 a.m. all of the preparations had been completed except for actually cooking the food. When the first little girl walked in, the cooking began. In another ten minutes, another nine children had arrived, filling one of the four tables. The breakfast workers kept a close eye on the kids and prepared food at the same pace in which the children arrived. No one was served anything but hot, freshly cooked sausage, eggs, hotcakes, syrup, and hot chocolate. The food smelled good, and we did not see a single child who did not eat everything that was on his plate.

Reflecting back some forty years, Goodfellow freely admits, “Writing those articles was not an easy thing to do, as the Panthers were not at all what I had expected.”

The Panthers also received praise from Oregonian reporter Bill Keller, who wrote in a news article, “The breakfasts are more orderly than meals in most cafeterias. Even a soft drink machine in the church annex is taped up each morning so that children won’t spend their lunch money.” Some former participants of the breakfast program have vivid memories of that time. Ollie Robertson, who was a regular at the free breakfast program, remembers, “Every time I see Mr. Ford to this day I thank him for doing that breakfast program.” When asked what she remembered about the free breakfast program, Kim Green, who is now in her mid-fifties, said, “I remember being happy whenever I went there.” Nathaniel Cross, another Martin Luther King Elementary School graduate, exclaimed, “I loved going to the breakfast program. I went there for about two years straight. I remember Mr. Ford used to talk to us about staying in school, doing the right thing, and getting our lives together. I looked forward to seeing the Panthers. They always had something positive to say.” For Albina residents, the breakfast program was not only a blessing, it was also an important element in breaking the cycle of poverty and a dependency on government. Brochures distributed by the NCCF pointed to the circular logic of poverty: “They tell us, you’re hungry because you’re poor . . . . You’re poor because you haven’t got the best jobs. . . . You can’t get the best jobs because you’re uneducated, and you’re uneducated because you didn’t learn in school because you weren’t interested. And every time the teacher mentioned 5 apples or 6 bananas, your stomach growled. How can a person learn about remainders and quotients when his mind is concentrating on a very real and concrete problem?”

From the perspective of NCCF members and many blacks in Albina, children whose parents could not afford basic foodstuffs were stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Linda Thornton, who spent much of her time working in the breakfast program, said, “This program was much needed . . . a lot of the kids at the breakfast program were from broken homes. . . they were going to school hungry.” Poverty was one of the greatest obstacles facing the African American community, and it stood in the way of any hope of meaningful social or economic progress. Therefore, addressing poverty was an essential step toward other neighborhood improvements. According to Portland Panther Vernell Carter, “The breakfast program showed the city what we [black people] could do it on our own.” As the need for a wide range of services became clearer to members of the NCCF, additional programs were created that benefited thousands of Portlanders throughout the 1970s. Still, of all the programs offered by the NCCF, the breakfast program is the one that residents seem to remember most fondly. Darryl Thomas, now fifty-seven, remembers vividly the Panthers’ free breakfast program:

I was attending Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School at the time and a bunch of us from school would walk over to the Highland United Church of Christ and eat breakfast. This was in 1969. The Panthers fed us well. We would have pancakes or waffles, juice and milk. Eggs mixed with sausage was a staple. The Panthers also served potatoes. The Panthers had a saying: . . . if a kid is hungry, he isn’t thinking about learning, he’s thinking about his stomach growling.

The Panthers fed everyone a hearty breakfast. Like Thomas, Teddy Sanders also had fond memories of the breakfast program. He said,

I ate at the breakfast program religiously . . . all of my friends did too. We would knock on each other’s door and holler “Let’s go get some breakfast!” More kids ate at the Black Panther breakfast program than at the school. We had to pay to eat breakfast at my school. Not only that, but the breakfast served at the school wasn’t very healthy. They served some type of yellow cornmeal-looking mush with one little carton of milk . . . I will never forget that. The school’s breakfast didn’t compare to what the Panthers gave us. The Panthers program wasn’t a good program, it was an excellent program.

Dolores Bowman, who was in charge of the breakfast program at Martin Luther King Elementary School, admitted that the public schools’ program could not compete with the Panthers’ in quality of hot food, but said that her program served an average of 100 to 150 children a day. In early March 1970, a photographer for a local publication dropped in on the elementary school breakfast program, and while he did not find the children eating the type of mush described by Teddy Sanders, what he did witness was a breakfast that consisted of toast with some sort of syrup and butter coating, along with milk and juice. “We fed them real food,” Joyce Radford (now Williams) noted of the Panthers’ breakfasts, “unlike what they were getting from the school.” When asked why more children attended the school’s breakfast program despite the fact that the Panthers’ breakfast was more appealing, Bowman speculated that the answer probably lay with parental reaction to some of the films and literature associated with the Panthers’ breakfast program. “But,” she said, “if it was just a matter of the kind of food served, I’d eat with the Panthers.” Although the program was a hit in the community, Ford noted that “it only lasted for four years.” In November 1971, Bill D. White, principal of Martin Luther King Elementary School, said in an interview by Oregonian reporter Bill Keller, “The Panthers express something that many of the people here feel . . . they may express it more strongly, but if you took a vote on the street, the Panthers would get a good majority of support, mostly because of programs like the free breakfast and the clinics.”

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