From 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.’ ”