The Black Panthers and the Fight for Health Equity
The Black Panther Party is often remembered for their militant ideology and willingness to meet violence with violence in the fight for Black liberation. Recounts of founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale are often juxtaposed against the non-violent leaders of the Civil Rights Era. We can all imagine the famed pictures of young black men and women in black berets bearing arms. What hasn’t been well documented is that The Panthers were a part of a long lineage of racial justice organizations that promoted health as a human right and sought to disrupt the social and political factors that contributed to negative health outcomes for black people. The Black Panther Party conducted their health activism through developing institutions and social programs, providing health education, mobilizing resources to mitigate diseases that plagued black people specifically, and fighting racism in biomedical research and practice.
Health disparities were high during the late 60s and 70s and The Panther Party felt that Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did little to actually impact the health outcomes of black people. As a response, in April 1970, Panther Chairman Bobby Seale directed all Panther chapters to open healthcare clinics. There were community-based clinics in 13 cities across the country where volunteers dispensed basic medical care as well as housing assistance and legal aid. Community-based health care is an effective model to provide culturally competent care in communities where economic, political, and social barriers prevent people from accessing quality services. The clinics that the Panthers ran were critical in the fight to overcome the structural racism and economic inequality that prevented many black people from going to hospitals and other care facilities.
In 1972 the Panthers amended their Ten Point Program to include a radical vision for how we can reach health equity for black people:
WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE
We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.
This vision for health equity and self-determination is powerful for many reasons: (1) the platform of the Panthers widened from just black people to all oppressed people. This is a radical shift and hints at the growing global and intersectional view of the Panthers in the early 1970s. (2) The amendment identifies oppression as the fundamental cause of poor health outcomes. The language of the social-determinants of health did not yet exist, however, this reflects a beginning of the understanding the race-based social determinants of health: racism and discrimination shape our economic and social resources, the quality and nature of our surroundings, and through those pathways our health outcomes. (3) This vision for health isn’t limited to ensuring access to healthcare facilities to treat illness. It demands for the beginning of a public health approach to improving outcomes, including: preventative health programs, mass distribution of health information, and the establishment of research programs to specifically study the health of black and oppressed groups. (4) This vision includes a theme of empowerment and self-determination, one of The Panther Party’s core values. It calls for the redistribution of power back to communities, so that black people can provide the public health and healthcare services themselves.
The Black Panther Party stood for public health and health equity. They recognized the power of the environmental conditions of black people and realized that racism and poverty were making people sick. The Party established social programs and institutions to help remedy the problem, diverted resources to help research diseases that impacted black people, and rebuked medical racism. This showed a revolutionary mindset that recognized and demanded that health is a human right.