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Body and Soul

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

Alondra Nelson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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    Body and Soul
    Book Description:

    Between its founding in 1966 and its formal end in 1980, the Black Panther Party blazed a distinctive trail in American political culture. The Black Panthers are most often remembered for their revolutionary rhetoric and militant action. Here Alondra Nelson deftly recovers an indispensable but lesser-known aspect of the organization's broader struggle for social justice: health care. The Black Panther Party's health activism-its network of free health clinics, its campaign to raise awareness about genetic disease, and its challenges to medical discrimination-was an expression of its founding political philosophy and also a recognition that poor blacks were both underserved by mainstream medicine and overexposed to its harms.

    Drawing on extensive historical research as well as interviews with former members of the Black Panther Party, Nelson argues that the Party's focus on health care was both practical and ideological. Building on a long tradition of medical self-sufficiency among African Americans, the Panthers' People's Free Medical Clinics administered basic preventive care, tested for lead poisoning and hypertension, and helped with housing, employment, and social services. In 1971, the party launched a campaign to address sickle-cell anemia. In addition to establishing screening programs and educational outreach efforts, it exposed the racial biases of the medical system that had largely ignored sickle-cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affected people of African descent.

    The Black Panther Party's understanding of health as a basic human right and its engagement with the social implications of genetics anticipated current debates about the politics of health and race. That legacy-and that struggle-continues today in the commitment of health activists and the fight for universal health care.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7875-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE: Politics by Other Means
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. (pp. 1-22)

    Over three days in the spring of 1972, the Black Panther Party, the radical political organization that had emerged in Oakland, California, almost six years prior, held a Black Community Survival Conference—a gathering that combined elements of a rally, a street fair, and a block party—in that city’s De Fremery Park.¹ On March 27, standing before a large banner carrying the slogan “Serve the People Body and Soul,” the Party’s chairman and cofounder Bobby Seale spoke on a public address system to the assembled mass of Panther loyalists, political allies, locals, police, and passers-by about the organization’s slate...

    (pp. 23-48)

    In 1962 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading and largest civil rights organization of the twentieth century, filed suit on behalf of a group of African American medical professionals and their patients in opposition to “separate but equal” medical facilities, in hopes of toppling the edifice of racism, improving healthcare for blacks, and according a modicum of dignity to those most likely to treat them. A centerpiece of the “medical civil rights movement,”¹ this initiative was spearheaded by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and two members of the faculty of the Howard University...

    (pp. 49-74)

    As the ranks of the Black Panther organization rapidly swelled after its founding in 1966, community service became progressively central to its mission. In 1968 Party headquarters mandated that all chapters inaugurate “serve the people” programs. Within two years, attention to medical issues and the provision of healthcare played a considerable role in the Party’s service endeavors. By 1970 the establishment of People’s Free Medical Clinics was a chapterwide requirement. In 1972 Huey Newton and Elaine Brown revised the Party’s ten-point platform and program, adding to it an explicit demand for “completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people.”¹...

    (pp. 75-114)

    A February 1970 issue of theBlack Pantherfeatured two articles that dramatized how mainstream medicine could fail poor communities. One account told of the untimely death of James Anthony Nero, an African American infant, in Brooklyn, New York. Suffering from fever and chest congestion, James was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital. Doctors “hurriedly” examined the baby and allegedly sent him home with medication, but without a proper diagnosis.¹ Several days later, James was discovered unconscious by his mother, Hattie. Taken again to the emergency room, the infant was pronounced dead on arrival. He was four...

  9. 4. SPIN DOCTORS: The Politics of Sickle Cell Anemia
    (pp. 115-152)

    On March 29, 1972, in Oakland, California, the Party launched a three-day Black Community Survival Conference at De Fremery Park, known to the Panthers as Bobby Hutton Memorial Park after the first member of the Party besides Newton and Seale.¹ This park held much meaning for the group. “Defremery was a tattered park,” Elaine Brown recalled. “Its thinning grass reflected the poverty of West Oakland, where Bobby . . . lived and died. But it was our park now, the people’s park. It had come to be called ‘Bobby Hutton Memorial Park.’”

    TheBlack Pantherreported that conference attendance over...

  10. 5. AS AMERICAN AS CHERRY PIE: Contesting the Biologization of Violence
    (pp. 153-180)

    In 1973 the Black Panthers became involved in a challenge to the formation of the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles that would be dedicated partly to investigating the biological etiology of violence. In this instance, the Party tilted emphasis from providing healthcare to underserved communities, with attention to medical mistreatment that characterized its ongoing clinic work and sickle cell activism, to focusing on the dismantling of both the biologization of social issues and repressive medical surveillance. In other words, with this campaign, the Panthers sought to...

  11. CONCLUSION: Race and Health in the Post–Civil Rights Era
    (pp. 181-188)

    The effects of the Black Panther Party’s health activism have been multiform, registering in the evolution of individual lives, in the ebb and flow of institutions, and in the persistent struggle for healthcare access. Many former Panthers continued their work on healthcare issues, with some remaining activists and others going on to careers in the medical professions, in public health administration, and in healthrelated community programs. Although the Seattle chapter’s break with the national group in 1972 was disheartening, Arthur Harris fully credits his time in the Party as inspiring his decision to become a nurse.¹ Cleo Silvers, who advocated...

    (pp. 189-196)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 197-258)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 259-290)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-291)