top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

The Free Meal Programs of the Black Panther Party’s Baltimore Chapter

BHW 53: February 3, 2024

Scanned pages from the “BLACK PANTHER COLORING BOOK” depicting racist FBI characterizations of Black Panther Party representatives promoting violence and antagonizing police.
Figure 1. Pages from the “Black Panther Coloring Book,” which was fabricated by the FBI in 1968 and falsely claimed to be produced by the Black Panthers to foment outrage against the group [1].
 

According to Black Panther Party (BPP) co-founder Bobby Seale, “The objective of programs set forth by revolutionaries like the Black Panther Party is to educate the masses of the people to the politics of changing the system. The politics are related to people’s needs, to a hungry stomach,” for example. [2] As BPP Chairman, Seale issued an organization-wide directive in 1969 for all chapters to adopt a Free Breakfast for Children Program. Baltimore’s chapter, among others, additionally added a summer free lunch program. [3] These meal programs were the most successful iteration of the BPP’s broader survival programs initiative. [4] The overarching goal was simple: to ensure the survival of Black people so that when the time came for revolution, they would be both healthy and around to contribute. Ultimately, the ideology behind these programs was one of self-determination. Well-nourished people could become autonomous actors in the struggle against the racially harmful impacts of American capitalism. [5] This approach was unapologetically socialist. [6] Black Baltimorean communities were very receptive to the meal programs. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), local police, and their associates, cracked down. The ideological basis for the meal programs, community participation in the programs, and attempts by authorities to suppress them all provide valuable historical insights into the Baltimore community impacts of the BPP.


The ideologies of revolutionary community support and self-determination fueled the social critique at the core of BPP meal programs. That program demand was great and people clearly needed the support demonstrated the flaws in a capitalist system that left Americans hungry. [7] BPP national leadership made clear that meal program aims went beyond direct food provision to include raising awareness about the social issues of hunger and poverty in the United States. [8] Party leader Seale also emphasized that Americans of all backgrounds needed and could benefit from such programs. He emphasized, “There are millions of people in this country who are living below subsistence; welfare mothers, poor white people, Mexican Americans, Chicano peoples, Latinos, and black people.” [9] For the Baltimore context specifically, BPP member Marshall “Eddie” Conway stressed the direct involvement of Baltimore communities in all stages of the meal program planning process. He recalled: “We started our program after polling the neighborhood for miles around our office to see if such a need exists and if such a program would receive support from community members if we started it.” [10] Once convinced that the program fulfilled pressing community needs and was likely to receive community support, the Baltimore BPP forged social action through free food.


Free meal programs were the primary vehicle through which rank-and-file members of the Baltimore BPP participated in and contributed to the organization. As former Black Panther and historian Paul Alkebulan articulates, “For many members the survival programs defined their relationship with the party and the black community.” [11] Unfortunately, these everyday community contributions are often popularly overshadowed by emphases on the BPP’s views on self-armament and resistance. To an extent, the BPP saw the programs as a form of rebranding in response to such characterizations. [12] For the Baltimore chapter even more so than the national organization, most members belonged to the working-class. [13] These working-class Baltimoreans volunteered their time to the meal programs while taking comfort in the peace of mind that their families could rely on the existence of the programs in times of need. The ease of community participation and contribution to meal programs greatly contributed to their success. Other survival programs, medical initiatives for example, required specialized expertise. [14] By contrast, it required minimal supplies and special skills to provide children with a hot, wholesome breakfast before school.


Baltimore BPP representatives focused on meal program efficiency, maximizing nutrition and the number of mouths fed. Conway provides a helpful description of the daily process for the Baltimore free breakfasts: “Every morning, five days a week, we opened the place up, cleaned it, and set up the tables. Around 8AM, we would start cooking and the children would begin to arrive. We had cars that picked up the children who lived a mile or more away from the program. There were always a number of parents and sister and brothers . . . we fed everyone.” [15] Conway’s emphasis on transporting children to the breakfasts shows how the Baltimore BPP worked to expand meal program accessibility. As humanities scholar Judson L. Jeffries identifies, “Baltimore’s program operated in at least three different locations at various times from 1969-1971.” [16] When the program upsized its primary venue to the St. Martin de Porres Recreation Hall, it reportedly served about two hundred young Baltimoreans daily. [17]

The crackdown on Baltimore BPP free meal programs by the FBI, local authorities, and affiliated organizations is striking given the humanitarian nature of the programs. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the meal programs a threat largely because they were so successful. For Hoover, any successful BPP initiative served to advance elements of the Party that he deemed most threatening. [18] Authorities also emphasized views that the BPP was using the meal programs to indoctrinate young Americans into threatening ideologies. To support these views, the FBI fabricated a racist coloring book that depicted Black Panther members attacking police officers caricatured as pigs. The coloring pages also show Panther representatives violently lashing out against white business owners for allegedly stealing from Black people (Figure 1). National television coverage showcased this coloring book to foment outrage against the BPP. [19]


Of all the tactics used to suppress Baltimore BPP community initiatives, police raids of free meal programs for children stand out as particularly disproportionate shows of force. In his analysis, Jeffries finds that “Compared to the Oakland office, the Baltimore chapter was subjected to an excessive amount of violent repression.” [20] Given the disproportionate aggression between children eating breakfast and police pointing weapons at them, this example certainly supports his findings. Surrounding community members of varying racial backgrounds noticed this disproportionality and openly questioned the legitimacy of anti-BBP campaigns. [21] Regarding such raids of breakfasts at numerous BPP chapters, Seale emphasized, “Then the little kids go home and say, ‘Mama, the police came into the Breakfast for Children Program.’ This is the power structure’s technique to try to destroy the program. It is an attempt to scare people away from sending their children to the breakfast program.” [22] Seale’s analysis makes a lot of sense considering the long histories of Black Americans facing police violence. It appears these experiences and histories did impact Black Baltimorean parent decisions, as attendance at the free meals dropped dramatically in the later years of the programs. [23]


Baltimore’s Black Panther Party chapter demonstrated a strong commitment to building community self-determination and vitality through its free meal programs, despite harsh counter efforts by federal and local authorities. BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton articulated why this mission was so important: “The Party will survive as a structured vehicle because it serves the true interests of oppressed people and administers to their needs.” [24] As national leaders of the Black Power movement, Newton and Seale knew that they could never achieve any of their social change goals without living, empowered people on their side. The survival programs became how the BPP engaged most directly with surrounding communities, in Baltimore and beyond. At the time of writing, in 2024, Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) offers “breakfast, lunch, snacks, and supper free to students.” This is a direct outgrowth of the work of the Baltimore BPP to provide free meals to the city’s youth. The current BCPS Food and Nutrition Services program is also the subject of a vitally important food service worker oral history project run by the Baltimore Museum of Industry, titled “Food for Thought.” [25] Hopefully, Baltimoreans in the present and future will consider the role of the Baltimore BPP in laying the groundwork for these essential community initiatives.

 

[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Black Panthers ‘Free Breakfast’ and Coloring Book, 1968,” 1968, University of Minnesota Libraries (Minneapolis, MN), Givens: The Arts of Social Justice, http://gallery.lib.umn.edu/exhibits/show/givens/item/2129.

[2] Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (Baltimore: Black Classic Press 1991 [1968]), 413, https://archive.org/details/seizetimestoryof0000seal_i5c1.

[3] Judson J. Jeffries, “Black Radicalism and Political Repression in Baltimore: The Case of the Black Panther Party,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 25, no. 1 (January 2002): 73, https://crossculturalsolidarity.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Jeffries-BPP-Repression-in-Baltimore.pdf.

[4] Dana Kenyatta Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore: The Formation, Ideology, Activities, and Repression of the Baltimore Branch of the Black Panther Party, 1968–1972” (PhD diss., Morgan State University, 2020), 162, https://www.proquest.com/openview/33e38a217188ea832c2c98adc2545ade/1.

[5] JoNina M. Abron, “‘Serving the People’: The Survival Programs of The Black Panther Party,” in The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered), ed. Charles E. Jones (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 178, https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780933121966.

[6] See Paul Alkebulan, Surviving Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2007), 29, https://archive.org/details/survivalpendingr0000alke; Seale, Seize the Time, 412.

[7] Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore,” 162.

[8] Abron, “Serving the People,” 183.

[9] Seale, Seize the Time, 414.

[10] Marshall Conway and Dominique Stevenson, Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther (New York: AK Press, 2011), 57, https://archive.org/details/isbn_9781849350532.

[11] Alkebulan, Surviving Pending Revolution, 28.

[12] Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore,” 227.

[13] Jeffries, “Black Radicalism and Political Repression,” 72.

[14] Abron, “Serving the People,” 184.

[15] Conway and Stevenson, Marshall Law, 58-59.

[16] Judson L. Jeffries, “Revising Panther History in Baltimore,” in Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party, ed. Judson L. Jeffries (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 22, Kindle edition.

[17] See Jeffries, “Black Radicalism and Political Repression,” 73; Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore,” 164.

[18] Conway and Stevenson, Marshall Law, 59.

[19] Conway and Stevenson, Marshall Law, 69-70.

[20] Jeffries, “Black Radicalism and Political Repression,” 83.

[21] Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore,” 220.

[22] Seale, Seize the Time, 412.

[23] Hammond, “The Panther Comes to Baltimore,” 166.

[24] Huey P. Newton, “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community: April 17, 1971,” in To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995 [1972]), 46, https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780863163272.

[25] Baltimore Museum of Industry, “Food for Thought: Spotlighting Food Service Workers at Baltimore City Public Schools,” The Baltimore Museum of Industry, February 27, 2023, https://www.thebmi.org/exhibitions-2/food-for-thought/.

Comentarios


bottom of page