Free Breakfast for Children: Nonviolent Legacies of the Black Panther Party

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Rae Kalscheuer

For many marginalized groups, nonviolence is but one of many tactics used against the powers oppressing them. The Black Panther Party’s nonviolent actions, particularly their community programs, were far more than a tactic though. Survival programs like their free breakfasts for children, community clinics, and liberation schools were ways to help their communities while publicly and actively resisting the US government’s treatment of Black men and women. These programs were at the heart of their movement for the empowerment of Black Americans, but have often been touted as tertiary to their goals. Although this misconception– along with others– has been proven to be part of a targeted interference campaign by the federal government, there is still a reluctance to see Panthers as following in the footsteps and furthering the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement. Therefore, by tracing the philosophical roots of their nonviolent action and exploring the impact of their free breakfast program, myths can be dispelled about the Black Panther Party’s reputation as an inherently violent organization.

Many members of the Black Panther Party had their political awakenings because of the civil rights movement. Co-founders of the party, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, had grown up in the Black community of Oakland, California immersed in the rhetoric and excitement spurred by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. They, alongside other influential party members, have spoken repeatedly over the years about the early influence that organizations like the NAACP and SNCC had on the development of their ideologies. One such member, Ericka Huggins, spoke about going to the March on Washington and being inspired by Lena Horne’s famous singing of the word freedom, “When the words entered my ears and entered my heart, a vow arose. ‘I will serve people for the rest of my life.’ It wasn’t a thought. I can’t tell you how things like that arise, but it did.”[1]

However, by the mid 1960s many were upset by the lack of material improvements the movement had given them and were searching for more revolutionary options. This led Newton and Seale to found the Black Panther Party in 1966 with a Ten-Point Program addressing the needs of the community. As Seale himself revealed in an interview, point ten was the most significant, “We summed it up. We wanted land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.”[2] Yet, it was not until the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that the Panthers would ascend as a political movement. Newton believed this was because people, “became disillusioned, especially the youth, very disillusioned with the old civil rights movement. They felt that it wouldn’t work. That it was proved that it wouldn’t work by, by the assassination of Martin Luther King.”[3]

Black and white photo of a young girl spooning something onto her plate.
Young girl at one of the breakfast programs circa 1970.[4]

As membership swelled after the death of King, the Panthers put their praxis into action. The first program they implemented was the free breakfast program, which they began at the start of 1969 in Oakland at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.[5] To get the food needed for the children, members went around to different grocery stores in the area, asking them to donate food.[6] In a clear continuation of civil rights movement practices, stores that refused to give food would be boycotted by the Panthers, with continued refusals getting the stores put into the national party newspaper where they would be lambasted for not giving back to the community.[7] The breakfasts were an instant success in Oakland, as historians Bloom and Martin write, “The first day the program opened it served 11 children. By the end of the week, the program was serving 135 children daily at St. Augustine’s.”[8] The program was so popular that party leadership began telling other chapters to start their own. Seale said, “we’d give directives to chapters and branches, that they had to set up a free breakfast program.”[9] It is hard to get accurate information about how many children were fed by the Panthers everyday, but years later Newton estimated that by the end of the first year they “were feeding about 75,000 children a day.”[10]

A group of people gathered around a table.
Panthers were also pivotal in bringing awareness towards Sickle Cell Anemia, a blood disease mainly affecting those of African descent. This photo shows people getting tested for Sickle Cell Anemia at the Black Community Survival Conference on March 30th, 1972.[11]

Breakfasts functioned as recruiting tools. While it may be expected that the breakfasts recruited parents and children who had grown up on the program, it also brought in teens and young adults who worked to make the food. Many of the young Black people who wished to join the Panthers did so because they had faced state violence and wanted to fight back. Because guns and firearms featured prominently in outside and self-depictions of party members, new people often thought the Party was all about violence. Leadership was well aware that the guns attracted young people, and decided recruits would have to prove themselves before being given training. As Elbert “Big Man” Howard, first editor of the Panther newspaper, said,

We took young people who were—didn’t have anything to do but hang out and get into trouble, and we recruited them and taught them how to cook breakfast for children. They wanted a gun to go out and kill somebody but no, no, no, no, no. You come in, you go in there, with some sister in the kitchen, and learn how to cook grits and eggs, and get up and go and serve breakfast for school children.[12]

However, the narrative became that the Panthers were bringing in dangerous people to feed kids.

This narrative about what kind of people they were bringing in developed through direct efforts by the US government to stop the Panthers. As people came into their movement from the one King had started, government attention did as well in the form of COINTELPRO. The Counterintelligence Program, shortened by the government to COINTELPRO, is the name the FBI gave to their program for destroying counter-culture movements on both sides of the ideological spectrum, as Newton said, “During the period of ’68 to ’69, the federal government had declared all out war on the party.”[13] Much of the information released on the operation came out later, as Huggins shared, “We didn’t know the name COINTELPRO, but we knew what they were doing by then, because so much death had already occurred.”[14] The government twisted everything the Panthers said to show them in the worst light, starting with guns and following around the police.[15] Admittedly, this was antagonistic and threatening with some coming to regret it later, but they were doing it to make a point that it was their right as Americans to own firearms and as Californians to observe the police. As Seale and others recalled, “Huey with all his law study… [knew] California State Supreme Court ruling state said everyone has a right to observe a police officer carrying out his duty as long as they stand a reasonable distance away.”[16] They carried the guns, not because they wanted or intended to use them, but to make sure the cops would not attack them for using their right to observe traffic stops.[17] This decontextualization was repeated for essentially everything the Panthers would go on to do, no matter how uncontroversial or beneficial to society it was.

Collage of a man surrounded by guns.
Memorial image of Bobby Hutton, a Panther killed through police violence, showing the organization’s love of firearms through a ring of rifles around a picture of him.[18]

Programs like the free breakfasts are a salient example of effective nonviolent action because they forced the government to broaden free school breakfasts. Though there was a free breakfast pilot program by the government which predated the Panthers, it was very limited.[19] Panthers believe that these altruistic programs were why the government despised them so much. Howard, the editor of the Panther’s paper, said, “Because we, first of all, exposed them. We can feed 250,000 children free food every single day that school’s in session… Things like that. It’s what caused them to hate us.”[20] In effect, the Panthers shamed the government into action much like other civil rights movement groups did. Just as Freedom Riders forced the government to address still existent segregation in the South, the Panthers forced them into providing basic services for children. Despite government interference, the Panthers built their platform around providing services to their community like free breakfasts, a continuation of the legacy built by the members of the civil rights movement.

[1] Ericka C. Huggins oral history interview conducted by David P. Cline in Oakland, California, 2016 June 30, conducted by David P. Cline on June 30, 2016, Civil Rights History Project collection (AFC 2010/039: 0144), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 11.

[2] Interview with Bobby Seale, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 4, 1988 for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-mid 1980s. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, 3.

[3] Interview with Huey P. Newton, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 23, 1989 for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-mid 1980s. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, 23.

[4] John Shearer, photographer. Image from LOOK – Job 70- titled Black Panthers, United States Chicago, 1970. Photograph.

[5] Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016, 182.

[6] Ibid., 185.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Interview with Bobby Seale, 32.

[10] Interview with Huey P. Newton, 16.

[11] Bob Fitch, photojournalist, “Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972. Sickle cell anemia testing,” The Bob Fitch Photography Archive: Movements for Change, Stanford Libraries, Oakland, CA, March 30th, 1972.

[12] Elbert “Big Man” Howard oral history interview conducted by David P. Cline in Santa Rosa, California, 2016 June 30, conducted by David P. Cline on June 30, 2016, Civil Rights History Project collection (AFC 2010/039: 0145), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C,. 23-24.

[13] Interview with Huey P. Newton, 22.

[14] Interview with Ericka Huggins, 25.

[15] “Also the party grew much too rapidly because many of the young people were en—very enthusiastic about the guns and about the berets. But they knew little about the community programs that, that were really our reason for existing.” Interview with Huey P. Newton, 17.

[16] Interview with Bobby Seale, 5.

[17] Interview with Huey P. Newton, 8.

[18] Black Panther Party, He was the beginning, Lil Bobby James Hutton, born , murdered by Oakland Pig Dept., April 6, 1968. United States Oakland California, 1968. Photograph.

[19] Arielle Milkman, “The Radical Origins of Free Breakfast for Children,” Eater, February 16, 2016.

[20] Interview with Elbert “Big Man” Howard, 25.