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The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers

When you mention the 1960s Black Panther Movement to those who are old enough to remember, the chances are great that it conjures images of beret wearing, angry revolutionaries with big Afros and guns.

What often gets lost in their story is their program to provide free breakfast for school children. Born in their Oakland, California headquarters in 1968, it was one of the first organized school breakfast food programs in the country.

This fall, a new documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, traces the roots of the Black Panther movement and the impact of its rise and fall on society.

The Panthers’ breakfast offering came at a pivotal time for America: 1968 was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both gunned down. There was a changing of the guard of sorts, from nonviolent protest for equality to the long, hot summer of riots in black communities all over the country.

In Oakland, the Black Panthers brought a new message of self-determination. The message caught on and their programs quickly spread to black communities across the country, tired of waiting to be saved or treated with equity.

By the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were serving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day.

Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

Women carry Black Panther flags. Photograph courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, The Black Panthers:Vanguard of the Revolution documentary

Flores Forbes, author of Will You Die With Me, a book about his years as a Black Panther, says he worked in the breakfast program, cooking, serving the children and cleaning up. “We had a lot of jobs,” Forbes says.

Forbes says that most of the funding for the program came from donations from within the communities being served. “We got support from local stores, churches, and groceries,” Forbes says. The Panthers believed in the importance of education, and of kids showing up at school full and ready to learn, he says.

Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, said at the time: “There are millions of people who are living below subsistence; welfare mothers, poor white people, Mexican-Americans, Chicano peoples, Latinos, and black people.“

The breakfast program gave the Black Panthers an anchor to talk about something that seldom made the headlines in America—hunger and poverty.

Forbes says that the breakfast program was just one of many programs the Panthers ran to address the needs of the poor. In fact, they developed more that 60 Serve the People programs, including efforts to provide free clothing and shoes, medical services —including drug and alcohol awareness, —legal aid education, and what was thought to be some of the first true early childhood education programs in the nation, preceding Head Start.

But the Pantheres’ image and focus on self-determination drew the attention of then FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover. He singled out the Black Panthers as national hate group, and the breakfast program as an act of subversion.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program. Photograph courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

Forbes says that they were an easy target, “because the public wanted to believe that we were just thugs with leather jackets and guns.”

Hoover perpetuated that image when he declared all out war on the Black Panthers. In May of 1969 Hoover sent a memo to all FBI offices that read:

“The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the Black Panther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

Once Hoover went after the Breakfast Program, the handwriting was on the wall. Even though the organizers were careful to consult with nutritionists to make sure the children got high quality, balanced meals, and made sure they had the necessary permits from the health and fire departments for the kitchens and halls where they served meals, they became regular targets of local officials. The children they served were caught in the middle.

But after the Black Panther Party and its programs were summarily dismantled, the Breakfast for Children program found new life and a new champion in the federal government.

While President Harry Truman established the National School Lunch Act in 1946 to offer free or reduced cost lunches at school, it wasn’t until 1975 that the government formally added the School Breakfast Program to its offerings to support vulnerable children.

Inspired in part by the ideas and actions of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the School Breakfast Program . It now feeds nearly 13 million students every single day.


Andrea King Collier is a Michigan-based journalist and the new creative director of The Symposium for Professional Food Writers. Find her on Twitter.

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