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The most radical thing the Black Panthers did was give kids free breakfast

A Black Panther playing with a child in 1969.
A Black Panther playing with a child in 1969.
Duane Howell via Getty Images

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as "the greatest threat to internal security of the country" in an official memo in 1969.

A lesser-known fact about that quote is that the Panthers were considered a "threat" because they used to give free breakfast to children.

The black nationalist political organization, founded 50 years ago in Oakland, California, is best known for wearing all-black outfits, sporting Afros with berets, and advocating that black people take up arms as a self-defense strategy against police brutality.

But that’s not the whole story — even if it’s the one Beyoncé told at the Super Bowl. Activist William Johnson, who joined the Black Panthers at age 19, told the Grio that her performance presented an opportunity to tell the organization's story.

Young people now, Johnson said, were born after the Black Panther Party's most active days, "but a lot of them had free breakfast in their schools. And a lot of them don’t know why."

The Panthers' breakfast program started in January 1969 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Oakland. Ruth Beckford-Smith, a parishioner who taught Haitian dance at the church, volunteered to be one of the program’s co-organizers.

Eleven children ate at St. Augustine’s on the first day. By the end of the year, the organization fed 20,000 kids in 19 cities across the country in the morning before they went to school.

The program also disrupted gender norms by featuring male cooks — even if doing so did not always hold outside of the kitchen.

"The food component of the BPP was a big part of our organizing," Melvin Dickson, an organizer for the Oakland breakfast program said. "This included our free breakfast program. Because one thing you can guarantee in an oppressed community is that you’re going to find hunger. The fact that the United States has more food than we need, and folks are still going hungry is a shame, it was a shame then, and it’s a shame now."

Five years after former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declared a war on poverty during his 1964 State of the Union address, the Panthers' breakfast programs were an indication of the initiative’s limits.

Between 1969 and 1971, the Panthers established 36 breakfast programs across the country from Kansas City to New York City. It’s estimated that over time, the Panthers fed 50,000 across the country through their program.

"The Panthers are feeding more kids than we are," one US government official reportedly admitted.

With each mouth fed, it became increasingly difficult for government officials like Hoover to portray the Panthers in a negative light:

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.

They were achieving where the government was failing. The breakfast program, along with the Panthers' 59 other Serve the People programs that provided clothing, free medical care, and legal aid, ultimately made them most dangerous because they were becoming more influential.

Hoover declared war on the Panthers, pledging that 1969 would be their final year in operation.

The party eventually disbanded in the early 1980s, but not without seeing the US government take its lead.

Their work ultimately inspired amendments to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 and served as the blueprint for establishing the government’s School Breakfast Program as a permanent program in 1975.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, on average 13.2 million children received a free meal through that program each day during the 2013-'14 school year.

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