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When Panthers roamed Boston

The Boston Chapter of the Black Panther Party 

 

The story of the Black Panthers in Boston begins in the summer of 1968—an era where radical change hung thick in the air and when the question on everyone’s mind was not “if?” but “when?” Across Africa, the fires of independence and decolonization continued to rage, while in Paris, students and workers brought France to the brink of revolution. Young people in Mexico rose up against their nation’s one-party dictatorship and in the United States urban uprisings and student rebellions swept across the country—worldwide it was a period of popular struggle and resistance. And Boston was no different.

By the summer of 1968 Boston had seen years of protests, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, “freedom schools,” and more, organized by the Black community to fight segregation in the public schools and racism in City Hall. Roxbury was still smoldering after the second ‘riot’ within a year, set off by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The Boston Black United Front, led in part by current City Councilor Chuck Turner, demanded that all jobs, schools, and government agencies within Boston’s Black neighborhoods be controlled directly by the Black community itself. And it was in this atmosphere of community demands, militant tactics, and burning frustration that 375 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury became the first office and headquarters for the Boston Chapter of the Black Panther Party.

“We are twenty-four hour revolutionaries dedicated to the needs of black people,” exclaimed early Boston Panther leader Delano Farrar. Farrar, like many of the first Boston Panthers, was a Boston-born Northeastern University student and a former member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—the national organization responsible for sit-ins, voting drives, and other impressive Civil Rights struggles around the country. Prodded by Stokely Carmichael, who himself had resigned as SNCC chairman to join the Black Panther Party, many disaffected members of SNCC’s Boston chapter quit the organization in 1968 and went on to form the first chapter of the Black Panther Party in Boston.

From their office on Blue Hill Avenue (and later from their second office at 23 Winthrop Street), the first Boston Panthers, many of them still in high school or college, set out to change the world. They modeled themselves around the “Ten-Point Plan,” a list of ten demands espoused by the national Black Panther Party that called for such things as free health care, decent housing, full employment and exemption for Black people from the military.

As the original Black Panthers had successfully done in Oakland, the Boston chapter armed themselves and hoped to patrol the “pigs” in an effort to halt police brutality in their own neighborhoods. They also outlined a series of plans that included establishing a free nursery for single, working mothers and a curriculum of “Political Education” for the community.

Using such revolutionary texts as Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, I Speak Freedom by Kwame Nkrumah, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Boston Black Panther Party offered popular Political Education classes every Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon at Northeastern University and Blue Hill Avenue. In the words of Farrar, the chapter hoped to “educate black folks to our philosophy and let them see how they are being oppressed by the white man.”

Just one year since their arrival on the streets of Boston however, Delano Farrar, Chico Neblett, Frank Hughes, and the other founding Boston leaders saw their early departure at the hands of Boston Panthers who believed the struggle for freedom was to be based on class rather than just race. The clash between the factions came to a head in May of 1969 during a tense meeting where both parties were fully armed. Don Cox, a top Black Panther officer from Oakland, flew into Boston and officially expelled the original leadership, giving free reign to the handful of Panthers who, like the National office, envisioned the Black Panther Party not just as defender of the Black community, but as leader of a working-class revolution that aimed to bring equality and justice to all of society.

“We were talking socialistic ideas,” explained Greg Jones, one of the Boston Panthers who took over after the May expulsions. The reestablished Boston chapter called itself a Marxist-Leninist organization, believing that capitalism was the real source of poverty, crime, violence, and racism, and holding that only a true socialist revolution could alleviate society’s problems. They drew much of their inspiration from Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Tse-Tung and his Little Red Book that became an ever-constant presence around the Panther’s headquarters.

But if the new Panthers could talk the talk, they could also walk the walk. Led initially by Dorchester-native Doug Miranda, but for the most part guided by the tough, energetic leadership of Audrea Jones, the Boston Panthers called themselves “oxen to be ridden by the people” and aimed to put socialism into practice through a number of community programs. Their Free Breakfast Program, established in the Tremont Methodist Church, served around fifty young Black children every morning at six. They also established a Free Clothing Program in the Mission Hill Project and pioneered the “People’s News Service”—a free community newspaper created by Boston Panther “Cappy” Pinderhughes and mimicked by other Black Panther Party chapters across the country.

The Boston chapter’s most notable program was the “Franklin Lynch Peoples’ Free Health Center,” founded in May of 1970. Named after a young Black singer gunned down in bed by a Boston cop inside Boston City Hospital, the Free Health Center was run out of a large trailer on the corner of Whittier Street and Columbus Avenue—land that had been seized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority for a massive interstate highway connection. The Black United Front led “Operation Stop” to halt the BRA highway project and supplied the Boston Panthers with funds to build the Free Health Center in the path of proposed construction. Staffed by volunteers and supplied with donations, the Center offered the Black Community basic health services for free. “This is truly socialism at work because we are moving in a collective manner to solve our collective problems,” they explained.  

Government repression was a daily reality for the Boston Panthers as it was for Black Panthers across the country. Yet despite the entire weight of the FBI and Boston Police on their shoulders, the young men and women of the Boston Black Panther Party managed to continue their work—getting breakfast ready for fifty hungry boys and girls, selling stacks of The Black Panther newspaper, staffing the Free Medical Center, giving speeches, holding rallies, and more—a labor-intensive feat undertaken daily by the young men and women who made up the chapter, the young men and women from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and the South End who simply wanted a more just world for the oppressed and victimized of Boston and elsewhere.

Although the Boston Black Panther has been an endangered species since the mid-1970s (mainly because of intense government repression and ill-advised orders from the Party’s Central Committee), the need for a grassroots, popular resistance movement is as urgent now as it was back in the day, if not more so.

And in thinking about working for social justice, it is essential to remember that Delano Farrar, Doug Miranda, “Big Bob” Jones, Audrea Jones and the other Boston Panthers were not superhuman individuals but just everyday young people—students, brothers, daughters, moms, workers, etc., who were sick of the poverty, police brutality, and racism affecting their community and decided to do something about it. The history of the Panthers in Boston should offer inspiration today, showing each of us the immense power behind working collectively through direct action for a better tomorrow.

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