People’s Historians Online: Women in the Black Panther Party

So much was fantastic about this session: from sweeping ideas, such as the importance of broadening our frames, to specific resources such as artwork, and most importantly the ability to connect with a great community of educators.

Learning about how Joan Tarika Lewis, the first female member of the BPP and a high school student, came into a meeting and demanded that women be a part of the Black Panther Party is something I will definitely use in my classroom. It’s a great entry point for the importance and impact of community involvement.

These are just two comments from the more than 300 educators and students who participated in the People’s Historians Online mini-class on Women in the Black Panther Party with presenters Robyn C. Spencer and Mary Phillips on May 8, 2020. The session was introduced by Jesse Hagopian, who co-wrote a lesson on the Black Panther Party at the Zinn Education Project website.


Here is a video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.



Click below for the full transcript with resources mentioned in the discussion.


Jesse Hagopian: Welcome everyone, on behalf of the Zinn Education Project for our session on women in the Black Panther Party. So welcome, thanks for being with us here today. You can unmute and take the mic, please.

Mary Phillips: Thank you so much for having us. I want to begin our conversation by talking about when women joined the Black Panther Party and why they joined. There were many Black Panther groups inspired by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Many people are probably familiar with that organization and their symbol of the Black Panther. In 1966, in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party. Women joined a year later in the spring of 1967.

The first woman to join the Black Panther Party was actually a young teenage girl named Joan Tarika Lewis. She was a student activist in her high school, and she was very adamant in advocating for Black History Club at her high school. When she came to the Black Panther Party headquarters she actually demanded to join the organization and pointed out the lack of women that were part of the organization at that time. So her presence opened the door for others to join. Just like the men, the women wanted to serve their communities in very practical ways, to address issues like police brutality. They wanted to respond to conditions of civil rights. They were also part of local civil rights struggles. Some were attracted to the political ideology and for others joining the organization was a natural outgrowth of long standing activism in their families.

Robyn Spencer: Well, I want to bring in the voice of one Panther woman that I had the chance to interview Elendar Barnes. She was a Panther woman who lived in Oakland. She grew up there and she subsequently relocated to New York. She resides in New York currently. Elendar Barnes talked about her attraction to the Black Panther Party as an extension of the politics of self-defense. Her story really allows us to connect the long history of the Black Freedom Struggle. She talks about the Deacons for Defense in the south. I’m going to quote from her directly, so these are her words.

I became very involved in that level of politics because it was an extension of what I knew, an extension of what they call the Deacons for Defense down south. My grandfather was the first person to buy land on what was considered the white part of town. I’d go visit him in the summers and I remember that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his yard because they opposed him living on that side of town. I remember asking him, “Papa, why you always got a gun?” He’d reply, “It’s for the white folks, baby.” “Papa, why you get up so early?” “To keep up with the white folks, baby.” That’s from very young. That’s why I joined the Panthers. I came from that idea of standing up, and I think a lot of people in Oakland have these southern roots and that whole connection with that idea of protecting your own people. We’re used to keeping and using guns because that’s what they did in the country. My grandfather always kept a gun; it was invisible, but it was always in the back of the car or up in the window in the back of the truck. They said in the South that they were for hunting, but he said it was for the white man. And it wasn’t for the white man who wasn’t bothering you, it was for the KKK and the others. And that’s what moved me into the Panthers.

So, that’s Elendar Barnes on why she became a Panther.

Phillips: In particular, they based their organization on a 10-Point Program, a platform some of you may be familiar with. Some of the points in the program and platform were the right to full employment, decent housing, quality education, an immediate end to police brutality, a right to a jury of your peers, and freedom from racial inequities, poverty, structural barriers. Much of the same issues that they were really advocating for during this period we’re still fighting for right now. They were influenced by revolutionary thinkers such as Malcolm X, Queen Mother Moore, Frantz Fanon, and others. As the Panthers spread nationwide and internationally during this time, you had the Vietnam War going on, you had African liberation struggles. Hundreds of women joined the organization and they saw themselves as part of a global movement, and they contributed to one of the most powerful attempts to create a more just world.

Spencer: I hope that people in the audience have seen images of the Panther women. Those images are so powerful. I hope that you’ve had a chance to really just see those images of Panther women in photographs or in artistic representation, because the arts was one of the ways that the Panthers really delivered their political message.

Their newspaper, The Black Panther, created in 1967, grew to be one of the most popular alternative newspapers. It really delivered their message around the country and around the world. They used the pages of their newspaper as a canvas. It’s important to know that the women served as graphic artists creating these images. So, I want to talk a little bit about the women who created some of the images and then look at some of the images and the women who were in the images and how Black women played such a pivotal role in carrying the Panther message, so to speak.

[Tarika] Lewis was not just the first woman to join the Black Panther Party, she was also an artist. Her drawings use sharp and rounded angles to depict Black men and women with intense beauty. She signed her pieces Matilaba. Gayle Dickson was also another Panther artist who created artwork in the Panthers under the name of Sally. Her style carried a sense of realism, where women’s authenticity was celebrated, especially in urban contexts, and they were shown in their everyday environments. Emory Douglas served as the Panther Minister of Culture, creating world famous images of struggle. I know you’ve seen those women who were at the center of many of his pieces. Let’s travel back to the Panthers era and look at two of his pieces which center Black women.

Phillips: At this time, I want to have everybody take a look at the first image and I want you to draft what meaning does this draw for you. I am going to just read a couple of comments in the chat box. I’m going to have you take some time if you can just go ahead and write some comments in the chat box. So, I’ll just read a couple of them: self sacrifice, collective struggle, the personal is political, warrior reclamation of control by Black women. I want to point out some of the photos on the wall — and so you see a photo of Ericka Huggins, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton at the time — these were political prisoners who were in the midst of a trial for a crime they did not commit. So, in a way there is a tribute to the political prisoners at the time. And you can see the image is really talking about poverty and the way in which she is really combatting poverty at the center with the rats.

Spencer: The very bottom of the image has language from the Panthers’ 10-Point Program, which says, “We want decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings.” It’s important to note that the woman is at the center of the image fighting back against rats, against poverty, against depression. The presence of rats and rundown housing has been well documented and is a continuing reality. It is these conditions and the reality of repression that prompted the Panthers to expand their community survival programs in the 1970s.

Phillips: The second image reflects the growth of the community survival programs and in the picture Emory Douglas centers community programs such as the Free Clothing Program, the Free Shoe Program, the Free Food Program, the Bus to Prison Program, the free health clinics and the People’s Liberation Schools. The commitment to the Party’s community programs are represented by a Black woman with clothes, shoes, a hat, the Panther newspaper, her purse, earrings, and a gun in tow.

Spencer: It really represents the continuities and changes in the Panthers’ political program in the body of a Black woman. Emory Douglas is reminding audiences that revolution was not just one thing. Then, as the Black Freedom Movement evolved in the 1970s and the terrain of struggle shifted, the Panthers would focus on their survival programs. This idea of survival pending revolution was a shift in the Panther strategy, but also represented these continuities, and the Black woman was centered as the vehicle for communicating this particular message. And this particular image and the one before this can do a lot of work in the classroom.

Phillips: I want to shift to thinking about the impact of Panther membership and the way in which Panther membership had on these young women, and the impact that they had on the work of the Panthers. Women often joined the Black Panther Party in high school and in college. Many Panther women balanced motherhood with the daily responsibilities of community organizing.

We’re going to show a brief video of Stanley Nelson’s documentary Vanguard of the Revolution. In this video, you see Phyllis Jackson really talking about the way in which women balance motherhood with the daily responsibilities of community organizing. Phyllis Jackson played a major role in the Panther success of mobilizing thousands of votes during the electoral campaigns of Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale.

“I was in labor, cooking breakfast for the breakfast program, so I was between contractions flipping pancakes.” “I would spend all day answering the phones, even after I had my son when I came back to work. I used to have him jumping up and down on my lap (he was really heavy), but he just wouldn’t stop crying, as I’m answering the phone.” “You name it, I cleaned freezers with a toothpick.” I’d answer the phone, “The Black Panther Party national headquarters, how can I help you?”

“Dear Huey, when I joined the party, I was thrilled about becoming part of an organization that believes in the equality of men and women. It bothers me that there are brothers who still view women as sexual objects. We should have no men in the Black Panther Party who feel this way. Or women for that matter.”

“One of the ironies of the Black Panther Party is that the image is the Black male with the jacket of a gun but the reality is the majority of the rank and file by the end of the 1960s are women.” “Everybody knows all the people don’t have liberties, all the people don’t have freedom, all the people don’t have the justice, and all the people don’t have power so that means none of us do.” “The Black Panther Party certainly had a chauvinist tone, so we tried to change some of the clear gender roles so that women had guns and men cooked breakfast for children. Did we overcome it? Of course we didn’t. As I like to say, “We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”

Spencer: That clip, I think it’s so powerful just to see all of those Panther women, and I think that that is the message that we really want to convey: That there are so many stories, so many names, so many locations where Panther women made their impact, and so many experiences. The Black Panthers’ radical political ideas, their anti-imperialist ideas, their anti-capitalist ideas meant that they faced the brunt of the vicious campaign of anti-Black redbaiting launched by the FBI. Panther women like Afeni Shakur and Assata Shakur were arrested, jailed, and were made into potent symbols as political prisoners. So it’s important to think about the sacrifices made by Panther women as well.

History remembers the high profile names. The names that I recounted might be names that you have heard before, but I hope that during the course of our presentation that we’ve given you names you’ve heard before, but also names that maybe you haven’t heard before. I know that there are probably Panther women listening and in the audience today who can tell their own stories, as well. So we have other stories to tell.

Phillips: For example, Frances Carter — who was incarcerated in New Haven, Connecticut with Ericka Huggins — recounted the maltreatment of Panther women incarcerated with her. I just want to give a quote, which is from some of my work.

We are isolated in Niantic State Prison for Women. When we go to court, we are escorted by two state troopers in front and two state troopers in back. Mail is censored; it takes sometimes 15 days for it to get from one place to another. This demonstrates the high surveillance and the punitive measures such as isolation that women experienced who were identified as political prisoners because of their identity as a Black Panther Party members.

Spencer: From the first woman that supported the founding of the Black Panther Party — from community mother Ruth Bedford, who was an elder in the community who supported the Panthers, who carried their message, who very famously made the curtains for the first office in Oakland, California, to the first handful of women that opened the doors to people like Kathleen Cleaver, communications secretary and the first woman on the Central Committee, to women like Barbara Cox and Charlotte O’Neil, who traveled to Algeria as part of the Panther international section, to women like Audrea Jones, who held the Panthers health activism in Boston, to Ericka Huggins, the last director of the Panthers’ Oakland Community Schools — women really transformed the Black Panther Party in unforgettable ways.

We’re eager to give you a chance to talk about some of this content. So we want to hand it off to Jesse, to give you that opportunity.

Hagopian: Excellent. Thank you so much for that incredible presentation and reminding us all of the central role women played in this amazing revolutionary organization. It was really moving and the graphics and everything really brought it to life. So, what an honor to get to learn from you all today.

[breakout rooms]

Spencer: Maybe we can start out by just talking a little bit about the Panthers in education, since we do have so many educators, and just thinking about the Panther school. Mary is doing some amazing work on the Panther school and Ericka Huggins, who did many amazing things as a member of the Black Panther Party, including helming the school for many years. So Mary, do you want to start off the conversation, and then we could just bounce back and forth?

Phillips: I don’t know how many people are familiar with the fact that the Black Panther Party did have their own school, the Oakland Community School. It was the last community survival program. It was an elementary level institution. It became, like I said, the Panthers’ longest running community survival program. It initially started as the Intercommunal Youth Institute in 1971, a homeschool safe haven for children of the Panthers due to the FBI’s COINTELPRO harassment that many what I call “Panther cubs” were experiencing. But by 1973, 1974, the Intercommunal Youth Institute evolved into the Oakland Community School with an enrollment of 50 children.

I think what’s so beautiful about the Oakland Community School is the way that they taught their pedagogy. Students came from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. Most were from poor working class backgrounds. In existence for almost ten years, that administration utilized culturally relevant pedagogy, which I think is really critical, and which students can see themselves in the material in their history. Their culture was reflected in the classroom experience. And what I love about the Oakland Community School is how they embrace this idea of whole body education. That’s when they take into account the mental, the physical, the emotional, the abstract, the creative intelligence. They really try to fulfill all of these needs and all of the different aspects of the young child.

They also integrated restorative justice. They had a justice board, which was run by a small youth committee, and these young children would address any kind of harm or concerns on their own and come up with a mutual agreement. So, they learned how to take accountability, community building initiatives, how to work through their differences (which is critical), and they would do this with no adults in a room. They were given the skills to do this and they were committed. When we talk about restorative justice, it works in a way where no one is shunned, no one is stigmatized, as opposed to criminal justice system where that happens. So students learned valuable life skills, they listened attentively, they problem solved. Another thing is they practice yoga as a form of discipline at the school today. It’s’ really cutting edge and very forward thinking in the kinds of strategies of learning that they implemented in the school. That’s just a little taste of why the Panther school was so popular. They had parents with unborn babies registering for the school, they won tons of awards, and it was to be a model institution in Oakland.

Spencer: Wonderful, thank you. Thank you, Mary. I encourage everyone to learn about the Oakland Community School. There are a lot of great resources that are out there about the school. There’s even a wonderful short video that’s available on YouTube, and there’s a wonderful documentary in production, so you can learn more about those. We’ll be sending around some information about content after the fact.

I wanted to address some of the questions that I see happening in the chat box. There are a couple of questions that seem to be centered around resistance — not the Panthers as a resistance movement, which they were, but resistance to centering the Panthers in the curriculum. Then women in the Panthers in general, thinking about how this history of radical resistance is oftentimes resisted and marginalized. And how oftentimes there’s a Malcolm versus Martin model out there, and that prevails in classrooms and sometimes marginalizes people who adopt radical stances against violent repression in this time period.

So, how to get around that. This is a very real barrier that’s there, in terms of centering the Panthers in the curriculum. But one thing I think is very clear when you look at the story of the Black Panther Party is that there’s something very central to how they connect to all elements of U.S. history in this time period. Their story is a very American story. The story of housing and displacement; the story of migration post World War II; the story of political organization; the story of radicalization; the ways in which they mobilize their connection to the Great Society programs and the reform movements of the 1960s; their connections to a global revolutionary movement in the 1960s; their connection to the growing Vietnam War. These are ways you can centrally connect the Panthers to all of the other elements that are going on in this time period, whether it be the counterculture, whether it be the U.S. war in Vietnam, whether it be the women’s movement, whether it be the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. To think about the Panthers as connected to those movements is very central.

We started out by telling you that the Panthers were one of many Black Panther Parties influenced by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which was a program that came out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. That is the place to start with thinking about the Panthers, and also to unpack this question of the violent 1960s. Where was the violence in the 1960s? Was it from these groups that were practicing armed self-defense or was it from the massive resistance to the Black Freedom Movement? I know in our audience we have SNCC veterans, we have Panther veterans, we have Judy Richardson, who’s put together a great documentary on the Orangeburg Massacre. Right now, we’re walking into the wake of the Jackson State shootings. There are so many ways that we can think about re-centering the types of violence that activists faced in the 1960s, as they fought for their rights. And I think about ways in which we connect the Panthers to that legacy; instead of positioning them as so outside of the pale, but thinking about them as within that same tradition.

When we think about women in the Panthers, we have to think about women like Gloria Richardson, women who were part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, women who stood up in all of these movements of the 1960s, who were influenced by the radical women who were coming out of the Vietnamese struggle, who were coming out of the Algerian struggle, who were part of a global upsurge, of a new way of thinking about women’s radicalism at the time. So, what was happening with the Panthers was not something that was unique and unprecedented. It was part of larger political and historical cross currents.

In this way, we can say that we learn about the Panthers, we’re learning about U.S. history, we’re learning about global history, we’re learning about all of those standards that people like to put together, that oftentimes decenter Black and Brown people. But, in a lot of ways, if we sort of reconceptualize them, it’s important to think about that, and we have to move beyond the Malcolm versus Martin dichotomy. Even though I know that that is so much of how the Black Freedom Movement is taught. But, luckily we have entities like the Zinn Education Project, Teaching for Change, and wonderful curriculum that’s produced by scholars, teachers, and archivists that allow us to think about how just one primary source can shift the conversation by showing the students that image. One image can change a conversation, and it can add some nuance to a story that they may think they already know. So, it’s about thinking about how you can use these primary sources, these images, these oral histories to tell another type of story.

Phillips: A couple of people have been asking a question about gender and sexuality in the Black Panther Party and I just want to answer that question a little bit. When we talk about non-gender, non-conforming, or folks that may have identified as gay or LGBT or what have you, one thing I want to point out is that the Black Panther Party worked through all of their differences. For some people, sexuality was fluid in the organization. Ericka Huggins always talks about how everybody brought their stuff to the organization, and we worked through those differences. But, it’s important to point out that the Panthers did make an effort to coalition with women’s liberation groups, feminist organizations, and LGBT identified organizations.

Huey P. Newton wrote an open letter in support of the gay liberation and feminist movements. That’s one of the most, I argue in his writings, powerful documents, because he not only calls out the homophobia that was existent at the time among some members in the Black Panther Party, but he says, “Look, we can’t do this work alone. We need to mobilize.” He says, “Look, folks that identify as LGBT are some of the most radical folks out there, and we need to mobilize with them and coalition with them. And we need to work through our own stuff.” His language in that letter, I’m not sure how many people have read the open letter, it’s very raw and unapologetic. So, there were many coalitions that the Panthers did. Even if you look in the Panther newspaper, you will see interviews with leading members in the Black feminist groups at the time of them taking on issues that deal with sexism and gender politics. You see women really placing these concerns at the center and talking about these issues, particularly if you look into the 1970s you will see this. So, I want to make sure that I address that, as well.

Spencer: I see some questions about COINTELPRO and the silencing of COINTELPRO in the larger history of Black radicalism, the history of women, and the history of this period, in particular. So, I definitely want to highlight that and say that, yes, we do have to tell those stories, this history of political repression in the 1960s, and before as well, to make a long history of political repression. And to connect that to the histories of political radicals and the history of the carceral state, the role of the police and their history in these United States. And what has that meant for Black dissidents? I think about the ways in which people like Dr. King were set upon by the FBI helped to frame how we think about the Panthers and COINTELPRO because they’re often seen as deserving of that because they were out here with their radical ideas. When you start with nonviolent activists being surveilled, harassed, and positioned into almost suicides, if you think about some of the more recent primary sources that have come out around manipulation of people like Dr. King and others. Then, to go beyond that, what does it mean to not be a person whose name everyone recognizes, but to be going through that level of repression? What did it mean to be a rank and file member, a woman in the Black Panther Party, and be dealing with the daily surveillance? How did that impact your life, your activism, et cetera? These are the questions that we need to ask. And these are the ways that we need to think about accountability and telling this history and learning the story.

Because we know the stories, the flash points, the moments where male leaders were arrested and it made headlines, or people were assassinated in brutal ways, and it’s left a scar on history that maybe no one could ignore, even though they try. But we don’t know the daily grinding down, the ways in which COINTELPRO, surveillance, and repression really eroded the foundations of these movements in ways that push them into — or try to push them into — oblivion. So, telling that part of the story is also central. And women, women and repression, women and motherhood, women and ideology, women in art, women in poetry, right? Women and education, philosophy, women and nutrition, ideas about nutrition and parenting. All of these were discussed and central in the history of the Black Panther Party. All of these were radical ideas. But we don’t tend to think about that. When we think about the Black Panther Party, we have one narrow frame. If we broaden that then we’d really have a sense of what revolution looked like. The revolution that they were interested in making, anyway.

Phillips: I want to add the way in which, when we talk about repression and we talk about women in particular, I mean, much of my work looks at the way in which women were targeted during their incarceration and how they were framed, how they were plotted, how they were isolated, how they were beaten in prison, the lack of humanity and the resistance. What I have found in much of my research — and you can see this with Huey P. Newton — there were measures that these Party members put in place that helped them survive, so that they were able to come out of prison with their humanity intact, with their mind intact. Modes of resistance and the community building and initiatives that they did in prison — in a system that’s designed to really kill you, essentially, your mind and spirit — I think that’s useful for us to really take hold of. So absolutely, I mean, there are stories about political prisoners giving birth in prison and the horrific treatment, giving birth under this kind of duress. All of these other stories oftentimes don’t make it into the master narrative that we hear so often in public.

Spencer: I see some questions about change in terms of how the Panthers and Panther women have been portrayed. I’m happy to report an uptick in some amazing literature that has been produced. Our young scholars are on it in terms of the articles that are being written, the books that are coming out, really bringing so much complexity to the question of gender, sexuality, disability, politics, all different ways of thinking about the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, and gender and sexuality. There’s really so much more than there ever was before and I think it’s so important to connect what’s happening at and coming out from professional historians to what’s available to be used in classrooms by teachers. And I think that’s where groups like the Zinn Education Project are the bridge that creates moments that can become curricular moments, where analyses and the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute can be a place where teachers can go and find out about new interpretations, ways to rethink things, or to push back gently. Or to reframe things or to just pivot.

Sometimes it just takes that pivot, that seed to plant. I can’t tell you how many seeds teachers have planted that have come and sprung up years later, when I didn’t even realize it at the time. Just a question or someone that made me think twice about something I thought I was sure about, I thought I knew. I thought it was a truism, then later on I realized, okay, there’s another way of thinking about this. That’s what teachers can do. For every child whose mind is available to them to touch — whether it be through the screens that we’re forced into now or in person — that’s the power of being an educator. So, I’m excited to see so many people out here and I’m excited at these connections. I think there’s more content than ever, and literature. [There are] lots of questions about literature out there. People are reading books, fiction writers are on it telling these stories, as are poets. It’s a beautiful thing. Stoop kids can read the stories in their young adult literature and that makes it more even accessible than what’s coming from their teacher. Sometimes it’s coming from a book that they’re enjoying, they’re being entertained by, they’re laughing with, and they’re seeing themselves in, then it’s even better.

Phillips: It’s interesting because I’m teaching a course on the Black Panther Party and we — for those who don’t know, you should check out Alondra Nelson’s book that looks at the health clinics. It’s such an important book — and the Panthers have free health care clinics. The Panthers addressed sickle cell anemia, and they wrote all about this in their Panther newspaper, as well. I want to mention that a lot of the newspapers are online, so you can access those newspapers, as well. But, you could come and get free testing for sickle cell anemia. They were doing research on sickle cell anemia at the time at their health clinics. They were trying to demystify the medical system. They really wanted to be much more thorough and personal when you come to the clinic so you can understand what the person was saying, and they have volunteers coming in. And they didn’t always wear the coat because they were very strategic and organized with the health care clinics. They believed in it being free and assessable. And they believed in demystifying and really challenging the medical system.

There’s a history of medical discrimination of Black and Brown bodies, and they were very aware of that. They were having this discourse in the newspaper about various issues that affect our bodies and what have you. So, it was important. With COVID-19 now, I have my students draw the connections. How do you imagine the Black Panther Party will respond to COVID-19 based on the thorough and detailed work the Panthers were doing when we think about the free health care clinics. I have them look at all those archival documents that are available, that you can access, where you can actually see what their day-to-day lives looked like; the records, the memos. Audrea Jones was running the healthcare clinic in Boston. Women’s hands were on all these documents, on all the community survival programs. We only know about a couple, but that’s part of the work that we’re trying to do, bringing more and more voices of women of the Black Panther Party to the center of the narrative.

Hagopian: There was just a question also about other books and resources that people can use to further their education.

Phillips: The Black Panther Party ha[d] an alumni website called It’s About Time and I’ll make sure that we put it in the research guide that will be available. There are tons of resources by alumni of the Black Panther Party as far as newspapers, international and global alliances, a whole section on women. I mean, it is a massive amount of information that I think would be really helpful — audio clips, video clips, all kinds of primary documents.

Spencer: I want to highlight that there are so many Panther women who are available, people like Charlotte Hill O’Neil, who lives in Tanzania now but comes to the United States every year. She speaks to classroom groups, high schools, community centers, and other spaces where she’ll talk about the ways that she’s tried to bring the Panther model of survival programs and community programs that she was involved in. She’s brought that to where she lives currently in Tanzania. So the ways that they are bringing that model of community education, of grassroots empowerment, of running a children’s home, serving the community body and soul, and bringing that model to another context, and what that longevity has meant to Tarika Lewis, who is still out here. She’s an amazing musician and she gives talks.

Ericka Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, Barbara Cox, there’s so many Panther women who are still out here. Sally Dickson, who we mentioned earlier, is an amazing Panther artist. You can look up her art as well. Almost all the names that we mentioned are with us, and I think at a time where maybe we’re more heightened and aware of the fleeting nature of life, we can look to these folks as our treasured sources. They are our primary sources. They are our gold. They are with us. I get so many questions; on History Day students are writing to me, egged on by their teacher, to ask historians things. I think it’s nice sometimes to reach out to those folks who can tell how it was. Of course, they’re busy and all of that, but sometimes there are venues in which you can hear their wisdom. So, I always encourage people to just go and try to hear from the people who were directly involved. Sometimes when you hear a lot of stories and they’re so different — because Oakland was not Chicago, which was not New York, which was not Boston, which was not Detroit, which was not in Milwaukee. The Panthers were a nationwide expression but they had local nuances, as well. So being a woman in the Party was very different based on where you were, when you joined, who you were connected to, et cetera. Just to get those complexities, I think, it’s also important to reach out to those sources, as well.

Phillips: I think that’s a nice lead-in. Someone asked, “Did women actually feel equal in the movement?” It has a lot to do with what Dr. Spencer was saying. It varies by person, chapter, branch, region. For example, in much of my work in Detroit you will hear women, former Party members, saying, “Look, the experience I felt as a woman, I didn’t experience all of the kind of sexism that folks maybe experienced in LA or what have you.” So it’s not a blanket thing. All women didn’t experience the same degree. It really did vary by where you were located, who was in the organization, the gender makeup. It’s very complicated. So, I want to get away from the idea that a lot of people when they think of the Panthers and think of women, they just think sexism, and that is really not the case at all.

Hagopian: Well, we are here at the end of our time, so I really want to thank you, Mary and Robyn. This has been such a rich discussion. I’ve learned a lot that I’ll be able to take into my classroom. I also just want to underline what you said about trying to reach out to the Panthers that are still with us. I’ve learned so much from them. We brought Mama C [Charlotte O’Neil] to our high school this year and my students got to hear from her directly. It was an incredible experience. Shout out to the Seattle chapter, the first chapter of the Black Panther Party outside of California. She met with one of the founders here in Seattle. So that was wonderful. But thanks, everybody, for this community space today, reviving this history and bringing it to life. This has been just a delight to hear from you both today.


While this transcript was edited, there may be minor errors or typos — if you notice something you believe to be incorrect please contact us at



Listen to the recording of the session on these additional platforms.

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Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants in the chat box.

Black Panther Party free clothing event | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History


Teaching the Panther 10 Point Program and Platform by Wayne Au

What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party — but Should by Jesse Hagopian and Adam Sanchez

COINTELPRO: Teaching the FBI’s War on the Black Freedom Movement by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca


The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland by Robyn Spencer

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas by Emory Douglas, edited by Sam Durant, foreword by Danny Glover, preface by Bobby Seale, contribution by Kathleen Cleaver

Books on the Black Panther Party and Black Power were recommended in the chat box. Those titles and more are included in a list on the Black Panther Party at Social Justice Books. Note that there are only a handful of books for children and young adults. Students and educators can advocate that publishers fill this gap.


Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California” by Robyn C. Spencer  (Journal of Women’s History, 2008)

The Power of the First-Person Narrative: Ericka Huggins and the Black Panther Party” by Mary Frances Phillips (Women’s Studies Quarterly, 2015)

Digital and Oral History Collections

The Freedom Archives Over 12,000 hours of audio and video recordings which date from the late-1960s to the mid-90s and chronicle the progressive history of the Bay Area, the United States, and international movements.

Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project includes IPHP Resource Guide for Teaching Black Panther Party History

National Archives, Black Power Catalog Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, including records on various organizations such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), Deacons for Defense and Justice, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP); and on several individuals, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Amiri Baraka, and Shirley Chisholm.

Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. Veterans of the Black Panther Party, Seattle chapter, discuss their experiences in video interviews.


Film Clips

Alicia Garza and Ericka Huggins in Conversation

Oakland Community Learning Center: a television program in two segments that focus on the Oakland Community Learning Center, a project founded by the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party.

More Films

Black Panthers Video Playlist. Produced by the Oakland Museum of California, these 15 short video clips are ideal for the classroom. Mary Phillips noted: “The first clip featuring the poem by Chinaka Hodge is a great tribute to Panthers such as Emory Douglas, Tarika Lewis, and fallen Panthers like Bobby Hutton. Teachers can also connect her poem to the 10-Point Program and Platform and the Party’s political ideology. In the second clip, students can hear Tarika in her own words and the perspective of men across ranks on gender politics, which we don’t hear often.”

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. A documentary that examines the evolution of the Black Power movement in U.S. society from 1967 to 1975 as viewed through Swedish journalists and filmmakers

Crip Camp. In this 2020 documentary about the disability rights movement, there is a scene of the Black Panther Party feeding demonstrators in San Francisco.

Eyes on the Prize. Includes segments on the Black Panther Party in “Power” and “A Nation of Law.”



Rosa Parks

During the 1979–1980 school year, Mrs. Parks visited the Oakland Community School (OCS), an elementary school run by the Black Panther Party. Educator and Black Panther Party leader Ericka Huggins is the woman standing among the children. Photo by Donald Cunningham. Source: Ericka Huggins and Lisbet Tellefsen

The Black Panther, July 12, 1969. Image shared courtesy of Emory Douglas

The Black Panther, March 20, 1970. Image shared courtesy of Emory Douglas

Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses from participants in the session evaluation.

What was learned.

The whole topic. The BPP was never really talked about and I never asked questions growing up, but I never fully realized the impact of the amazing work done by women.

De-constructing the Martin/Malcolm dichotomy, centering women and gender in the history of the Panthers.

I learned about the artwork created by black women in the Panthers and intend to use those for primary source analysis activities in class.

Black women are the spine and backbone of the Black Panther Party, and we are presented a distorted version of US history when it comes to the BPP to begin with . . . add on top of that the distortion of the role of women in the BPP, and we need to do a much better job pushing back against the status quo.

Huey Newton’s support of LGBT and feminist issues. This narrative is not often a part of the main story and it’s important to center the intersectional experiences of activist and party members. There are no singular experiences.

Women made up a majority of the party by the end of the 60’s. It made me realize I hadn’t made as much of a move from big man history as I thought. The fact that the first woman to join was a teenager is of importance, as well.

Learning that there was an art aspect to this whole movement, I had no idea how powerful of an idea it conveyed.

Highlighting of women warriors of the Black Panther Party. I want to share this information with teachers of this content in my school and find ways to bring it into a math curriculum.

I enjoyed the visuals that were shared and analyzed. These types of graphics are so critical for students in addition to the written documents and documentaries like “Vanguard of the Revolution.” The pieces written by Drs. Phillips and Spencer are insightful and contribute much to the historiography as well. I’ve used Mary Phillips’ work in teaching my own university classes but I will have to integrate Spencer’s, as well.

I am very excited to learn even more about the Oakland Community School. Their work and their principles can guide us as we work to really reimagine school (not Gates’ reimagine school).

Phew — can’t list just one. The presenters were great and LOVED their passion. The shared resources in the chat were very valuable. My “surprise” was the letter from Huey P. Newton supporting gay rights. Love that crossover and went and found docs to help teach it.

There is so much I didn’t know I didn’t know. I definitely fall into the camp who heard about it as a negative thing that maybe shouldn’t even be discussed, so I am humbled and looking forward to learning more.

I didn’t know the level of women involvement in the Black Panthers. I also was interested in how they challenged gender roles. I also was fascinated by their community schools and would love to learn more.

So much! I definitely want to use the documents they shared. I love the idea of centering a lesson around expanding ideas of revolution, starting with the “survival pending revolution” strategy and looking at programs like the health clinics that were discussed at the end. I also loved putting this in a broader perspective thinking about how these women were connected to other national and global movements.

I was really thrilled to learn more about the gender roles and the disruption of the blanket narratives surrounding women’s expectations.

Instead of thinking about leaders like Malcolm X and MLK as opposing ideas, thinking about a more holistic, central history . . . examining each leader as their individual ideas. I never thought about how much got left out when looking at history that way. I can’t wait to revisit the concepts in a broader fashion.

Oh my! As usual from these sessions, too many things from which to choose! I think the best take away was Robyn Spencer’s cogent reasoning for why teaching BPP is important to curriculum particularly because the organization itself is such a touchstone on so many issues in the later 1960s into 1970s, especially (but beyond as well). What a wonderful centering point to explore that particular time period in US history and have link to international movements as well and legacies further into 20th century and today.

It is so powerful to hear from both Mary and Robyn about their experiences. Narratives really ground the power of learning history and I am routinely moved when I get to hear first hand accounts. I am also struck by how we treat the Black Panther Party in history, but then rely so heavily on the tools of organizing to get us out of a crisis. Mutual Aid is truly what is serving my DC community right now and there can be no clearer connection to what the Black Panther Party taught us. Such a powerful force in organizing even years later.

The format.

The break out rooms were great to allow yourself to internalize and question information.

I thought the full setup worked, especially given the (excitingly!) high number of participants. My only wish is that we had more time in breakout rooms, but that’s just nitpicking.

The slightly longer breakout group time was excellent!

Thank you! This was a wonderfully organized program. I think this was my favorite one so far.

Size of breakout group was great. Wish we had 5-10 more minutes in our groups.

The breakout session is hit or miss. It all depends on who is in the meeting. Today, it was not a lot of value to miss 12 minutes of missing the speakers.

I enjoyed the breakout session very much. I thought it struck a good balance between the large group/lecturing mode and then being able to discuss ideas with a smaller group and to connect with a diverse group of educators, parents, students, etc.

I loved the breakout conversation, it really set the purpose for attending and re-instilled the importance of connection.

I think this was one of the smoothest professional development sessions I’ve been to. The size of the breakout rooms were great and no technical difficulties!

I love the order — presentation, small group, and then all-group Q&A.

I think it worked really well. I think they did a great job answering the questions and the presenters worked really well together. We didn’t have a facilitator so it was a little difficult at first but once we got going it was great.

WOW! This was such an awesome format. I was really apprehensive to engage in breakout group because I’m pretty shy but it was phenomenal. The people I was placed with cared about the content, engaged in meaningful discussion, and shared resources that are so valuable for me as a high school teacher. Also, I have attended a few educational opportunities during COVID-19 and this was the best yet. Content was shared in an engaging way and the discussion was so rich. Thank you!

This was beautiful today… Robin & Mary’s talks were so interactive with so many references to resources we can use in the classroom… directly applicable to K – 12 learning.

Loved looking at documents together. I thought the breakout groups were a good idea. The timing was right. I’m really impressed with you all!!! Can you teach everyone else how to do PD, especially virtual ones?

Given the expertise of the members of my breakout session, I could have spent hours with those women sharing their wealth of historical and personal knowledge and wisdom.

Format was perfect. Loved the mix of talking, art, and Q and A portion. My favorite part was breakout groups. Would love more time in breakout groups but it’s understandable for the session overall to fly by so fast.

Additional comments.

Huge thanks for a great talk and for the Zinn “curriculum” that has guided me all throughout my 1st year as a US history teacher!

Thank you. This was awesome!! I definitely am leaving with knowledge I didn’t have and can use in the classroom. How to connect the BPP to the traditional history standards was also helpful for those of us in . . .”traditional” environments.

Thank you! You are doing an amazing job. We are all becoming better teachers thanks to you!

Thank you for your time, expertise, grace, wisdom. I loved having young people in the conversations.

This was so powerful, I was deeply moved by the leadership and sharing of Dr. Kelly and Dr. Phillips today. Thank you. Thank you, also, for inviting me to participate as a facilitator of one of the breakout sessions. Humbled to be facilitating a group with amazing scholars/writers/authors/activists!

Great session. Love Miles’ quarantine rap.

Thank you. Our whole family appreciated this session!

Thank you so much!! This was a really great way to spend time learning in a collaborative and informative moment. With all the stress of the world right now, I really needed this to lift my spirits.

Being able to hear other perspectives about these topics and interact with other teachers opened my eyes and my mind. I can’t believe I’m just now coming across this resource! I’m so grateful that I did, and I can’t wait to be more involved! THANK YOU!!

The follow up emails are so helpful and chock full of information. THANKS for those, too!



Robyn C. Spencer is a historian who focuses on Black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. In 2018-2019 she was Women’s and Gender Studies Visiting Endowed Chair at Brooklyn College, CUNY and she is currently an Associate Professor of History at Lehman College. She is the author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland and is working on two book projects. To Build the World Anew: Black Liberation Politics and the Movement Against the Vietnam War explores how and why the anti-imperialist struggle for Vietnamese independence became a rallying point for U.S.-based Black activists who were part of the freedom movement of the 1950s–1970s. She has also begun research on a biography of Angela Davis. @racewomanist.
Mary Phillips is a proud native of Detroit, Michigan. She works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Lehman College, City University of New York. She was selected as a 2018-2019 award recipient for the American Association of University Women American Postdoctoral Research Leave Fellowship. Her interdisciplinary research agenda focuses on race and gender in post-1945 social movements. Currently she is working on her book manuscript, Sister Love: Ericka Huggins, Spiritual Activism, and the Black Panther Party (New York University Press)This project is the first and only scholarly monograph on the experiences of former Black Panther Party member and human rights activist Ericka Huggins. @mfphillips


2 comments on “People’s Historians Online: Women in the Black Panther Party

  1. Zinn Education Project on

    The video will be posted. However, we have a very small team and we are still working on it. Please check back in a few days. We will also email everyone who registered for the session once it is posted.

  2. on

    Perhaps I am just not seeing it but was told that the presentation video would be posted from this event. Can you help?

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