BET News: New Book Highlights Black Panther Party’s Radical Healthcare Activism

By By Naeesa Aziz
BET News

Nelson_Body coverMentioning the Black Panther Party often brings to mind stock images of stoic, young, Afro'ed Black men and women donning berets and black leather, and clutching assault rifles. But a new book from Columbia University professor Alondra Nelson shows that the Panthers' most revolutionary ideas may have been those surrounding community-based free healthcare, which they provided to many African-Americans in the late 1960s and '70s.

In her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Nelson cuts through some of the romanticized elements of the party’s legacy to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party’s struggle for healthcare justice. After successes with running health clinics in the late 1960s, the Black Panthers decided in 1970 that all chapters of the organization would be required to operate free medical clinics. The organization also included "completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people" in its 10-point platform.

“The clinics were established to not only help the broader communities that the Panthers were working in, but to help the Panthers themselves," Nelson told "In interviewing about the clinics, people conveyed to me that this was a place that they felt comfortable going to, that was nearby, and it was also the case that the Panther clinics were open late in the evenings, say 5 to 9, so people could go after work and seek medical care.”

However impressive the success of the clinics, Nelson says it was mostly the Party’s involvement in a self-constructed sickle cell screening program that piqued her interest in the organization’s healthcare work and served as the inspiration for the book.

“I thought to myself, 'These are people who are teenagers and in their early 20s doing a large-scale genetic screening program — talk about revolutionary!'” she said.


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