Truthout: On Body and Soul and the Black Panthers' Fight For Free Health Care

By Eleanor J. Bader

Nelson_Body coverIt is well-known that the Black Panther Party's [BPP] rallying call was "serve the people, body and soul." According to sociologist Alondra Nelson, the phrase was far more than a rhetorical flourish. In fact, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale made sure it was taken literally when, in the spring of 1970, he ordered all party chapters to create free breakfast programs for children and health centers to serve the medically needy.

It was a tall order, born of the belief that theory and practice need to work in tandem, with tangible benefits being given to under-resourced communities. The clinics were called People's Free Medical Centers [PFMC] and eventually were established in 13 cities across the country, from Cleveland to New Haven, Connecticut; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Los Angeles. One facility, in Portland, Oregon, offered dental as well as medical care; all relied on donated supplies and volunteer labor. Women, Nelson writes, were the backbone of the effort - not surprising, considering that approximately 60 percent of BPP members were female.

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