Throughout February, NBC will feature essays about black Americans who pioneered change in U.S. history during the civil rights movement that led to nationwide desegregation. Pioneers include those who led local efforts to desegregate schools, professionals who went ahead to become luminaries within their industries, and advocates who fueled the wave of change front in the attempt to nation for racial justice and equality.
Elaine Brown, the 1st and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party
Elaine Brown is used to innovating – and overcoming adversity is a challenge she took on long before making history in the 1970s as the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party. Among the many black-led organizations defending the civil and human rights of black Americans at the time, “none had women at the helm, except for the Black Panther Party,” says Brown, 77.
Thankfully, Brown was up to the challenge – and the many hardships his controversial appointment would bring in his life. Her well-deserved reputation as a brilliant, daring and steadfast supporter of black liberation in America and beyond endures today, as evidenced by the more than five decades she has given her support – and voice – to speaking out. on issues of equality and justice. “We were there to question the whole structure and the whole scheme,” says Brown, of the Panthers’ efforts to make American society fairer. ” And this is how [which] gave me and gives me meaning and purpose today.
Elaine Brown, the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party, describes how the Black Panther Party got its start as an organization and how it came to the forefront of American consciousness in the 1970s.
Promoting self-determination and ending police brutality against black Americans – both of whom had been high on the Black Panther Party’s agenda since its inception in 1966 – are at the heart of Brown’s activism. . “Freedom is what we wanted; [the] power to determine the fate of our black communities, ”says Brown, mother of an adult daughter. Similar themes have since emerged in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, recalling the lasting impact the Panthers and Brown have had on America and the world; an impressive feat for a black girl raised in poverty in Philadelphia by a dedicated hardworking mother. She wouldn’t learn from her absent father, a well-respected neurosurgeon, until she was 14.
As an adult, Brown’s desire to pursue a career as a songwriter inspired her to move to California, where the Black Panthers were born and largely based. His time there would introduce him to the then burgeoning organization known for its brash and shameless message of black pride. Brown’s perspective changed forever following a chance meeting with a local leader of the Black Panther Party: “I met this amazing man named [Alprentice] ‘Bunchy ‘Carter, founder and leader of the Southern California section of the Black Panther Party. I knew I had to do something.
She began volunteering, studying Party literature, training in Panther manners, and for a time writing and selling the Party newspaper. Being around black people, Brown thinks, was refreshing and exciting; for Brown had spent much of her life in virtually all-white schools, divided between the elitist world of her classmates and the impoverished black community in which she lived. “In the end, all of these things certainly influenced my awareness of the issues I saw that affected me, being poor, being deprived so to speak; not having the things my white classmates had, ”Brown recalls. “It had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with a pattern of things that stretched back hundreds of years, but it certainly made a difference in my thinking about how I would end up. [as] a black panther.
Elaine Brown talks about meeting and working with Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, as well as the party’s legacy today.
Her commitment to the organization reached new heights when she met Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton at an airport upon returning from a delegation trip hosted by compatriot Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Before, she had only seen Newton on posters, but he was there in the flesh, and Brown was struck, “He was this amazingly handsome man; very strong, very intelligent, totally powerful. And he finally gave me a big hug and said, “Welcome home, mate.” I thought I was dead and gone to heaven. I had never met someone so beautiful in my life.
She and Newton had clicked, claiming her serve to the Panthers. “I talked with him all night about the first night of our fight and what we were doing and why we were doing it,” she recalls. This first meeting would inspire a long-standing admiration between the two, a shared passion for helping black Americans break free from the shackles of racial injustice and the horrors of police brutality, or as she puts it, “the problems in the world. street, police problems. “
It would be a tough battle to fight, but the Panthers were engaged. In 1969, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the country’s internal security” and promised Americans that it would not exist by the end. of the year. At the time, many of his top brass were also routinely gunned down in retaliation for the Panthers’ growing political and social influence, including leaders John Huggins and Carter, who had recruited Brown. “In Los Angeles and Southern California, we had someone… who got killed every month,” Brown recalls.
Despite the growing existential challenges facing the organization, Brown was supportive of the cause. And, with Newton as a close ally, she quickly rose through the ranks – as Information Secretary and eventually President in 1974. Her education had helped her move up into the Panthers – an education she would later learn had was subsidized by her father.
During his tenure, Brown championed many community service initiatives including the free Busing to Prisons program, Free Legal Aid Program, Liberation School, and the revolutionary Free Breakfast for Children program. The breakfast program was particularly innovative, ultimately providing morning meals to tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged school children across the country. It is also believed to have served as an early model for the free and discounted lunch programs offered in U.S. public schools today.
While Newton’s controversial decision to appoint her as the first female president was pivotal, it also ultimately helped inspire Brown’s decision to quit the organization altogether. She says she faced gender-based treatment and threats of violence as she led the male-dominated organization, marking one of her most successful and difficult years as Panther. Brown reflected in his memoir, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story:”
She severed formal ties with the organization in 1977 when Newton, whom she describes as “one of the great leaders in our struggle for the pantheon of great leaders that we had in the United States of America,” resumed his role. Leaving was disheartening, as the Panthers had become a family, but she has no regrets. “Everything I did, I did it because I believed it was right,” says Brown.
Her passion and commitment to breaking down social barriers – and supporting the issues that drew her to the organization – persisted. In 1998, Brown co-founded the popular Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice Association, which spoke out against lawsuits against children as adults in the state of Georgia. Five years later, she co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, which was created to provide reintegration support to thousands of people incarcerated upon their release. Brown is also CEO of Oakland & the World Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit organization “dedicated to starting and sustaining for-profit businesses for co-operative ownership by former incarcerates and others facing hardship. monumental social obstacles to economic survival ”.
As the popular saying goes, Elaine Brown doesn’t just talk, she has dedicated her life to walking, no matter the cost. For this, she reigns forever in history, American history, as an initiator of change in the image of the organization which largely triggered its activism. Brown does not hesitate to credit the organization which started a fire in her: “The legacy of the Party, I believe, is solid”, she exclaims. “I don’t think there has been a bigger one. … We have been the greatest effort ever made by blacks for the liberation of blacks.
Comcast NBCUniversal Voices of the Civil Rights Movement The platform pays homage to the legacy and impact of American civil rights champions. Watch Voices’ full interview with Elaine Brown, and over 17 hours of first-hand accounts and historical moments, in line and on Xfinity On Demand.
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