By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
A new book about the Black Panther Party, “Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party,” by Stephen Shames and Ericka Huggins is reintroducing the organization’s legacy as a public health champion. Among the commanding photos in the coffee table book are images of efforts to get Blacks across the country tested for sickle cell in the 1970s.
The Black Panther Party started in Oakland and its mission to be the first line of defense in the Black community spread nationwide.
Members saw health as a social justice issue. They hosted neighborhood clinics and engaged Black health professionals and medical students to go out in the community to educate people on sickle cell disease. Dr. Mary T. Bassett wrote about them in 2016 in an online article titled, “Beyond Berets: The Black Panthers as Health Activists.”
“Today the organization is remembered for its black-clad, black-bereted members in disciplined formation, bearing arms. These are compelling images, but they in no way capture the organization’s historical significance or its lasting contribution to public health,” wrote Bassett, who also ran a clinic, conducting sickle cell screening at the Black Panther Party’s Franklin Lynch Peoples’ Free Health Center in Boston.
The Black Panthers stressed that the right to health is just as vital as housing and freedom from police brutality. The group even modified its original Ten Point Program in 1972 to include a focus on health. The new sixth point read, “We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people.” The sentence was actually written in all caps to drive home the seriousness of the demand. “We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival,” it continued.
Co-founder Bobby Seale also incorporated sickle cell testing into his 1972 mayoral campaign events.
Dr. Marsha Treadwell, who leads UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland’s sickle cell care program, spoke to The OBSERVER about the impact of those early efforts.
“The progress that’s made in sickle cell really depends on the community, provider, researcher, and partnerships. At the time that sickle cell was at the forefront in the ’60s and ’70s, the Black Panther Party really was instrumental in working with Black providers in the Bay Area where they were on the forefront of this as well. They all worked together,” Dr. Treadwell said.
“But there were other providers around the country who worked with the Black Panther Party to bring attention to the issue with the federal government, and then that led to the establishment of the comprehensive sickle cell centers. I think a problem in sickle cell is just that our populations are disproportionately primarily Black, African American and, in California, Latinx and, primarily as well, on public insurance. So I think, as a population overall, that the voice of people with sickle cell disease hasn’t really been centered since the time of the Black Panther Party and the establishment of comprehensive sickle cell centers.”
That’s changing, Dr. Treadwell said, with new demands for attention.
“There really is a resurgence now that there’s a real focus on health equity.”
This article is part of a series that highlights sickle cell’s impact on the African American community and how medical professionals are working to remove barriers to care and ensure that patients get the treatment they deserve.