How the Black Panthers Paved the Way for New Progressivism

February 20, 2020

Today’s progressivism contends that economic rights are human rights. Rights to fundamental goods, such as health care and housing, are regarded as inalienable—as much a part of freedom as core rights like bodily autonomy. The view is consistent with the notion of the “American dream,” in that one must secure and then transcend each of these basic needs in order to advance, or to pursue happiness as the Declaration of Independence puts it.

More than coincidentally, these needs cover many of the Black Panther Party’s* 10-point program. Paralleling democratic socialism’s rise in mainstream progressive politics, the Black Panthers’ ideals are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. And not without reason.

Though commonly associated with the sensational, the Black Panthers conceived of and implemented a wide array of meaningful social programs. The Panthers started free breakfast for school children, with party members cooking every morning for the poor and undernourished kids in their communities. They established the Oakland Community School, which offered adult education and childcare, as well as free medical clinics staffed by well-regarded academic physicians who volunteered a portion of their time. Mary Bassett, former commissioner of health of the city of New York, writes that the Panthers initiated medical research into sickle cell anemia, which was largely ignored prior to their work. They provided plumbing, home maintenance, and even pest control services.

All of this work spoke to the Black Panthers’ bedrock values: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology,” and “the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income.”

Today, people across the country and at every level of government are carrying forward these timeless ideals. In Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba advocates for quality housing at $100 a month; in New York, state legislators are very close to guaranteeing “completely free medical care” for all Black, brown, and oppressed people, just as the Panthers called for. Five decades later, presidential candidates are proposing a federal job guarantee and universal basic income.

As we should remember this Black History Month—and every month—Black Americans have had a remarkable vantage point from which to view the importance of equity, good society, and reliable social programs. New progressivism in the 21st century would not be the same without their historic leadership.

*Note: Throughout this piece, “Black Panthers” refers only to the Black Panther Party founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966.