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The Side of the Black Panthers That's Been Virtually Ignored: Their Fight for Healthcare Justice

In her new book, Columbia professor Alondra Nelson documents the multifaceted (and under-reported) health activism of the Panthers.

Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, is the author of a new book titled Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical DiscriminationBy documenting the multifaceted health activism of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and critically assessing BPP's strategy and tactics in a respectful and appreciative manner, Body and Soul presents an analysis that is rare and badly needed in US colleges and universities today. In this interview, Nelson discusses how the Panthers' legacy can both inspire and provide important strategic lessons for today's new generation of political activists.

In her book, Nelson writes that "the party's focus on healthcare was both practical and ideological." On a practical level, BPP provided free community healthcare services, including preventative education. Simultaneously, BPP railed against the medical-industrial complex, declaring that healthcare was "a right and not a privilege."

Ronald "Doc" Satchel, the minister of health for the Chicago BPP, wrote in the BPP newspaper that "the medical profession within this capitalist society…is composed generally of people working for their own benefit and advancement rather than the humane aspects of medical care." A newsletter published by the Southern California chapter argued that "poor people in general and black people in particular are not given the best care available. Our people are treated like animals, experimented on and made to wait long hours in waiting rooms."

By 1970, People's Free Medical Clinics had become a requirement for every BPP chapter. In 1972, the BPP revised point six of the founding 10-point-platform, adding a demand for "completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people…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 preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care."

While citing Martin Luther King Jr's 1966 declaration that "of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane," one chapter provides an important historical context for the BPP's health activism by detailing what Nelson calls "the long medical civil rights movement," that began long before the BPP.

"Mobilized in response to the distinctly hazardous risks posed by segregated medical facilities, professions, societies, and schools; deficient or nonexistent healthcare services; medical maltreatment; and scientific racism, activism challenges to medical discrimination have been an important focal point for African American protest efforts and organizations. The Panthers were heirs to health activism that directly reflected tactics drawn from this tradition," Nelson writes.

Nelson says the central focus of her scholarly work is on "the intersections of science, technology, medicine and inequality." She has co-edited Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (2001) and Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (scheduled to be released in March 2012). To learn more, visit

Angola 3 News: In our recent interview with Billy X Jennings from It's About Time BPP, one theme explored was how, with rare exception, the mainstream media has misrepresented the BPP. However, it seems that even the radical and anti-capitalist media has generally underreported the health activism that is the focus of your book. How did the BPP's health activism relate to its better-known stances against white supremacy, capitalism and police violence?

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