by Melody Blossom
This semester, I was part of a course that focused on radical women in social movements. We studied the Black Power Movement, the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the involvement of women during this time.
The Black Panther Party, founded in the 1960s, was notorious for being a revolutionary organization that fought for the liberation of Blacks in the United States. With the brilliant activists, community organizers, writers, and thinkers who graced its membership, the BPP is primarily regarded as a male-dominated space and projected itself as such. However, like in most revolutionary movements, there were many women who served important and influential roles. These women made sure they occupied leadership positions, and implemented programs that were vital to the success of the Party and the overall uplifting of the Black community. They also called out sexism within the BPP, never afraid to make their presence known as women. However, their faces seldom grace historical narratives about the Black Panther Party. This list is meant to shine some light on a handful of these women. Although women initially occupied few formal governance positions within the BPP, they played strategic roles as male leadership of the party increasingly faced political repression, incarceration, or exile. With information from the article, "Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California" and other sources, we look at their contributions below.
1. Kathleen Cleaver
Kathleen Cleaver, like many female revolutionaries, had been exposed to many international experiences during her involvement with the Black Panthers. She joined the foreign service and was able to travel to countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, India, and the Philippines. She later returned to the United States and attended Barnard College, where she became more involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She then left college to work full-time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Within a year in the SNCC, she met Eldridge Cleaver, whom she married. They would both join the Black Panther Party, with Kathleen becoming the BPP's National Communications Secretary and helping to organize the campaign to get party leader Huey P. Newton released from prison. She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Black Panther’s Central Committee. Kathleen ended up fleeing to Mexico and later Algeria with her husband. Upon returning to the U.S., she later divorced her husband and currently teaches at Yale University.
2. Angela Davis
Angela Davis is one of the most well-known female members of the Black Panther Party, having joined for a short period after she noticed the party’s sexist practices. Objecting to the misogyny and chauvinism she experienced in the organization, Angela Davis then pursued her activism as a member of the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black faction of the Communist Party in Los Angeles. In 1969 the California Board of Regents and Governor Reagan fired her from the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles because of her Communist affiliation—despite the fact that Davis was regarded as an unbiased and popular teacher among her students. After strong protests from her pupils and fellow faculty members, she was reinstated by court order. Nonetheless, the Board did not renew her contract in 1970, claiming her unfinished dissertation and her radical political activism with the Soledad Brothers as their reasons. Davis continues to be regarded as a preeminent activist, writer, professor, and leader for civil rights and prison reform.
3. Assata Shakur
Many have heard the story of legendary Assata Shakur through Common’s “A Song for Assata.” However, many don’t know that revolutionary Shakur was an influential part of the Black Panther Party. In Assata: An Autobiography, she gives a clear depiction of her life and the circumstances that led to her seeking political asylum in Cuba. Upon being convicted for the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper, Shakur was imprisoned, despite being acquitted of all charges. In 1979, she escaped and fled to Cuba. During her time with the Black Panther Party, she contributed significantly to development of the Free Breakfast Program, spreading awareness through writing about the party to potential allies, and working to empower members of the Black community overall. She played an instrumental part in both the New York and Oakland chapters of BPP. Shakur was also well-known for being one of the few unmarried women Black Panthers. She continues to live in Cuba today.
4. Elaine Brown
Throughout the last four decades, Elaine Brown has been committed to and organized significant efforts toward effecting progressive change in the United States. During her time in the Black Panther Party, she helped organize the Free Breakfast Program in Los Angeles and edited the Party’s newspapers. She also ran for public office in Oakland in 1973 and 1975, representing the BPP. She would eventually gain a leadership role within the Party as chairwoman from 1974 – 1977. Brown continues her activism work today, with much of her recent efforts focusing on radical reform of the criminal justice system. Brown has written and edited numerous articles and books, as well as lectured widely on university and college campuses about prison reform and the injustices within the prison system. She is regarded by many as a reliable expert on the criminal justice system. In 2007, she announced her bid as a 2008 Presidential Election candidate for the Green Party. She continues to write, speak, and lead programs about prison reform today.
5. Barbara Easley
Barbara Easley-Cox was not initially a member of the Black Panther Party when she began working with them as a student at San Francisco State University. She became more closely affiliated with the Party due to her husband, Donald Cox, and contributed to the advancement of Party goals during the 1960s. She and her husband were leaders of the Oakland Chapter of the Black Panther Party and also worked in the New York and Philadelphia chapters. She also helped spread the reach of the Black Panther Party internationally—first moving to Algiers and then to Korea. Upon her return to the U.S., she moved to Philadelphia, focused on community development work, and later retired as a social worker. She continues to live in Philadelphia, where she consults and volunteers in various community-based capacities.
6. Charlotte Hill O’Neal
Charlotte Hill O’Neal joined the Black Panther Party at age 18 and was a member of the BPP’s chapter in Kansas City. Along with her husband, Pete O’Neal, she played a key role in the organization. Eventually, she and her husband fled the United States, after being accused of transporting guns across state lines. She moved to Tanzania, and helped her husband launch the United Africa Alliance Community Center, an arts-based community development organization. O’Neal continues her community empowerment work as a poet, musician, and visual artist.
7. Tarika Matilaba
Tarika Matilaba is known as as the first woman who demanded to have space for black women in the Black Panther Party. Growing up in Oakland, she experienced a number of injustices in the city: its post World War II decline, high rates of unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and other socioeconomic issues that impacted Black people. It is said that at age 16, Matilaba walked into the Black Panther office in Oakland and demanded that she not only be made a member of the party, but she demanded that she be given a gun as well. Prior to joining the Black Panthers, she held several leadership roles, including being a student leader at Oakland Technical High School. During her time at Oakland Tech, she was one of the first students to petition for a black history club and proudly wore her natural hair in an afro. As a Black Panther, she took on many roles, including writing editorials and drawing over 40 political cartoons. Many male Black Panther members respected her, due to her strong presence.
8. Judy Hart
Judy Hart was a student leader at Oakland City College and later San Francisco State University, where she met Black Panther Party leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. She was initially drawn to the Black Panthers because of their fight to end police brutality. With her leadership experience through San Francisco State’s Black Student Union, she felt she could contribute something worthwhile to her community by joining the Black Panther Party and working for them full-time. She became editor-in-chief of the BPP International Newsletter and also worked on the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program. In 1969, she became the youngest faculty member of the nation’s first black studies program at San Francisco State University. Since then, she has written a number of plays and novels. She has also taught writing on college campuses in New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area.
9. Chaka Khan
Popular musician and performer Chaka Khan was also a member of the Black Panther Party. Born in 1953 as Yvette Marie Stevens, she joined the Chicago chapter of the Party in 1969 and worked with the Free Breakfast Program. During this time, she took on a new name, Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi, and dropped out of high school. In the 1970s, she began to focus on her music career, joining the R&B and funk band, Rufus. The band was later renamed Rufus and Chaka, before Chaka Khan began her career as a successful solo artist in the 1980s.