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Founded in 1966, the Black Panther Movement was a revolutionary political force built upon principles of self-determination and empowerment. Within the Movement, nearly two-thirds of the members were women whose work “truly made the Black Panther Party relevant to a new era of struggle for liberation” (Angela Davis).
The Historical and Social Context of the Black Panther Movement
The period between the 1960s and 1970s was a time of great social and political change for the country. In this context, the Black Panther Movement developed with the goal of fighting racial discrimination and promoting the social, political, economic, and spiritual emancipation of African Americans.
Political education and direct action were the key tools of the movement. The Panthers aimed to educate and inform members on social, economic, and political issues so that they could actively participate in the fight for freedoom and justice. At the same time, demonstrations and protests aimed to draw attention to specific issues and raise public awareness.
By actively challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression, the Black Panther Movement became a powerful symbol of change.
“Comrade Sisters”: The Beating Heart of the Movement
The incredible photographic work – “Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party” – by photojournalist Stephen Shames, in close collaboration with Ericka Huggins, encapsulates all of this but in a different light.
“Comrade Sisters” is a tribute to the women of the movement, to the women who were part of a freedom movement and who profoundly influenced the life of the African American community throughout the country.
Shames, who was a young student at Berkeley when he first encountered the movement in 1966, describes the Movement as based “on the demonstration that the black community had control over its own destiny,” while seeking to build a “community through service to the people, providing free food and clothing.”
The Women of the Party
Within the movement, women held important positions, representing the symbolic ideals of emancipation and civil rights.
Among these symbols are personalities like Ericka Huggins, activist, teacher, and active member of the movement who worked to improve the quality of life through the establishment of a free clinic, a healthcare program, and a school.
But also Angela Davis, militant in the Black Panther movement in ’69 and still today a fundamental figure for the feminist movement; or Elaine Brown, one of the first women to head the Black Panther Movement, who worked to improve economic and social conditions in the community and promote women’s emancipation.
Similarly, Kathleen Cleaver, lawyer and activist, and one of the first women to join the party, quickly distinguishing herself as a leader and spokesperson for the movement. During her time in the Movement, she also worked as a legal advocate for party members who had been arrested and persecuted by authorities.
By 1969, women represented more than half of the party’s members. Coming from every corner of the country, these women were united by the possibility of an emancipatory movement for freedom.
With programs like the “Free Food Program,” an initiative that provided food to support the poorest, or the Inter-Communal Youth Institute, a school run by the Black Panthers, the women of the movement worked to give purpose to a community that was trying to survive.
Whether as leaders of the Movement or as frontline activists and key figures in community social assistance, the women of the Black Panther Movement were literally the beating heart of this new political approach to the freedom of African Americans.
The Fight Against Sickle Cell Anemia
One of their main battles was against sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that was neglected by the scientific community and the government at the time, which mainly affected African Americans.
The women of the Movement established screening programs, free medical assistance for the community, and awareness campaigns to increase awareness of the disease and its effects.
The role of women in the Black Panther movement’s fight against sickle cell anemia was central and multifaceted, demonstrating their commitment to community health and social justice.
Their commitment was revolutionary, managing to diagnose and treat sickle cell anemia, thus significantly improving the quality of life.
Women’s Leadership in the Movement
Shames’ photographic work provides unprecedented access not only to the protests and rallies of the movement, but also to unique moments that capture the essence of the women who were part of the Party.
As Angela Davis writes in the introduction to the photographic masterpiece:
“The leadership offered by the women of the Black Panther Party was concrete and deeply collective. It was a leadership designed to serve the people, ensure their survival and ultimately transform social institutions, foreshadowing what life might have been like if people of all races, religion and class had been able to claim substantial access to education, health care and food.”
A Revolutionary Movement
In the era of George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, and many many others, the issues and solutions raised by these unique and very powerful photographs are relevant today as they were when the Black Panther Movement was founded in Oakland, California on October 15, 1966.
From the battle against sickle cell anemia, to the establishment of screening programs, free medical assistance, and awareness campaigns, the women of the Black Panthers were the forefront of the party.
By highlighting their stories and contributions, we honour their legacy.
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