For the entire month of February, NBC will showcase essays about Black Americans who pioneered change in United States history during the Civil Rights Movement that led to nationwide desegregation. Pioneers include those who led local efforts to desegregate schools, professionals who forged ahead to become luminaries within their industries, and advocates who stoked the wave of change head-on in the nation's bid for racial justice and equality.
Elaine Brown, the 1st and Only Woman to Lead the Black Panther Party
Elaine Brown is accustomed to breaking new ground — and overcoming adversity is a challenge she’d conquered long before she made history in the 1970s as the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party. Of the many Black-led organizations advocating for the civil and human rights of Black Americans at the time, “none had women in leadership except the Black Panther Party,” asserts Brown, 77.
Fortunately, Brown was up for the challenge — and the many difficulties her controversial appointment would bring into her life. Her well-earned reputation as a brilliant, bold, unyielding supporter of the liberation of Black people in America and beyond lives on today, as further evidenced by the more than five decades she has lent her support — and her voice — to speaking out on issues of equality and justice. “We were there to challenge the entire structure and scheme,” says Brown, of the Panthers’ efforts to make American society more equitable. “And so it is that [which] gave me, and gives me, meaning and purpose today.”
Promoting self-determination and an end to police brutality facing Black Americans — both of which topped the Black Panther Party’s agenda from its inception in 1966 — are the core of Brown’s activism. “Freedom, that's what we wanted; [the] power to determine the destinies of our Black communities,” explains Brown, mother of one adult daughter. Similar themes have since emerged in the Black Lives Matter movement of present-day, serving as a reminder of the lasting impact that both the Panthers and Brown have made on America and the world; an impressive feat for a Black girl raised in poverty in Philadelphia by a devoted dress-factory worker mother. She would not learn of her absent father, a well-respected neurosurgeon, until the age of 14.
In her young adulthood, Brown’s desire to pursue a songwriting career inspired her relocation to California, where the Black Panthers were born and largely based. Her time there would introduce her to the then-bourgeoning organization known for its brash, unapologetic message of Black pride. Brown’s outlook forever changed following a chance encounter with a local Black Panther Party leader: “I met this incredible man named [Alprentice] ‘Bunchy’ Carter, who was the founder and leader of the southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. I knew that I had to do something.”
She began volunteering, studying the Party’s literature, training on the ways of the Panthers, and — for a time — writing for, and selling, the Party’s newspaper. Being around Black people, Brown reflects, was refreshing and exciting; as Brown had spent much of her life in virtually all-white school settings, divided between the elite world of her classmates and the impoverished Black community where she lived. “Ultimately, all those things certainly influenced my consciousness as to the issues that I saw that were affecting me, being poor, being deprived as it were; not having the things my white classmates had,” remembers Brown. “It had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with a scheme of things that went back hundreds of years, but that certainly made a difference in my thinking as to how I would end up [as] a Black Panther.”
Her commitment to the organization reached new heights once she met Black Panther Party Co-Founder Huey Newton at an airport, upon her return from a delegation trip organized by fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver. She’d previously only seen Newton on posters, but there he was in the flesh, and Brown was smitten: “He was this incredibly beautiful man; very strong, very intelligent looking, totally powerful. And he gave me ultimately a big hug and said, ‘Welcome home, comrade.’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I had never met anybody so beautiful in my life.”
She and Newton had clicked, affirming her service to the Panthers. “I spoke with him all night that first night about our struggle and what we were doing and why we were doing it,” she recalls. That first meeting would inspire a lifelong admiration between the two, a shared passion for helping Black Americans free themselves from the shackles of racial injustice and the horrors of police brutality, or as she puts it, “problems in the street, problems from the police.”
It would be an arduous uphill battle to take on, but the Panthers were committed. By 1969, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover had famously declared the Black Panther Party, “the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” and promised Americans it would not exist by the end of the year. At the time, many of its top brass were also regularly being gunned down in retaliation of the Panthers’ growing political and social influence, including leaders John Huggins and Carter, who had recruited Brown. “In Los Angeles, and in Southern California, we had someone … get killed every month,” remembers Brown.
Despite the growing existential challenges facing the organization, Brown was down for the cause. And, with Newton as a close ally, she quickly rose up the ranks — serving as Minister of Information and eventually Chairperson in 1974. “I was educated thanks to all that time I spent in those good white schools,” quips Brown, of how her education had helped her ascent in the Panthers — an education she would later learn had been subsidized by her father.
During her tenure, Brown championed numerous service initiatives for the community, including the free Busing to Prisons Program, Free Legal Aid Program, Liberation School and the groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children Program. The breakfast program was particularly innovative, ultimately providing morning meals to tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged schoolchildren nationwide. It is also believed to have served as an early model for the free and reduced-cost meal programs offered in American public schools today.
Though Newton’s controversial decision to appoint her as the first woman chairperson was pivotal, it also eventually helped inspire Brown’s decision to leave the organization altogether. She says she faced sexist treatment and threats of violence while leading the male-dominated organization, marking one of her most impactful, yet most challenging years as a Panther. Brown reflected in her memoir, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story:”
She cut formal ties with the organization in 1977 when Newton, whom she describes as “one of the great leaders in our struggle in the pantheon of great leaders that we have had in the United States of America,” resumed his role. Leaving was disheartening, as the Panthers had very much become family, but she has no regrets. “Everything I did, I did because I believed it was right,” Brown says.
Her passion and commitment to shattering social barriers — and supporting the issues that had drawn her to the organization — persisted. In 1998, Brown co-founded the grassroots Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice, which advocated against children being prosecuted as adults in the state of Georgia. Five years later, she co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, which was created to provide reentry support for thousands of incarcerated people upon their release. Brown is also CEO of Oakland & the World Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit organization “dedicated to launching and sustaining for-profit businesses for cooperative-ownership by formerly incarcerated people and other people facing monumental social barriers to economic survival.”
As the popular saying goes, Elaine Brown doesn’t just talk the talk, she has committed her life to walking the walk, no matter the cost. For that, she forever reigns in history, American history, as a change-maker much like the organization that largely sparked her activism. Brown doesn’t hesitate to credit the organization that sparked a fire within her: “The legacy of the Party I believe is solid,” she gushes. “I don't think there was any greater. … We were the greatest effort ever made by Black people for Black liberation.”
Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Voices’ full interview with Elaine Brown, and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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