Black Panther Party–Community Relations
Black Panther Party–Community Relations
Abstract and Keywords
Pete O’Neal describes the Black Panther Party’s various community support programs in Kansas City, Missouri. They include a pre-school breakfast program for inner-city children, as well as clothing, food, medical support, and job and family counseling for people in need. O’Neal explains how these programs were supported by local churches and businesses. O’Neal describes ways the Panthers joined forces with other civil rights organizations such as Soul Inc., the Black Youth of America, and Students for a Democratic Society to protest city policies they deemed to be unfair to inner-city residents and to expose persons who took advantage of these same people. O’Neal also describes the Panthers’ confrontation with a “white” inner-city church (Linwood United Methodist Church) and the resulting reconciliation between the church and the Black Panther Party.
Community Support Programs
We take great pride in the fact that for a brief moment [1969–1970] in history we fed up to seven hundred children a day in churches and community centers. We had three or four operations going. Kids were coming from all the projects to get this free meal. We didn’t propagandize to the same extent that others did. We told them about Huey Newton. We told them about the Black Panther Party, but we weren’t into the “off the pig” kind of thing with these children.
In 1990, when Charlotte first returned to the States after twenty years in Tanzania, she was at my mother’s house. My father was being taken to the hospital by a medical service van. The guy driving this van recognized Charlotte from her picture in the paper. He told her, “I just want to thank you and your husband. I was fed at your Breakfast for School Children Program, and oftentimes that would be my only meal for the day.” Boy, that made me feel so good!
We had food distribution programs. White farmers would bring in crops and tell us, “Here take this. I know how the government can be. I see what they’re doing to my life. Here, take this if it helps you, good for you. Don’t like what you’re doing with those guns, but still (p.55) take it.” One farmer brought us a hundred and fifty live chickens. We were the only chapter in America that had sirloin steaks for our children and for part of our free distribution program. These came about from the Mafia families that were supplying us from their meatpacking firms. For Thanksgiving or Christmas and New Years we would have turkeys. McDonald’s, McDonald’s, would give us sides of beef. Would you believe that McDonald’s would donate a side of beef to the Black Panther Party school program? They most certainly did. Shoot, we had a dealership give us an old car. Another one, we had no credit rating whatsoever, let us take a brand new Volkswagen bus and said, “Pay it off as you can.” We had a lot of support, man. That was our crowning glory. It was.
Noted American journalist Alexander Nazaryan has written: “Nothing the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense did may have been as genuinely revolutionary as offering free breakfast to public-school children in Oakland, California, where the group was founded…. Yes, there were powerful rebukes to institutional racism, and there were the famous black leather jackets and guns, but it was the Free Breakfast for School Children Program that posed what FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called “the greatest threat to his effort of depicting the Panthers as violent hoods.”1
We even had counseling services. People wanted jobs, and we’d tell them how to get them. If they were having marital problems, some of the sisters would talk to them. A woman came to us and said her landlord was abusing her. “If I don’t have the money to pay the rent, this man comes and curses me.” She let us sit in her living room. She’s talking to the landlord through the door. And this man is using the foulest language you can imagine. “God damn it, if you don’t pay your rent I’ll kick your ass!” He didn’t know we were in there. So we came out of that apartment and kicked his ass. We perhaps did not always use the wisest ways, but our goals and our aspirations were to serve the community.
We also had a free clothing distribution program. All of the Panthers, all of their clothes, came from a lot of good people, a lot of women’s groups. A lot of white liberal organizations would drive by our offices and they would bring big bundles of clothes and say, (p.56) “Can you use this? We hear that you’re helping poor people.” So in effect, we became something like Goodwill. We distributed clothes to anybody who had a need.
We had a big professional ironer that someone donated to the party. This big electric, huge professional ironing machine, you put stuff in between the rollers and it comes out pressed. So all the Panthers were very sharp.
We had an unprecedented level of support even if we jumped the gun, like we did perhaps with the health clinic. There was a pharmacist, a white guy, who had some huge rooms on the second floor above his pharmacy. He donated those to us, and he donated a lot of medicines as well. We had a nurse, a black woman, named Ellie, who worked with us. She tried to help me get a girl named Norma off drugs. Ellie got the services of a doctor, but that’s all we had. We didn’t have the proper medical equipment, and so I think we worked for only two or three weeks. We hadn’t really thought through what would be involved. Still community support was there. [The August 16, 1969, issue of the Black Panther newspaper announced the opening of the Bobby Hutton Community Clinic over John’s Pharmacy in Kansas City, Missouri. The clinic is “for the benefit of the poor and oppressed masses, whose needs the government does not recognize as being imperative.”]
People would come to the office with the weirdest stories. Some people would come for rent money. Of course, we couldn’t give it to them. Some people needed to pay their electric bill. We couldn’t. But we wouldn’t turn them away without talking with them. “Okay, we can’t help you. First of all, we don’t have any money for your electric bill.” Then sister Andrea might get on the telephone and call the power and light company and say, “I’m trying to help Mrs. Johnson who is having difficulty with her bill. She’s fearful that her electricity is going to be cut off. Can we work something out?” She might get Mrs. Johnson an extension of two weeks, or something like that. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes not. But this is how our office day unfolded, trying to deal with problems that people in the community had. People would come in with forlorn lost-love stories and sisters would take time, sit down and talk to them. Lot of people wanted to be close to the Black Panther Party.
I take a great deal of pride in the fact that the Kansas City (p.57) Chapter of the Black Panther Party turned the lives of many people around. We had a lot of people who were used to drinking heavily or using a lot of drugs, etc. And following the example of the Nation of Islam we began to work with them and in some instances people’s lives improved. Certainly, not to the same extent that the Nation of Islam had, but we did have some successes. So when we speak about our programs, the fact that people who had been prostitutes and pimps and hustlers of all kinds, alcoholics, drug users, and drug addicts, and the fact that we turned some of these people’s lives around, that really warms my heart.
Trash, Jail, and Electricity Protests
The Panthers (headed by Pete O’Neal), Soul Inc. (headed by Gary O’Neal), the Black Youth of America (led by Lee Bohannon), and a representative of Students for a Democratic Society joined forces to protest the city’s imposition of a May 1, 1969, no-burn ordinance coupled with its failure to conduct regular garbage pickups in the black sections of Kansas City, Missouri. The approximately fifty protesters gathered in front of city hall and boisterously criticized the mayor and city government for ignoring the unsanitary trash situation that exposed black citizens to unhealthy and dangerous conditions. The police arrested the two O’Neal brothers and charged them with using profanity in public.2 Judge Richard Sprinkle fined Pete O’Neal twenty-five dollars, and dismissed the charge against Gary.3
In January 1970, the Panthers joined with Soul, Inc., and radio station KPRS to campaign for reform of the Jackson County Jail. The two black civil rights organizations, headed by Pete O’Neal and Melvin Bowie, respectively, gave KPRS the signed statements of over one hundred jail inmates attesting to racial discrimination, brutality, and poor jail conditions. The jail housed young prisoners with hardened criminals and tolerated a “key man” system of social control in which the strongest, most brutal inmates, rather than sheriff’s deputies, policed jail tanks.4 An unsigned editorial in the Kansas City Times described conditions in the jail as intolerably overcrowded, understaffed, and grossly underbudgeted.5 The jail critics called for the creation of a citizens’ commission comprised of penologists, criminologists, and psychologists to study jail conditions and make recommendations for reform.6
(p.58) The September 27, 1969, issue of the Black Panther carried an article by Kansas City Panther Andre Weatherby entitled “Confrontation with Kansas City Light Company.” In it, the author states that the Kansas City Panthers had marched with the residents of the Wayne Minor Housing Project who had been without power for twenty-two hours.
The Pageant Fracas
After Melvin Bowie took over Soul Inc., that group and the Kansas City Black Panthers were able to work even more closely than we had before. I remember, there was a white guy who came into the black community. He was organizing a beauty contest that involved about a hundred young black girls. He had all these girls lined up in their finery. We got word that this man was a con artist; he comes into these communities from city to city, takes advantage of some of these young girls, molests some of them, he rips off their money, and things like that. We, Melvin Bouie, Soul Inc., and the Panthers together burst into the auditorium with all of these girls, more than a hundred girls. And we yell out, “It’s over! If you don’t leave town, you’re dead!” [The events described here took place on June 8, 1969. The pageant involved black girls aged thirteen to fifteen.] The con man was terrified, he’s running down the aisle, girls were screaming. Melvin Bouie and I were arrested for that. We were put in jail overnight, and I was convinced they were going to formulate some heavy charge against us for assault or threatening. They took it to the DA while we’re in jail, and I’m waiting for them to move us from the city jail to the county jail. The next morning the jailers came and said, “The DA decided not to prosecute.” The con man refused to testify for one thing—but it came out that he was wanted; he was some kind of crook.7
The Kansas City Chapter’s Place in the Midwest
Kansas City was not a big gang town then, as such. You had people in areas and groups on certain streets. You had groups on Twelfth Street, Eighteenth Street, Twenty-Third Street, and (p.59) Twenty-Seventh. People from these various neighborhoods were turf conscious. But the Panthers enjoyed respect almost throughout the city. We had difficulty at times with some of the street people who were into things like drugs. We had a hard drug policy. One of the most dangerous guys in Kansas City was a guy named Richardson that I grew up with. There was a girl involved with him that tried to jump out a window. I remember he came down, not to talk to me, but to talk to the nurse, Ellie, who had helped me with that girl for awhile. He said, “Listen, you ought to tell Pete, don’t push too hard on my business. I don’t bother his thing. Tell him, don’t push me too hard when it comes to my business.” He was a pimp and a hustler and a gangster. And I mean a real one. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and I remember Charlotte and I went down to the courtroom. He was given a million years to life or some such ridiculous sentence.
We didn’t have the nationalist confrontations that they had in the bigger cities. Nationalist groups that did exist in Kansas City, like Black Youth of America, wanted to work with us, to share in some of the respect we had in the community. So whatever they were trying to do, they didn’t want to do it in opposition to us; they wanted to do with us. We had an unusually high level of community support. That started to change when we attacked the white church.
When you talk about the Kansas City, Missouri Chapter, you have to imagine it being the hub of a midwestern wheel. The spokes would branch out from Kansas City, Missouri, to Oklahoma City to Des Moines, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska, and even with some influence to St. Louis and southern Illinois. These satellites of Kansas City had little to no contact with national headquarters. They were dealing directly with Kansas City, Missouri. There was no chapter in Kansas, but there were a lot of people from Kansas who belonged to the Black Panther Party.
Kansas City, Missouri, is a well-known “big city.” It was so easy for people to drive over from Des Moines, Iowa, and to us and say, “What are you about? Can we be a part of it?” People from Omaha, Nebraska, people from Oklahoma City, people from Southern Illinois, from St. Louis and, of course, Kansas City, Kansas. When the people came down, we didn’t treat them as though we were the Panthers and they were the subordinates. We said, “What talents do you have?” When Charles Knox came down, he said, “I know politics. (p.60) I can teach politics.” We said, “you’ll work with our minister of education and take over the PE [political education] classes for all the people we deal with.” When he came, all of Des Moines came with him. When national sent us up to straighten out a group in Omaha that wasn’t really a chapter, we went up there and gave them a good mudholing, a good straightening out, and then told them, “Come down and work with us.” People joined us because of our location, but perhaps more importantly because of the manner in which we dealt with them. We didn’t try to present ourselves as being something special, being something above and beyond. We said, “Hey, we’re here trying to get a job done. If you’ve got something that you can seriously contribute, come on in.” And they did so.
Shortly after we joined the Black Panther Party, national headquarters started clamping down on opening new chapters, in large part because they were afraid of infiltration. Also, they were beginning to be afraid that they were losing control—the reins of power could more easily be pulled away by the larger number of chapters. Because of this concern over control, they called me to national headquarters. They had a policy that you not testify before a grand jury. I had been subpoenaed to go before a grand jury. I can’t remember what it was about. Now, I could refuse to testify and go to jail. I chose what is the smartest, logical course. I took the Fifth Amendment: “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” They said, “you’re excused.” I get up, I walk out. End of story. It was on the news that I had been called before the grand jury.
And so, David Hilliard calls me. He wants to know why I appeared before a grand jury. I tried to explain over the telephone. And he said, “No, we want to talk to you face-to-face about this, because we have a strong policy.” He’s adamant about my coming out there to California. So I spend some of our scarce money to fly there. I get out there at noon and he’s still in bed. May have had a hard night working for the people, struggling for the people. “Oh hey, Pete, how you doing?” “I’m fine,” I said, “but I’m here to talk about what you insisted on seeing me about.” And he said, “Oh, that’s right, Pete. Listen, man, we have a strong policy, we do not under any circumstances testify in front of grand juries. Our position is we… .” I said, “Wait a minute, David. Listen man, first you have to understand some of the peculiarities of the area from which I come. First of all, we have a lot of support from the community. And it’s because we’re (p.61) highlighting how the system is dealing with us inaccurately. But if I very foolishly refuse to testify and go to jail, that’s dumb. And it would be viewed as just dumb. So what I did I went in, I took the Fifth Amendment and that was the end of it.” “Oh, that’s different man.” I said, “That’s it?” He said, “Yeah, I just wanted to get it straight. I said, “But I told you that on the phone.” “Oh yeah but you know, man, but it’s good if we discuss these things face-to-face.” So then I went back to Kansas City. This added to the disillusionment that I was feeling.
Clash with a White Inner City Church
The Panthers targeted the Linwood United Methodist Church, a white church in the heart of the black community. They resented the periodic presence of apparently rich white people in, but socially divorced from, the black inner-city community. Pete and the Panthers drew up a list of demands which they presented to the church congregation on March 31, 1970. The list included demands that the church turn over a significant portion of its income to the black community, that the church open its facilities to community functions, such as the Panthers’ Breakfast for Children program, that it denounce police departments across the country for their inhumane treatment of the poor and oppressed, and that it take a stand against the United States’ “genocidal war” in Vietnam.8 The Panthers returned to the church on April 7, 1970, to learn that church leaders would be willing to discuss the demands, but would not immediately agree to them. Consequently, Pete and his followers (now members of the Sons of Malcolm, rather than Black Panthers) returned to the church on May 31 with the intention of joining the church and insisting on their demands. They interrupted the minister’s sermon. The outraged congregation confronted them and bedlam ensued. Pete describes the chaotic scene:
We had a confrontation with a white Methodist Church in the black community. When white flight took place, they could not take their church with them, a big beautiful edifice. They had to come back to worship there on Sundays. We confronted the church, making demands for resources to help the community. Initially, they refused. The people from the church and our group had a physical battle on the altar there, a physical knock-down, drag-out battle. (p.62) There were TV cameras there showing us fighting white church members, and the pastor, and the deacon, and all of them on the altar and a big brouhaha. The police came in there in an absolute fury. Attacking the white church! They were outraged. They started jumping across pews. We ran out of the building. African Americans on the street were running; it became chaotic. The police started arresting people off the street at random. One poor woman was screaming, “My babies are at home! I was going to the store to buy milk.” [The Reverend Robert L. Beech, director of the Mid-West Training Network, publicly complained that eight of the persons arrested at the Linwood Methodist Church on May 31 were religion trainees, who played no part in any disturbance.9 Several Kansas City church ministers met with Chief Clarence Kelley to complain that the police indiscriminately arrested black people who were not involved in the Linwood Church disturbance.]10
People were running everywhere. Charlotte and I ran into a hospital; we ran out of the hospital and jumped into a cab. A lot of other African Americans jumped into the same cab. This poor white driver thought he was being kidnapped and robbed. He drove off. Police cars swerved in and blocked him down. The police took us all to jail. First time Charlotte had ever been in jail in her life; she wasn’t charged with anything. They charged me with disturbing a religious service. I was ultimately convicted of a misdemeanor, not a felony. Interestingly enough, the church people who had initially brought charges tried everything they could to drop the charges, but the prosecution would not allow them to do so.
Good did come out of this; we and the church started working together on common programs. We began to discuss what we could do in terms of food distribution. They wanted to help us with some of our other programs, making it very clear that they didn’t want to be involved in anything revolutionary, not at all. But any community service, they said, “We’re willing to talk with you, and we’re willing to work with you.”
The confrontation was plastered all over the newspapers. I think it went across the country. In the black community in Kansas City you can disagree with the church. You don’t have to believe, but you should respect the church. To go into a church and involve yourself in a knock-down, drag-out brawl, no-no, that shouldn’t happen. So, shortly after that we started to see a cooling of our black community (p.63) support. My declaration of embracing Marxism didn’t work well either.
In retrospect, Pete regretted attacking the Linwood United Methodist Church and Pastor Ralph Roland, because it demonstrated unnecessary disrespect for a people’s religion.11 After the May 31 melee, Pete was arrested. He was tried in a magistrate court on June 25 and found guilty of disturbing a religious assembly. Magistrate Harry S. Davis gave Pete the maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of $500.12 In pertinent part, the subject Missouri Statute 562.250 states that “Every person who shall willfully … disquiet or disturb … an assembly met for religious worship … by making a noise, or by rude … or profane discourse … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Prior to trial, Pastor Roland and other leaders of the Linwood Church signed sworn affidavits asking the prosecutor to dismiss all charges against Pete O’Neal and others arrested and charged. However, prosecutor Joseph P. Teasdale refused to dismiss the charges and warned that, if the church members who originally filed complaints did not appear at trial to testify, he would subpoena them to do so.
Pete had maintained that he went to the Linwood Church in order to become a member and was frustrated by his inability to do so. He stated that his group wanted to join the church to make it more relevant to the black community. During the trial, defense attorney Austin Shute13 was able to establish through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that the church service on May 31 departed from the usual in that the customary invitational hymn was not sung and the pastor did not invite guests who wished to join the church to come forward. In the absence of the customary invitation to join, O’Neal took one of the microphones and announced, “I am going to join this church and the first thing I am going to do is put Dr. Roland out of a job.”
During the trial, Shute argued that O’Neal was a member of a black Methodist Church. He called three ministers (two black and one white) to offer testimony that O’Neal’s actions of going forward and debating the pastor were expected behavior in a black church. However, each time Shute asked a minister a question about the appropriate patterns of behavior in black congregations, the prosecutor objected that the testimony was immaterial, and Magistrate Davis agreed by sustaining the objection. One of the defense witnesses, whose testimony was denied, was the Rev. Tex Sample, a white Methodist minister with a doctorate (p.64) in the sociology of religion. Magistrate Davis told Shute, “If you’re going to bring in sociology professors and any of that stuff, I don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t have any bearing.” Before announcing sentence, Magistrate Davis, acting more like a witness for the prosecution than a neutral judge, stated, “I’ve never known O’Neal as a very active churchman.”14
Prior to the trial, three groups had been formed to deal with the root causes of the conflict. The Missouri West Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church created a reconciliation group to mediate between the Linwood Church (represented by the Linwood Church administrative board) and the black community (represented by various black organizations and headed by Pete O’Neal). The latter two groups agreed to meet faithfully with the reconciliation group to work on the larger issues of concern to the black community and the Linwood Church ministry. Derrell Cuningham, lay leader of the Linwood Church, stated, “The Linwood administrative board entered into this agreement in the attempt to make the Gospel applicable to the needs of the community and in the interests of better human relations. We believe in brotherhood, goodwill and love, and hope to have the opportunity to prove it.”15 In reaction to this Christian show of goodwill, Magistrate Davis “chided the Linwood Church Board for holding discussions with the Blacks, saying that this encouraged them in their effort at what he called extortion.”16
Attorney Austin Shute planned to appeal the guilty verdict to the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri. In his “Suggestions” to that court, Shute complained that the charge (“Information”) against O’Neal (that is, “making a noise” and “rude behavior”) was too vague. He argued that the Information fails to state what type of noise and to describe the rude behavior in specific terms so that the defendant can make a proper defense to the charge. In his application to the Circuit Court for a continuance, Shute made the disturbing observation that
A fair trial is … unlikely for defendant in that black people are systematically excluded as jurors during the preemptory challenges exercised by the prosecuting attorney in the trial of criminal actions where the defendant is a black person; that this has been the general practice and custom of the prosecuting attorney’s office of Jackson County, Missouri, and results in the final analysis to a racial imbalance on juries in the trial of black persons for criminal charges; that such a method is inherently unfair to both black and (p.65) white citizens, since it assumes a black juror cannot fairly and impartially sit as a juror in the trial of a black person for a criminal offense, whereas it assumes that a white person is superior enough to be able to fairly and impartially sit as a juror in the trial of a white person for a criminal offense; that in fact, the present practice is merely an extension of racism into the administration of justice, and as such denies the defendant of due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and further denies him a fair trial by a jury of his peers.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the US Supreme Court in the case of Batson v. Kentucky17 fully agreed with Shute by ruling that the use of peremptory challenges to remove potential jurors from the jury pool based on race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Because Pete O’Neal would flee the country in November 1970, Attorney Shute was never able to present his appeal to the Circuit Court.
(11.) Information in this section comes from the author’s personal communications with Pete O’Neal, Kansas City Star articles from June 1 to 2 and June 26 to 27, 1970, and court documents submitted by defense attorney Austin Shute in the author’s possession.
(p.248) (13.) Attorney Austin Shute defended O’Neal in this and many other trials. Shute (1926–2007) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, of an Irish Catholic mother and a Penobscot father. After being honorably discharged from the US Navy in 1942, he joined a VFW post and a yacht club in Massachusetts. When he learned that neither admitted blacks, he quit both. Later, when he moved to Missouri, he witnessed racial segregation that shocked him. “Blacks couldn’t get a meal downtown, couldn’t go to the bathroom, couldn’t get a hotel room” (Shute “A Conversation,” 12). Shute earned a JD at the University of Missouri in 1952. He was admitted to practice before the Missouri Supreme Court in 1952 and the US Supreme Court in 1989. For most of his career he served as a criminal defense attorney and as a civil rights advocate. He had a reputation for never turning away any client who could not pay a fee. His many diverse clients included the original flower children, hippies, yuppies, motorcycle clubs, and the Black Panthers of Kansas City. He always represented the Panthers pro bono. See Shute, “A Conversation,” 12–13.
(15.) Undated joint statement in the possession of the author.
(17.) Batson v. Kentucky (476 US 79).