The Human Rights Problem of Articulating Collective Voice for the Most Marginalized: A Case-Study of Black Panther Accomplishments in Public Health, Governmental Response, and Thoughts on a Better Structure for Pursuing Public Health-Related Human Rights

 The Human Rights Problem of Articulating

Collective Voice for the Most Marginalized:

A Case-Study of Black Panther Accomplishments in Public Health, Governmental Response, and Thoughts on a Better Structure for Pursuing Public Health-Related Human Rights Concerns.


Marcus Alexander Hill




In speaking of the nexus between public health and human rights discourses, there appears to be two fundamental components of what empirically makes for a robust national health policy (as presented by Vincent Navarro, a professor of Public Policy, Sociology and Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) that are perennially rarely fully addressed.  One component consists of structural interventions.  These are “public interventions aimed at establishing, maintaining, and strengthening the political, economic, social, and cultural structural determinants of good health.[1]  Navarro points out that these interventions are “the most important public policies in determining a population’s level of health.”[2] The second component rarely fully addressed, according to Navarro, are socializing and empowering interventions.  These “establish the relationship between the individual and the collective responsibilities for creating the conditions to ensure good health […this includes] the encouragement of individuals to become involved in collective efforts to improve the structural determinants of health, such as reducing the social inequalities in our societies or eliminating the conditions of oppression, discrimination, exploitation, or marginalization that produce disease.”[3]             The interventions that get addressed most frequently are lifestyle interventions.  For various reasons that are necessary to consider (and will be considered later), these have been the most visible amongst U.S. national public health policies as they include “public policies aimed at individuals and focused on changes in individual behavior and lifestyle.”[4]  In terms of human rights, adequate access to health and the assurance of functional health standards would come from having a robust national health policy that appropriately address all three of these components—structural, socializing and empowering, and lifestyle.  This paper intends to argue—through a historic look at the public health significance of the Black Panther Party—that not having a functional and robust national health policy such as this is a barrier to the broad protection and promotion of human rights throughout a nation’s population and could be countered and improved by reformulating how human rights and public health are monitored, protected, and promoted through finding a better way to articulate the collective voice of the most marginalized in any given society.  


                The case of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in the U.S. represents a potent illustration of what a robust national health policy should do, what can happen when it is neglected, and how it can be difficult to ensure human rights are upheld when clashes between the State and portions of its population arise.  To better understand this, we should look deeper into what exactly makes for a robust national health policy. 

In terms of structural determinants of good health, the political, economic, social, and cultural health policy interventions of this type are “collective (i.e., they are not individual persons), including political parties, trade unions, neighborhood associations, and others. The subjects of these interventions, too, are not individual persons but public and private institutions whose actions affect the conditions that ensure good health for the entire population.”[5]  Such interventions include: public policies aimed at encouraging participation and influence in society; economic and social determinants that aim at creating security and facilitating accomplishment (such as full-employment or welfare state policies); policies on the reduction of inequalities; cultural interventions aimed at creating a culture of solidarity rather than a culture of competition; healthier working life interventions; environmental and consumer protection; and secure and favorable conditions during childhood and adolescence (to name a few).[6]  In terms of the importance of structural interventions, Navarro points out that there is “very robust scientific evidence that shows…that countries with lower class, race, and gender inequalities in standard of living also have better levels of health for the whole population—public policies aimed at reducing social inequalities, therefore, are components of a national health policy.”[7]

                Lifestyle interventions aim at changing the unhealthy behaviors of individuals.  These include: interventions on safe sexual behavior and good reproductive health; increased physical activity; good eating habits and safe food; reductions in tobacco and alcohol consumption, drug use, and excessive gambling.[8]  These are often the most visible of policy interventions for several possible reasons. One reason, as Navarro points out, is that “health policy makers perceive them as more manageable and easy to deal with than the first type, the structural determinants.”[9]  He also suggests that another reason for this difference in visibility and frequency (which I would argue is where critical human rights issues tend to be overlooked) is that “the lifestyle determinants focus the responsibility for a population’s health on the individual rather than on the public institutions that are primarily responsible for the structural determinants”—“one reason why conservative and liberal governments (and also, on many occasions, progressive governments) tend to emphasize this second type of intervention [lifestyle] over the first type[structural] (which is actually more effective in improving a population’s health).”[10]

Empowerment strategies fall between lifestyle and structural interventions and link them together as they intend to “help individuals link their personal struggle for improved health with the collective struggle to improve everyone’s health.”[11]  Navarro points out that “there is robust evidence to show that individuals who are aware of their health limitations and the causes of these limitations can improve their health if they link their own struggle for better health with the struggles of other persons who share their limitations.”[12]  He explains:

Individual commitment to improving other people’s health improves one’s own health—that is, commitment and solidarity are good for your health. Commitment means a desire to serve others; solidarity means development of networks of support in a joined cause to improve individual and collective health. Moreover, a collective response strengthens individual efforts to gain power, thus empowering the individual. These linkages between individual response and the collective, based on commitment and solidarity, are critical to achieving the structural determinants of good health. Collective action (political empowerment, using the term political in the broad sense of the collective expression of power) is of extreme importance to producing a healthy society. Its opposite is either acceptance or alienation (individual and collective).[13]

This is ultimately where the relevance of the Black Panther Party enters, as does the possibility for policy solutions.

The Black Panthers. 

“Encouraging individuals who are exploited to respond to that exploitation, not only individually but also collectively (with other persons who are similarly exploited), is an extremely important health policy intervention, linking improvement of the individual’s health with improvement of the health of the exploited population.”[14]

This is what the Panthers brought to the foreground. To Navarro, he saw the Black Panther movement as a key public health intervention meeting qualities of lifestyle, structural, and empowering policies.  This might be difficult to see considering how sensationalized the images are of gun-wielding, black leather-clad militants, so a deeper look at who the Panthers were and what they did could be useful.

The Black Panther Party was co-founded by Bobby Seale and the late Dr. Huey P. Newton during October 1966 in Oakland, California.  It was established with the goal of realizing self-determination for Black Americans—an idea signifying the full eradication of oppression thereby ultimately giving Blacks the ability to actively direct their own destiny.  Granted the Civil Rights Movement as a whole was based on this goal, but the establishment of the Party brought new strategies. 

                According to Sundiata Acoli[15], the flare of the Party was its implementation of “the Armed Struggle”[16] as its main focus was the advocacy of disciplined self-defense for all Black people.  This flew in the face of the non-violence that the Civil Rights movement had advocated up to that point.  It was the increasingly intense call for “Black Power” from groups splintering off of Dr. Martin Luther King’s patient efforts that asserted that Black people needed to be at least able to protect themselves from police attacks sanctioned by an oppressive government. 

The best-known position of the Party was its belief and advocacy of the second amendment right to bear arms. From this, powerful images emerged of Black Americans confidently wielding weapons in the presence of traditional white authority—images that have generally led to interpretations of the Party as militant, Black Nationalist, and even anti-white and hateful.  In that same respect, it is unfortunate that the images of the leather jacket, beret, and firearm are the most sensationalized and remembered part of the BPP legacy within mainstream American culture.  Regardless, despite the attention the nation paid to the fact that Black people were confidently wielding weapons, the BPP served as a remarkably powerful organization on many levels. 

The Black Panthers and Health.

At the forefront of its activity was the understanding that as an organization, the Party sought nothing more than self-determination for Black people.  As such, the manifestation of this understanding was pure grassroots activism as the Party established numerous community programs that were designed to fill what should have been—if it had truly acknowledged the equality of all of its citizens—the United States government’s role.  The preceding sociopolitical conditions that brought about such action were basically those of classic American racial apartheid, disenfranchisement, and terrorism (police, vigilante, and judicial violence and brutality).  In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for instance, the municipal ambulances refused to transport Black passengers, so the Panthers started their own free ambulance service.[17]

That determined course of action replicated throughout the Panthers national organization as they arranged free healthcare clinics and community health/nutrition classes, free after-school tutoring, political and consumer education classes, free breakfast and school lunch programs, free clothing and shoe programs, free martial arts training, benefit counseling programs, Black student alliances, child development centers, community-use facilities, free food programs for families, drug/alcohol abuse awareness programs, drama classes, disabled persons services, drill teams, employment referral services, free ambulance programs, free busing-to-prisons program, commissary for prisoners program, free dental programs, free employment programs, free film series, free furniture programs, free housing and food cooperative programs, free optometry programs, community forums, free pest control programs,  free plumbing and maintenance programs, GED classes, geriatric health centers, and  legal aid and education clinics and workshops, amongst other program categories unmentioned.[18] 

Navarro described the Panthers contribution to public health thusly:

When the Black Panthers took over parts of the black neighborhoods in Baltimore (a city with a population that is 75% African American) in the 1960s and early 1970s, mobilizing unemployed black youths, drug addiction declined dramatically among the young, and also among the entire black population of East Baltimore.  Young people with drug addictions who became members of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s improved their own health (i.e., stopped taking drugs) and the health of their neighborhoods. Black Panther–controlled areas became drug-free areas.[19]

In actuality, the contribution of the Panthers extended far beyond curbing drug use once all of these other interventions are considered, and even more so if they are framed in terms of structural, lifestyle, and empowering determinants of good health.  The core of the organization took the health of Black community seriously and such grassroots activity inspired Blacks to take ownership of their environments, thereby significantly improving the appearance and infrastructure of Black neighborhoods nationwide.[20]  What is curious about this case and raises flags in terms of human rights considerations is that all of this was in stark contrast to the negative manner in which these interventions were perceived by the government.  

Governmental Response.

In September of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” adding that they were:

Schooled in the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the teaching of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung, its members have perpetrated numerous assaults on police officers and have engaged in violent confrontations with police throughout the country. Leaders and representatives of the Black Panther Party travel extensively all over the United States preaching their gospel of hate and violence not only to ghetto residents, but to students in colleges, universities and high schools as well.[21]

The falsifications and propaganda within this statement will be discussed later, but these statements—regardless of accuracy—reflect the fact that the government was threatened by the presence of the Black Panther Party: an organization seeking nothing more than self-determination for Black people and the access to basic human rights. Regardless of the good the Party was doing within Black neighborhoods, the ideology behind the Party was the largest threat as the government perceived it and Party activity was first and foremost taken to be attempts to spread that ideology.

                The Party was perceived as a threat on the federal level due to its endorsement of socialist ideas.  The organization demanded reforms in education by stressing the need for standardized and historically accurate education for all Black Americans in order to enable them to participate as equals in society.  Additionally, in terms of militarism, it was staunchly opposed to Black participation in the Vietnam War while simultaneously asserting unwavering self-defense and undertaking police surveillance to end incidents of brutality.  It also employed highly effective, militaristic, mass organizing tactics in its overall structuring.  Guiding all of this—and perhaps alarming the United States government more than anything else—was the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program: a philosophical manifesto of demands that infused all other functions of the Party.

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
  5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States.
  8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.
  9. We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. Federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology. [22]

This list demanded sovereignty for the sake of self-determination and access to basic living standards and justice to which Black Americans have been historically denied.  It was this overarching philosophy of the Black Panther organization that aimed to throw a wrench into the white supremacist and capitalist power structure on which the government had been historically based.

Government-Sanctioned and -Executed Human Rights Violations.

The Black Panther Party was founded with an empirical awareness of the racially, politically, and economically repressive nature of the United States government toward certain groups of its citizens.  It even communicated that awareness in its organizational vision: “We…recognized that we live in a country which has become one of the most repressive governments in the world; repressive in communities all over the world. We did not expect such a repressive government to stand idly by while the Black Panther Party went forward to the goal of serving the people. We expected repression.[23]  However wise in their foresight, their underestimation of the level of repression they faced was crushing.

                In response to Panther activity, the government responded with its controversial Counter-Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO) that had been created in 1956.[24]  This system was originally put in place due to an overwhelming frustration the government had with Supreme Court rulings limiting its power to proceed overtly against dissident groups.[25]  These programs essentially aimed at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of Speech and Association on the theory that preventing the growth of “dangerous” groups and the propagation of “dangerous” ideas would protect national security and deter violence.[26]  Consequently, COINTELPRO was arranged to operate extra-legally in order to ‘neutralize’ those who could no longer be prosecuted by law.