13.8.13

Power to the Breakfast Program



After being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for longer than a decade, former Black Panther Party (BPP) member Melvin Dickson is still circumspect of whom he talks to. He refused to do a phone interview for The Liberator Magazine. Although it has been more than forty years since the BPP has been active, he vividly remembers how infiltrators were instrumental in destroying the self-proclaimed party for the people. So, he has trust issues. He also remembers the role media played in shaping the image of the BPP. "I want to help you young man," he says from his Oakland, California home. "But, the media is opposed to anything the BPP stands for," says Dickson.

Dickson has good reason to be skeptical of the media. In 1969, at Seattle, Washington's Atlantic Street Center, Dickson and other fellow BPP members fed breakfast to about 20-30 kids a day before they went to school. Instead the world saw images of angry and intimidating looking men with guns. Although the Free Breakfast for Children Program was the first and longest running BPP program, "You would hardly ever hear about these kinds of positive programs from the corporate media," says Dickson. One of the most infamous images of the BPP is founder Huey Newton sitting in a wicker chair brandishing a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other hand. "The media is owned by the corporate ruling class and their interest is opposed to anything we do," says Dickson.

After Dickson conducted his own journalistic type interview by questioning the motives of The Liberator he felt satisfied with the answers and finally granted the interview, but only on his terms. "I like to think before I answer questions, so email me a list of questions and I will email them back," said Dickson like he was telling his people to take destiny in their own hands. After three weeks, The Liberator never received the answers. So another attempt was made. It took a lot of convincing, but the former Panther gave in. "I'm going to trust you. And help you," he said.

Media "owned by corporate capitalist", or lack of media, is the reason many people do not know that the Panthers wanted "land, food, clothing, and shelter" for the people. Dickson joined the BPP because he "understood that poverty and racism were big issues within the black community." He added that the BPP was the conduit needed to face the social ills that were affecting the African American community during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. The first BPP breakfast program opened in 1968 at Oakland's St. Augustine church, Dickson recalled. "It became an important program and the children were inspired by it."

Ironically, Dickson's own childhood inspired him to become a community activist. Born in 1941 in West Memphis, Arkansas, Dickson remembers the controversial slaying of Emmett Till, who was allegedly killed for whistling to a white woman. "Till and I were the same age. I lived fifty miles down the road from where he was murdered," recalled Dickson. Just two years after Till's murder, Dickson remembers the Brown vs. Board of Education trial, which outlawed school desegregation. Nine African-American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were selected to integrate the Little Rock, Arkansas Central High School. Dickson recalls the anger he felt as the Arkansas National Guard stood guard to stop the black students from integrating the school. President Dwight Eisenhower had to send federal guards to protect the nine students. "All of this impacted me. These were the reasons I went to the military," Dickson recalled.

After graduating high school in 1959, Dickson enlisted in the Navy. The military was his way of escaping the South's Jim Crow laws. "I was looking for a way to survive." He survived the Navy, but his soul hadn't survived the social ills that plagued his West Memphis hometown. The military allowed Dickson to get a broader perspective of the world. "I became personally related to the world in the past and present," Dickson said. After four trips to Vietnam and seeing murder and heroin addiction among the soldiers, Dickson decided to be proactive in the black community.

After receiving an honorable discharge in 1963, Dickson moved to Oakland, California, where he saw that the civil rights movement was not limited to the South. "Poverty was on the rise during the sixties, along with police harassment and the murder of blacks," Dickson said. Oakland's minimum wage was $1.55 and the city had the second highest poverty rate in the state. "I wanted to be part of the change that was taking place during this time," Dickson recalled. "I believed that change was possible to end the poverty."

BPP's founder Huey Newton created the BPP because he knew how detrimental poverty was to one's mental and physical well-being. Therefore, survival programs like the breakfast program, Free Clothes and Shoes program and Community Center, to name a few, became the main focus of BPP's ideals.

Newton would give speeches at an Oakland restaurant called Bosts'n Locker. "He was talking about an organization he would start," Dickson said. Dickson had no idea that Newton's organization would be known around the world in less than a year. "He would be speaking and I would be in back eating and listening," Dickson recalled. "I didn't know it was would be as big as it became."

After studying law and figuring out that it was lawful to carry open firearms, Newton decided to patrol his Oakland neighborhood against police brutality. "Police would violently attack protestors," Dickson said. BPP's police patrolling was successful until California Legislator Dan Mulford proposed the "Panther Bill." This bill was aimed at BPP members to stop them from carrying firearms. BPP garnered national attention on the day Mulford proposed the bill. The Panthers walked inside California's City Hall brandishing guns and protesting their second amendment. Despite their attempts, the bill was passed. " After the Mulford Bill we dropped self defense from our name," Dickson said. "And we had to stop our patrols, but we kept our guns."

On paper the Panthers may have lost the battle with the passing of the Panther Bill, but Dickson says otherwise. "We wanted people to know they had rights," Dickson said. "We made our point, now we could get to our community programs." After causing a national uproar by protesting the Mulford Bill, the Panthers' membership skyrocketed.

This membership increase lead to BPP's Free Breakfast for Children Programs being established in cities all across the nation. The first Free for Children Breakfast Program opened in 1968 at Oakland's St. Augustine's Church. The same year, the San Francisco chapter opened their breakfast program. The following year, Dickson moved to Seattle where he "accepted the responsibility for taking a part in organizing the free food program," Dickson recalled. By 1970 BPP had Breakfast programs in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston, to name a few. The breakfast programs were successful because of the community support. "In order for the program to work, the people had to be part of it," Dickson said. Local business owners and pastors donated money and food while parents and BPP members cooked the food and had it ready for the children before they arrived. "There was a real concrete need," Dickson said. "We didn't organize to be cute. There was a real need."

One of the Panthers precepts was that the people should have the power to determine their own destiny. "We wanted the people involved so they can take it over and run it." BPP members wanted to teach citizens the organizational skills to be independent.

Dickson added that their breakfast programs embarrassed the U.S. government. Adding that before the BPP's breakfast program, there was not a government ran free lunch program. "They would never admit it, but it's the truth," Dickson said.

BPP's breakfast program was more than feeding. It was a family, security and it showed the children that they were loved. Despite what was displayed on the news or in newspapers, "we made sure the kids knew why we were feeding them," Dickson said.

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Darryl Robertson