A teacher uses the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program to prompt students to consider today's big issues.
By Wayne Au
During the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement, in particular, community self-determination was central to many peoples’ struggles. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense sought social justice for African Americans and other oppressed communities through a combination of revolutionary theory, education, and community programs. Their party platform, better known as The Ten Point Program, arose from the Black Panthers’ assessment of the concrete social and economic conditions in their community. It became part of the philosophical backbone of the party, and served as a model for many other community groups such as the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and the Red Guard.
I taught recently about the Panthers in the context of an African Studies class in Seattle that focused on African history and the experience of the Diaspora. Of the 30 working- and middle-class students, most of them tenth graders, 25 were African American, four were white, and one was Chicana.
When I teach about the Black Power Movement, I try to connect the movement to today’s issues. One way is by having students review the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program and develop their own personal versions of the program. This lesson, of course, has to take place within the context of a larger unit on the Panthers and African American history in general.
We studied the Panthers within our quarter-long theme dealing with communities of African resistance over several hundred years. Earlier, for instance, we had studied the communities of escaped slaves in Brazil called quilombos, and through movies like Sankofa, we looked at the spiritual, cultural, and physical resistance of enslaved Africans in other parts of the Americas. For our study of the Black Panther Party, we were fortunate since a security guard at our school was an actual member of Seattle’s chapter. He spoke to us about his experiences, including their constant battles with the police, attempts at organizing high school students, as well as their community programming — the free breakfast program in particular. He also shared some original copies of The Black Panther, the party’s newspaper, and I printed copies of the 1972 platform from the Huey P. Newton Foundation web site (www.blackpanther.org).
My objectives for the lesson were twofold. First, for students to understand some of the social conditions the Panthers were attempting to identify and deal with, and second, for students to then analyze their world today, roughly 30 years later, and begin to identify social issues they would like to address.
I was not focused so much on critiquing the Black Panther Program as in getting students to use it as a jump-off point. I began by initiating a class discussion and asking students questions such as: “What are the most pressing problems in society, in the world, today?” “What do you think is ‘wrong’ within society? Your own community? Your school? Your home? At work, or your parents’ work?”
I tried to find out what feels important to my students as individuals and as a community of learners and to get a feel for what they are personally invested in. Through the discussion, I kept track of comments on the board.
The student responses demonstrated a range of social consciousness. Some students merely wanted to have their parents extend curfew hours while others wanted to be free from harassment in shopping malls. While these could be serious critiques if framed within a context of youth empowerment and racism, the students seemed to keep these issues on an individualistic level. Other students did articulate more far-reaching problems such as more funding for education, citing our crumbling school building and crowded classrooms as evidence.
From there I passed out copies of the 1972 Panthers’ Ten Point Program. I explained that the founding Panthers looked at the needs of their community and developed a vision of what they thought was necessary to find freedom. This vision of freedom manifested itself as the “Platform” of the Black Panther Party, which became better known as “The Ten Point Program.”
We read through the program together as a class, and for each point, I asked the class to identify specific issues the Panthers saw that needed fixing. This can develop into a good list of the problems that the Panthers saw in their community, as well as create the opportunity for the class to delve more deeply into the rationale and language of the program. This process also helps students make the connection between the community issues and the creation of a clear set of goals based on those issues — thus providing a model for shifting our original brainstorm of individual problems to address broader social issues.
I always make it a point to highlight the tenth point of the program — “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology.” In their explanation of that point, the Panthers literally inserted the beginning of the original Declaration of Independence. This serves as an excellent discussion prompt around such questions as: “Why would the Panthers include this statement?” “How would it apply to the African-American community?” “How might the inclusion of this portion of the Declaration influence readers’ perception of the Ten Point Program?” “What connections to Thomas Jefferson and the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ are the Panthers trying to make?”
Individually or in small groups, I then had students brainstorm their own list of pressing social or global issues and to develop their own “Ten Point Program.” I tried to keep this part as much student-guided as possible. Some students sought self-determination as students within an oppressive school structure. Some sought it in relation to their homes or family structure. Others followed in the footsteps of the Panthers and addressed more community-wide issues.
Nathan offered the following straightforward, powerful platform:
- We want free housing for the homeless people in the United States.
- We want equal pay for both genders.
- We want all the drugs off the street.
- We want more people of color working in the schools.
- We want an end to discrimination.
- We want less police brutality.
- We want educated people in the workforce.
- We want everyone’s voice to be heard.
- We want non-racist presidents.
- We want free health care for low-income people.
Nathan’s uses some of the Panthers’ ideas and adds some of his own, such as an incorporation of gender issues by asking for “equal pay for both genders.” What I find most striking is his request that “everyone’s voice be heard,” which speaks to students’ sense of powerlessness and lack of voice in this world.
Another outstanding piece came from Tonya, who developed a “Ten Point Program for the Gay / Lesbian / Bisexual / Transgendered / and Questioning (GLBTQ) Community.”
- All people, including members of the GLBTQ community, should be free from hate crimes.
- GLBTQ community members should be free from questioning or harassment because of their sexuality.
- GLBTQ community members should have the equal right to marry whomever they love, regardless of the genders of the two partners.
- GLBTQ community members should have equal rights to adopt children, care for foster children, and raise their own children.
- GLBTQ community members should be equally represented in educational curriculum, and should have equal access to a safe and supportive learning environment.
- Job discrimination against GLBTQ community members should end, and GLBTQ community members should have equal access to employment.
- Housing discrimination should end and GLBTQ community members should never be denied housing based on their sexuality.
- Life partners should receive benefits equal to those of spouses, regardless of marital status.
- The GLBTQ community should be represented in government.
- The GLBTQ community should be represented accurately in the media, and should have positive public role models represented fairly and openly in the media.
Tonya’s program represents a solid community identification and lays out very concrete goals. Her piece also represents the recent momentum of the Gay Rights movement, since many of her demands reflect several hot topics such as the marriage of same sex couples or the adoption of children within the GLBTQ community. Unfortunately, and quite understandably given the level of homophobia in our society and in our schools, Tonya did not feel comfortable sharing her piece in class; but even her willingness and ability to give voice to these issues speaks to her own strength and resistance.
Marcus created a Ten Point Program that challenges capitalism and corporate control of the United States — one that reflects the ongoing legacy of the protests in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organizations.
- We want the mask of capitalism lifted and economic classes disbanded.
- We want an end to the solitary control of mass media by corporations.
- We want an end to the use of Third World labor as a way to circumvent the American minimum wage.
- We want a clear separation of corporations and government. We want an end to bribery in the political system.
- We want an end to the health insurance system in America. It is time to end corporate control of Americans’ health.
- We want fair treatment of all criminals. Rich money launderers and tax fraud offenders should receive the same punishment as armed robbers and drug dealers.
- We want an end to all uses of military force to obtain resources for corporations. We want an end to the war against Iraq to protect U.S. oil prices.
- We want an immediate payment of all debts and damages owed to the Native-American community. It has been too long, and the promises made years ago need to be fulfilled.
- We want an end to all corporate funding of education. The public education system is being used by corporations as a training ground for future employees.
- We demand an end to the growing separation of the economic classes of America. The enslavement of the middle and lower classes by the bourgeoisie must be put to a stop.
I find Marcus’ piece notable for its relentless attack on corporate America; it demonstrates a growing consciousness among students about issues such as sweatshops, media bias, campaign financing, and the encroachment of private industry on public education. In class, students were most impressed by Marcus’ articulation of political ideas.
The Ten Point Programs students generated varied greatly, and I was bothered by what I perceived as a lack of “seriousness” in some programs. For instance, with a class that was predominantly African American, I had hoped there to be a stronger, more personal connection to the injustices experienced by the Black community, and that this identification would come out in the programs of those students. For that matter, I expected all the students to be extremely frustrated with the world, ready to let loose their seething resentment and alienation.
But for all my expectations, some students still came up with blanks for this part of the exercise: the anger and passion I was waiting for didn’t manifest itself in all of their programs. And it wasn’t for lack of problems in their own lives. Quite the contrary. Many of the students who had difficulty analyzing themselves were working class, didn’t like school, and were even having troubles at home.
At first this surprised me. I took for granted that there is a very long list of things to improve in the world. I think that I had forgotten, however, that in our society we are generally not taught to critically analyze our own life situations. Further, students’ sense of personal powerlessness is generally reinforced on a regular basis within our school system. Instead of proactively dealing with problems in our lives, disengaging often becomes the primary response to life’s struggles.
Which brings us back to the Panther’s Ten Point Program. The Panthers were also struggling against cynicism, powerlessness, and resignation.
My hope is that the lesson laid a groundwork, so that in the future the students will have some tools with which they can assess issues they see in their own communities and their lives and perhaps develop Ten Point Programs of their own. The Ten Point Program may be a place where students are able to find their voice and speak out about the problems they see in this world — and, more difficult, begin to organize to put their program into practice.