Following a march tomorrow, Winston-Salem will honor the proud legacy of the Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem. The marker, itself, will be dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 3 pm at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Fifth Street. The location is near the site where the Black Panther party had their initial headquarters in the late 1960s. Speakers will include former members of the Black Panther Party and current elected officials. Ex-Panthers and City Council Members Larry Little and Nelson Malloy will be joined by Attorney Hazel Mack. Current East Ward City councilman Derwin Montgomery will also speak at the unveiling.
Winston-Salem became the first city in the South to become home to a Black Panther chapter. Local Panthers did not just pursue social justice through demonstrations and “self-defense” they also started a free breakfast program for local children, provided free sickle cell testing, and even operated a free community ambulance service because getting appropriate service in the African American community was not possible at that time because of lingering institutional racism in Winston-Salem. As Larry Little said at the time, The Black Panther Party’s goal was to “put some shoes on the people’s feet, food in the people’s stomachs, and clothes on the people’s backs.” when Mr. Little returned to Winston-Salem from Oakland California and training with the original Black Panthers he and other Winston-Salem Panthers were firmly focused on community service. As Little said at the time, ““We’ve come a long way from guns to shoes.”
In Winston-Salem, the Black Panther Party had it’s primary base of support with more radically minded community members rather than existing community institutions such as the government or local media. This created a Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem that was focused squarely on the material needs of the community. This focus was what Panther founder (along with Bobby Seale) Huey Newton described as “survival programs”. These were community outreach programs such as after school child care and the aforementioned ambulance service. The idea was that is the broader majority community would not provide these needed resources to the African American community then they would have to do so themselves from within- not wait on help from without.
The environment in which the Winston-Salem Panthers were born was one of harsh institutional racism. Although blacks made up over half of the population in Winston-Salem in 1970, less than 20% of homeowners were African Americans. Furthermore, 17% of black residents lived in cramped conditions, with more than one person per room in their houses. Law Enforcement in North Carolina was rife with overt racism and disparities in enforcement and punishment were rampant. The North Carolina Advisory Committee to the Commission on Civil Rights found in 1974 that “three out of five of the over 12,000 inmates are minority persons in a state where the minority population represents about one out of five.”
It was in October of 1969 that national Black Panther Party officially accepted the group in Winston-Salem. This would allow the chapter to gain further attention and support from the black community as their level of media, law enforcement, and community awareness was raised. Winston-Salem became a branch of the Black Panther Party National Committee to Combat Fascism, an organizing arm of the national group. From this point forward, the official chapter of the NCCF in Winston-Salem, the only one in the state, retained close contact with Black Panther Party branches around the country.
On Sunday Winston-Salem will honor the men and women of Winston-Salem’s Black Panther Party, an honor that is long over due.