Billy X Jennings was fresh out of high school when he joined the Black Panther Party in the summer of 1968. The Party, which was barely a year old at the time, grew out of an opposition to racism and police violence toward Black people in Oakland, California — and later, around the country — and as Jennings told Eater, “the Party was more than berets and leather jackets. It was more than shootouts with police. It was hard community work.” Ensuring access to nutritious food for Black communities was as central to the Party’s mission as putting a stop to police brutality. Jennings was an active member of the Party as it launched a free breakfast program, among many other initiatives providing nourishment to the community.
He now maintains a major archive of newspapers published by the Party, as well as photos and historical documents. His house is something of a Black Panther Party museum, and he runs It’s About Time, an online database sharing Panther history and connecting Party alumni all these years later. As a movement for racial justice swells, Jennings sees a connection to the work the Panthers did. By sharing a piece of Party history, and looking back at the role the group played in feeding the community, Jennings hopes to lay the groundwork for a new generation fighting for justice. — Elazar Sontag
When I graduated high school in 1968, it was a very big year of struggle in this country. In my senior year, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Bobby Hutton was killed, Robert F. Kennedy was killed — all before I graduated. Not only that, but I was also worried about the military draft.
One day I was sitting in my 11 o’clock political science class, and I heard chants of “Free Huey, Off the Pigs, Free Huey, Off the Pigs.” It was coming from the Alameda County Courthouse, which is a couple blocks away. I followed the shouts, and walked into the first day of Huey Newton — the Black Panther Party’s co-founder — going on trial. The crowd was massive. That was the first time I ever saw an integrated demonstration. Everybody was out there: Native Americans, Asians, Blacks, Filipinos, everybody was out there to demand they free Huey that day.
That crowd sparked something in me, and I started going to Black Panther rallies. At one of those rallies, a party member was speaking about the 10-Point Program, the Party’s core values and demands for justice. Point number six of the program was that all Black men should be exempt from military service. That was right up my alley. When the Black Panthers opened an office in East Oakland, I joined in the summer of 1968.
At that time the party was a baby, and we were talking about things we wanted to do in the future. And those things excited me. We talked about starting a free breakfast program, feeding people in the community, registering people to vote. When we started really developing programs in 1969, I was right there to help start the Free Breakfast for School Children Program.
Feeding people was always part of the Panther program. Food is right up there with justice and liberation in terms of importance. Because if you do not have food — and the correct types of food — you’re not going to last too long. It’s going to affect your health. It’s going to affect how long you’re going to live. It’s going to affect your kids’ health. We were dealing with people’s survival. That’s why we called these initiatives “survival programs.” People came to the Party to eat. Kids didn’t have food at home.
Every week, we would send fliers out to the community telling them what was on our free breakfast program’s menu. We’d serve these free meals out of churches and community spaces before kids went to school.
When we started the breakfast program, we were sourcing from and dealing with small mom-and-pop stores in the community. But as the program got bigger, we needed bigger donations, and that required stores like Safeway to donate supplies. We started finding out what types of businesses these grocery stores were when they decided they were not going to donate to our survival programs. Even though their stores were open smack in the middle of our Black communities, many of them didn’t want to work with us. We let the people in their neighborhoods know that these grocery stores would rather throw their food away in a dumpster than give it to Black kids. Food is a powerful thing, and as the community reacted, a lot of those businesses started coming around. When we needed it to be, food was a weapon.
At the time that the breakfast program started, America was thoroughly involved in NASA. They were shooting rockets to the moon, wasting all kinds of money. So when we started the breakfast program, we made our mission plain and simple. We wanted something sound on the ground, while we were still around. Our message was clear: There are people down here hungry. There are potholes in the street. People saw that. And demands reached across America, calling for free breakfast programs. Two years later, the American government had to start a breakfast program.
One of the biggest events we ever pulled off — that represents so much of what the Party stood for — was a massive grocery giveaway in 1972. We gave away 10,000 free bags of groceries in East Oakland. It required big-time coordination to feed that many mouths. We needed 10,000 bags, 10,000 chickens, and 10,000 other items to go into each of those bags. I was part of a delegation that rented three refrigerated trucks and went to a farm in Livingston, California, to pick up the chickens.
Not only were we giving away 10,000 free bags of groceries with a chicken in every bag, we were also doing sickle cell anemia testing. We must have tested 12,000 people over a three-day period. And we registered people to vote while they were there. At one time we held a record in California, for the most people registered to vote in one day.
I remember a lot of hard work from those days. I remember a lot of young people and a lot of volunteers coming out to help. We always finished the day with smiles on our faces, knowing we had done something that day to make the situation better for our community. And there’s no better feeling in the world than that.
The Black Panther Party was at the vanguard, teaching by example, showing people what to do, and how to do it. We were trying to educate people, so they could grasp power, and so that they could do the things they needed in their communities. Now, the Black Lives Matter movement is pushing the envelope further. We’re in a very rare time, a special time, and there’s never been a time like this before.
I tell young people today, I understand what you’re saying about the police. But the police take cues from politicians and businesses, and there are other places we should be focusing our energy, too. The police are people we see everyday, but we also want to get at why we have food deserts in the community, and why we have to travel so far to get to a grocery store.
When people get information, they can digest it and come up with new ideas. If the true story of the Black Panther Party is told, people are going to have a true idea of what the party was really about. It’s my job to put that information out there, to let everyone know that the Party was more than berets and leather jackets. It was more than shootouts with police. It was hard community work. People lost their lives, people died. Families were broken up. This was serious stuff. It’s important to me that the legacy lives on so the next generation can build on what we started.
We talked about police brutality, now everybody knows it’s happening. We talked about the breakfast program, now public schools across America have breakfast programs. And the coronavirus shows you how important that breakfast program was: Even though the schools are closed, children are still showing up and relying on those breakfast programs every day. That’s why history is so important.