This Black History Month marks the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The controversial organization was a radical political group in the 1960s and 1970s. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused group members as terrorists and carried out a counterintelligence program, commonly known as COINTELPRO, to destroy the Party.
The men in the Black Panthers often got most of the attention, and sometimes still do, but women, too, played a major role. To flesh out that story, Ang Li of NY City Lens located and interviewed four Black Panther women. Here are their stories— about what they did five decades ago and what they are doing now:
Barbara Easley Cox: Traveling the World
When Barbara Easley Cox sat in her living room—in a duplex on Diamond St. in Philadelphia—watching the Super Bowl halftime show, she didn’t realize that Beyoncé and her backup dancers were paying a tribute to her former identity as a Black Panther. Friends told her the next day.
Even after 45 years, she is still a Panther at heart. In her living room, Cox has lettered wall decorations that read “Peace,” a common greeting among Panthers, even today. A calendar on her bathroom door comes with prints of iconic Panther figures. So do buttons lying on the sink countertop.
Cox’s involvement with the Party started with a romantic relationship. When she was a student at San Francisco College, majoring in social work, she met her future husband, Donald Cox, at a Black Panther event on campus. He was already the field marshal of the Party’s Army. They started dating, and she started her journey with the Party.
Her first stop was a conference in Los Angeles, and it immediately expanded her horizons. “Sometimes you think Oakland or San Francisco is the whole world,” she said. “But if you get a chance to travel, you’ll see it’s a big world.” Ever since then, she has traveled, she said, and has left footprints as far away as North Korea, Algeria, and Germany.
Hailing from a small community—just four houses—Cox grew up surrounded by Jewish, Italian, and Chinese neighbors, and their cultures. The experience shaped her to be open-minded, she said, but also led to a late exposure to her own culture. She didn’t know much about the Civil Rights movement, she said, until she watched black people getting shot and killed on TV when she was 13. The movement was boiling up in 1964, and she had a chance to study history at a night school, where the discussion in class, she said, was eye-opening.
In 1967, she joined the Black Panther Party and started working at its San Francisco office after school. There she sold newspapers, worked at the Free Breakfast for Children Program, and gave political educational classes to individuals. “I am not the kind of person who needs a lot of direction, I just did whatever needed to be done.”
Two years later, the Party sent Cox away from her late husband—to Philadelphia, her hometown, to help run a new office. She was in charge of the local programs, raising funds, and building community connections for the chapter. “I was on my own and I had to grow,” she continues, “It was like leaving your parents’ house—you have to make decisions that’s good for you and people around you, and you became your own person.” However, she recalled, her husband was not thrilled about this move, and she thinks that was why he ordered her back to California.
During her pregnancy, in 1970, her husband was charged in connection with a murder case in Baltimore, and with a warrant out for his arrest he fled to Algeria. After that, she remembered, she was ordered around more. One night, she said, people from the Party took her to Oakland for a standard night watch shift and put her in the office, pregnant, with a gun in case of police raids. “What was I going to do as a pregnant woman, please?” she said. She pulled through the night with another woman and her baby.
As Cox’s due date was approaching, Kathleen Cleaver, who is famous for her leadership role in the Panther Party, was invited to have her baby delivered in Pyongyang, North Korea. Cox, who was also pregnant at the time, had to accompany Cleaver to deliver her child overseas. During her stay, she took lessons and watched films about the Korean War, South Korea, and the North Korea’s leader. The films “blew her mind,” as she recalled. “It was a really good time, I was learning a world, a whole world.”
After she left North Korea, Cox moved to Germany on her own, where she put out a newspaper and worked with soldiers from the Vietnam War. Being married to the Panther’s field marshal “opened up doors and allowed me a lot of privileges,” she said, including moving around to different countries. “I thought it was normal and everybody did it,” she said. “It wasn’t until years later, I realized most Panthers never left their cities.”
Cox said being a female didn’t affect her work as a Panther. After giving birth to her son, she continued working; “I just threw him on my back and took him to every place I went.” However, Cox said several incidents made her realize that she was a mother besides a Panther woman.
In Germany, which she described as a “bowl of trouble” because of the political unrest, her son was two. One day, she took him out to play in the snow, she said, and while she was on her knees a strange man came over and looked down at her. “He said, ‘that’s a beautiful son you have there, Barbara,’ and it scared the hell out of me, I sent my son the next week back to America.” She ended up not seeing her son for a year, “As a woman and a mother, that hurt me.”
Still, her favorite experiences were working in Philadelphia and also in Germany, where she was on her own and known as “Barbara, Barbara Cox, instead of the wife of Donald Cox.”
Now, fifty years later, she flips through her Panther journal and albums. After the 50th year anniversary of the party is over, she says, “I’m going to put my Panther collection away, because it is over, it’s your time,” she said, referring to the younger generation.
But Cox is not fading out of the historical frame. She has some plans: finding political organizations and participating in the next presidential election. “I need to get rid of that damn Donald Trump and fight his ass,” she said.
San Francisco: Guarding the office with a gun
North Korea: Delivering a Panther baby
Germany: Raising a child in political unrest
Claudia Williams: Selling the Words
When she became a Black Panther at the age of 17 in Corona, Queens, Claudia Williams said, her job was more than selling papers. She raised funds for breakfast programs, cooked for people in the field, and even filled in sandbags—to be used to protect people from gunfire.
“Sisters did everything that brothers did,” she said, explaining that people addressed each other as brothers and sisters inside the Black Panther Party. When the females went out to the streets to sell papers, the males had to watch and feed the children. “When women went inside, brothers came out in the early evenings to get donations from grocery stores for breakfast programs.”
Williams thinks it was hard for her as a female, “It was non-ending grind,” she said. “None of us got to eat as we were supposed to; none of us got the sleep we needed,” At the age of 65, she said, “Now we are starting to feel the effect.” Today, Williams lives in her old neighborhood in Queens, volunteering to read to children.
When she was pregnant, she recalled selling papers on the streets, almost till her due date. Throughout the summer months, she had male Panthers get her cups of crushed ice to keep herself hydrated. “I loved to talk to people and getting the word out,” she says. “It was like a shining glory.”
During her four and half years in the Party, she said she experienced some male chauvinism from her partner. They argued about the differences in men and women’s roles in the Party. She recalled a training session she had with her partner, in which they had to break down and load a semiautomatic in three minutes. Her partner excelled at the practice and expected her to do the same. She wasn’t as good at it, “but instead of going to a corner and crying after being yelled at, I kept working on it,” Williams said. She said the women in the Party tried to rule the male chauvinism out by speaking up, “We were able to speak on it, and we never felt less” than males.
Williams was dispatched to operate in the party’s Harlem office from Corona after a group called the Panther 21 was arrested. Women were the ones who took over, she said, they kept the offices and programs running and protected the people who came into their offices for clothes, food, or political education classes.
As a teenager, the hardest part for Williams, she says, was thinking about her possible demise. “I did not think I would live to 25 years old because the police were killing us all over,” she says, adding, “We have 17 panthers behind the walls for 40 plus years.”
J. Yasmeen Sutton: Counting the Money
While studying accounting at New York City Community College in Brooklyn (now the New York City College of Technology), J. Yasmeen Sutton became involved with the Black Students Union. She grew up in Corona, Queens, and was not conscious of being black, she says, until she read the book, Notes of Native Son by James Baldwin. Then she was angry at herself, for not knowing much about black history.
Inspired by the book, she started immersing herself in black biographies. “The more I read, the angrier I got,” Sutton said. Seeing people being beaten on TV fueled her anger, and made her want to do something to change the lives of American blacks.
She joined the Black Panther Party in 1969 and managed its finances for a year before she left the Party. She counted and recorded the money—the dues, the donations, and she was in charge of running the bank account. “There was no clearly defined roles,” Sutton said. “It was not about man or woman, it was about doing the work.”
Now, at 65, Sutton works as a senior accountant at a rehabilitation center for people of color. She drives a BMW and she is about to get married again. She is the treasurer of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party and is active in trying to free Panthers who are still incarcerated in prisons.
Paula Peebles: Raising a Child
Paula Peebles grew up in a strict Catholic household in Philadelphia and went to a local Catholic high school. She recalls struggling to get an education on black history in her textbooks in the Catholic archdiocese school system.
It was an all-girl high school, where the majority was white, she says, and it was there she says she first experienced racism. She was criticized for her hoop earrings, which according to Peebles, were common for an African-American to wear at that time. Whites did not sit with blacks at the school, she says. By senior year, she decided she had had enough, so she organized a student walkout at her school in order to protest against racism.
Joining the Black Panther Party at 15, she became a communication secretary and stayed on for five years. Aside from working on the Black Panther Party Weekly, she assisted volunteer doctors, who provided free medical services, especially sickle cell testing, to the community.
Due to the heavy workload she bore as a Panther, she had to send her child to a communal child development center, Peebles says, where other Panthers took care of the children. “Being a mother in the Party was difficult, I had to let her go, leaving her in a commune, and see her once a week or every two weeks.”
Peebles currently lives in Philadelphia and works as a community activist, focusing on economic and social justice issues. She is a mother of three daughters.
She said people back then thought that being in the Party, carrying guns, and selling papers on the streets, were not proper activities for a woman, not to mention a black woman. She remembers selling Panther papers on the corner while other people were selling Muhammad Speaks, the official journal of Nation of Islam. “I was selling more than they did, so they were totally incensed,” she said, laughing. “The society said one thing for all the roles of women, and we were breaking off all the chains.”
However, Peebles didn’t identify with the feminism movement back in 1960s. As she put it, black women’s struggles were different: “The white girls were freeing themselves from washing machines, or from their husbands, families. It was not our struggle because we were trying to get a house, trying to get our own washing machines.”
(Photos provided by It’s About Time Archive, and from photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina from her contemporary portraits of Black Panthers)
Clip from PBS Independent Lens The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution