Abu_Mama

The Black Panther Party and Me

“We want decent education for our people…”

When people describe folks’ offspring, many will share, “…the apple doesn’t fall far from its tree.” I have never subscribed to that adage. I tell our youth differently, “We don’t just fall anywhere. We stand on the highest branches of our elders.” So, naturally, when I reflect on my work as a 24-year educator, I can’t help but to think about my first teachers; my parents.

Hamid and Aisha, my parents, met and married while in the Black Panther Party (BPP) in West Philadelphia. Under the leadership of Captain Reggie Schell, they made a commitment to join the BPP to help dismantle white supremacy and agitate for change; for liberation and education of the Black community. They, and other Panthers, worked tirelessly out of 19th and Columbia, 36th and Wallace Street, and other places to make educating and protecting Black youth their priority. My mother worked for TWA airlines when she joined the BPP. She became so engrossed in her work, she eventually quit her job-despite the perks of free travel.

What inspired me to become an educator is closely linked with what drew my parents to the BPP. I wanted to impact my community, steer youth away from self-destructive behaviors, and support liberation through education. I wanted to fight for justice. I saw the classroom as a way to undermine white supremacy. Every well-educated and conscious Black youth is a step forward in dismantling white supremacy. My parents’ commitment to the community undoubtedly influenced my path.

My mother felt compelled to join these social justice activists because of how the BPP supported the community’s youth. One of the first activities that attracted me to the BPP was their FREE BREAKFAST PROGRAM. And, that was just the beginning! They understood the importance of developing the entire child…the holistic concept. Upon becoming a member of the Party, I realized they were about so much more. They truly had a love for our people.”

My father shared, “One fundamental and important facet of the Black Panther Party was the emphasis on our struggle for the end to the racist, poor education given to our children. This fact is largely ignored by so-called historians and pseudo experts, to simply label the Panthers as ‘anti-white, gun toting, crazed cop killers.’ These deliberate lies are a continuation of the falsehoods that permeate, marginalize, and discredit the important contributions the Black Panther Party made to the communities across America.

Because of the grassroots work the Panthers were doing, the support they received from Black communities, and from the alliances being built (what Chairman Fred Hampton called the Rainbow Coalition), we became the number one target for destruction. As the then head of the FBI, racist J. Edgar Hoover, said, ‘the Panthers are: the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.’ Sound familiar? It should. Today, Republicans and Trump, would label the Panthers as terrorists. Note: Anytime anyone is talking about self-determination, the end to police killings of unarmed Black men and women, justice, decent, equitably funded and meaningful education, ending the exploitation and gentrification of our communities, employment, affordable and safe housing, and affordable medical care, and holding the politicians and policy makers accountable, they are labeled and targeted by the media, as well as by the government.”

What’s love got to do with it?

As a principal, that idea of love for our students is powerful. Not a passive love. An intense love that demands that I do everything I can to right the wrongs of society that Black children have borne since Europeans’ arrival in America. A type of love that wants to ensure that my students can clearly recognize and avoid the many traps laid by white supremacy. A love that supports students in fighting for others as they liberate themselves. The type of love that wants them to achieve bigger and bolder goals than I could’ve ever imagined for myself.

My mother further shared, “The BPP taught that education should be preparation. Understanding what our circumstances were and learning about our past gives us resources and information to draw on so we can effectively choose/plan our future. Being holistically educated/informed, you can choose to look outside of what you’ve been offered by mainstream America for additional resources and information. This type of education developed critical thinking and further expanded my mind. It helped me to understand the connectivity of oppressed peoples, that there is strength in numbers, and that we cannot isolate ourselves from the struggles of other oppressed people around the world.”

Like my parents, I joined activists who endeavor to stress the importance of education and justice. Like my parents, I have students who are learning about community, identity, Black History, self-discipline, economics, resistance, and social justice.

Being the son of parents who were members of the BPP, the natural progression of the fight for the positive values and relevance for education is obviously in my DNA. This fight for education has historical importance beyond the Panthers and myself. The oppression of Black communities may look different, but it persists. Our ancestors’ schools were poorly funded and even burned down when they dared to read or teach. Today, our schools and communities aren’t always burned through fire, they’re burned and devastated through racist policies, deliberate underfunding, and the lack of accountability to provide a “decent education.”

Agitating for change

The BPP has roots in education and self-determination. The foundational aspect of education in BPP’s early activities is often forgotten about. The BPP agitated for equity in courses and stressed the importance of children receiving an education that would set them up for optimal success. As historian Donna Murch details in her book, Living for the City, “Panthers had their origins in agitation for Black Studies courses and debates about the ‘relevance’ of education.”

She shares the experience of the Panthers as members of study groups in places like Oakland’s Merritt College. Their core belief in the need for educational justice, something that was far beyond what was being taught in the school system, led them to develop liberation schools. My own school, Nidhamu Sasa, had its own roots in this philosophy as well.

My mother was a member of the first graduating class at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). Today, at my school, we try to change the trajectories of future parents through full-time dual enrollment at CCP.

The BPP stressed the importance of literacy, even requiring members to read ten books. Literacy, at my school and elsewhere, remains one of the most important weapons against oppression and is an integral part of the “educate to liberate” stance. Education was fundamental to the Black Panther Party, and it remains the same for social justice activists today.

My dedication to this struggle is rooted in the premise of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Platform, #5 being:

“WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES US OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.”

What my Black Panther Party parents stood for then, I stand for now…schools are launching pads for equity or injustice. Adults choose which. Equitable and predictable educational funding, a holistic educational experience, healthy food and environment, high levels of literacy, community involvement, and, yes, undoubtedly, school choice.  In other words, the all-too-elusive “decent education” that Black folks have been pursuing for generations is what, across the same span of time, the affluent take for granted.

The path towards this decent education and liberation of our communities starts with educational justice. We know we will need to demand and agitate for it relentlessly, because one thing has been made resoundingly clear: marginalized communities will not simply be provided a decent and equitable education. So, Black Panther Cubs and our social justice allies alike, let’s continue the fight of our heroes.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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