Father Neil

My involvement with the Black Panther Party (BPP) began in December 1967. To set a context, I arrived in Oakland, California, in July 1967 to assume the position of Rector of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 2624 West St. (corners of 27th and West Sts.). In late October 1967, Huey P. Newton was arrested following an incident in West Oakland resulting in the death of an Oakland police officer, the wounding of another, and the wounding of Huey from a gunshot to his abdomen.

Hearings on Huey’s case began in November/December 1967. I attended one of the early hearings in December along with Mrs. Ruth Beckford-Smith, a member of St. Augustine’s. Mrs. Beckford-Smith taught Afro-Haitian Dance and Huey’s girlfriend, LaVerne Anderson, was one of her students. In addition to showing support for Huey, we wanted to demonstrate our support for LaVerne, as well, during this time of crisis. I asked LaVerne if she thought Huey would mind if I visited him in the Alameda County Jail where he was incarcerated. She said he would welcome it. I visited Huey that day and thus began my involvement with and support of the Black Panther Party.

Our association developed early in 1968. The Party was having difficulty finding a regular place to meet owing to police harassment. At a rally in Berkeley in late January, I told David Hilliard, Chief of Staff, that the Party was welcome to meet at St. Augustine’s. A few days later meetings began on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. It was at one of the meetings on April 3, 1968, that the Oakland Police Department attempted to raid St. Augustine’s, claiming that a drunken man waving a gun had been reported running into the church. David and I went to the door of the church and were greeted with the sight of approximately 10 squad cars, two officers to a car, with shotguns held at the ready, and a sergeant and another officer demanding to enter the church. We told him that a private meeting was in progress and that police were not welcome. After a period of verbal stand off, a captain arrived and after a firm discussion with him, the police left.

David and I called a news conference for the next day to publicize the incident, however, it did not materialize. That day, April 4, 1968, was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Consequently, all of the news focused on that tragedy.

The Party continued to meet at St. Augustine’s and Huey’s trial began. I was privileged to be accorded the role of pastor by Huey’s family and thus was allowed to attend the trial seated with his family. I was in attendance each day of the trial and visited Huey three days weekly.

As the Party’s community survival programs entered a planning stage that year, we began planning the Free Breakfast for School Children Program. Mrs. Beckford-Smith and I undertook the necessary research to facilitate the program’s opening. This included consulting with nutritionists to determine what a healthy breakfast menu should include, having the church parish hall and kitchen inspected by the health department and fire marshal to certify that we met the necessary health and safety codes.

The Breakfast Program began in late January 1969. We began with 11 youngsters the first day (a Monday) and by Friday we were serving 135 students. The San Francisco Chronicle did an article on the breakfast program, entitled, "The Panther Breakfast Club" (San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 1969, pg. 3, Tim Findley). BPP chapters replicated breakfast programs across the country. This was the first nationally organized breakfast program in the United States, either in the public or private sector.

My role with the BPP continued as a liaison and spiritual advisor to the BPP members and their families; interpreting program goals and needs of the Panthers to varying constituencies, thereby bridging the Panthers and the wider community; assisting in implementing community programs of the Panthers: including health clinics, food and clothing distribution, and prison visitations.

Interwoven with the fabric of the survival programs was the thread of numerous funerals at which I officiated or participated. These included the funerals of Bobby Hutton, Captain Franko, Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson, and in 1989, the funeral of Huey P. Newton.

In 1974 I left Oakland to take a position in New York City on the staff of the national headquarters of the Episcopal Church. Prior to my departure the Party gave me a wonderful farewell BBQ that is forever etched in my memory.

I served at the national headquarters of the Episcopal Church in New York City from 1974-1990 as a program executive and program officer. During my ministry in NYC I developed a network serving as the primary funding source for social programming for the national church in the areas of community development and social justice. Many of the programs funded were similar to the survival programs of the BPP assisting in the development of community health clinics, alternative schools, community organizing, prison ministries, and impacting social policy.

Leaving NYC in 1990, I worked for three years (1990-93) in South Africa on the staff of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. While in South Africa I assisted in the development and coordination of programs for the resettlement of exiles; conflict management and reconciliation dealing with violence in the townships; and voter education in preparation for the first democratic elections in South Africa held in 1994.

My involvement in social justice issues and community transformation has always been integral to my ministry serving inner city parishes in Wichita, Kansas (1960-63), and Chicago, Illinois (1964-67). During the summer of 1964, while co-Vicar of Christ Church, Woodlawn, in Chicago, I worked in the Voter Education and Registration Drive in McComb, Mississippi. I was one of the coordinators of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. During the summer of 1966, I worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference In Dr. King’s Open Housing Drive in Chicago, Illinois.

Presently, I am "officially retired" and live in Washington DC. However, I am still active in community issues and served on the planning committee for the 35th Anniversary and Conference of the BPP. I look forward to continuing to serve in helping to facilitate the conference in April 2002.

One of the legacies of the BPP that has always guided my life is that "the spirit of the people is always greater than the Man’s technology" (Huey P. Newton). This insight is truer than ever today.

While our country is engaged in the struggle in Afghanistan, another struggle confronts us in our own land, as well. It is a struggle to remain true to the precepts of the Constitution. In the floodtide of the preoccupation with the "so-called-war on terrorism", many civil liberties face the potential darkness of being swept away. As the floodgates open and the waters of patriotism and payback surge forward, our Constitution faces a continuing struggle in which we may find the Bill of Rights on a flooded, losing battleground.

The spirit of the people demand that we must not fall into a sleep of passivity allowing for the Constitution to be burglarized like a thief coming in the night, but wake up and not be forgetful of human rights; forgetful of centuries of struggle for the freedoms and liberties we take for granted.

The struggle continues as the Bush administration threatens to attack Iraq and Somalia. In accordance with this ominous foreboding, the U.S. has promised to train Afghans for "security measures". This means that hundreds of thousands of Afghani and Iranian and Iraqi and Syrian youth will now be paid to kill each other with U.S. weaponry in the coming months to assure the bank accounts of World Trade Center and Wall Street oil entrepreneurs and the safe deliver of oil from the old Soviet "Stans" across the U.S.’s new client state, Afghanistan.

We need not despair, however, for the spirit of the people assures us that we can never say we have no power to change the world and ourselves. Our communities and the world yearn for reconciliation and peace. But that yearning can only be achieved if justice is achieved first - and justice always concerns the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Through the power of the people justice and peace and reconciliation can be secured. ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!!

Father Earl A. Neil