The formation of the Black Panther Party was crucial to the activism that was taking place in Berkeley during the 1960s. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, which sprung forth more civil rights activism. At Berkeley High School in 1968, students were at the forefront of this activism.
One of these student activists was Steve Wasserman, who was an ally to the Black Student Union (BSU).
“We led a student strike and a march and we had a single demand,” Wasserman said. “We demanded the establishment of African American (studies), or what we call the Black History and Studies Department. And to our astonishment, the Berkeley Unified School District Board, the school board agreed.”
This would make BHS the first high school ever to have an African American (AFAM) Studies Department, as well as the only current one at a high school.
“The department (started) the next fall, in ‘68 when the BSU (and) students went to a school board meeting … (where) they brought forth their demand,” Spencer Pritchard, an AFAM history teacher said. “One of them was the creative Black curriculum committee.”
This activism was continued by BHS students and their messages of anti-racism and justice were clear in a divided time. Students ran camp-outs at school, produced an underground school newspaper called “The Packrat” with help from the Black Panther Party, and more. This newspaper and other forms of activism were not received well by the BHS administration at the time and many who were involved were suspended.
The Black Panther Party was an Oakland based Black Power Movement that was formed in 1968. The party strived for freedom, power, equality, and justice in education, employment, access to resources, and the law. Founding member Bobby Seale and many other members attended BHS. The creation of programs like the AFAM department and the BSU came directly from the work of the Black Panther Party. Ronald Stevenson, the founder of the BSU at BHS, was one of the many recruits.
“The Black Panther Party just had an enormous impact on any of the surrounding high schools, (and) colleges” said Tamar McKey, current co-president of the BSU.
In fact, the creation of programs like the BSU, the AFAM department, and the free lunch program were inspired by the work of the Black Panther Party.
Today, these programs have taken shape because of the activism at BHS as well as the Black Panther Party’s direct influence.
“I know the Black Panthers wanted to implement a lot of educational stuff into what they were trying to do. They’re trying to educate the youth,” McKey said.
Much of what’s taught in the AFAM studies department comes straight from the Black Power Movement which “the Panthers grew out of and inspired,” according to Pritchard. The teachings of the Panthers are also central to the content covered in AFAM studies.
One of the leaders of the BSU in the 60s was affiliated with the Black Panther Party. Pritchard said, “It’s hard to think that (the Black Panther Party and the BSU) weren’t closely related. If not directly, then they were ideologically and tactically influenced.”
One core similarity between the BSU and the Black Panther Party is that they both build communities by uplifting Black voices and cooperating with the people to create a more just world.
“If we understand the Panthers we understand that they were all about building alliances,” Pritchard said.
A zine published by the BHS Student Union Program said, “We must recognize our relationship as students to an oppressive system. We must then realize our need to move together to fight it.”
The zine also describes anti racism as a demonstration of unity between all people, “We will fight racism with solidarity– the solidarity of all peoples in the world, and the unity of all students as brothers and sisters.”
“For Black History Month, we’ve had a lot of events where we take traditionally African American food and give it out,” McKey said.
A parallel can be drawn to the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, a way to strengthen the community by bonding over food as well as highlighting Black cuisine and culture. The BSU has also provided food for the community when they have been able to afford it.
The BSU also works to speak out against racial injustices as well as numerous other forms of activism.
“We are definitely involved in social justice around Berkeley High,” McKey said. “So if there were to be some sort of crime, if there was to be something that a student wanted to change about Berkeley High regarding Black rights or equity, they would come to us and we do our best to support that.”
The BSU has always advocated for Black rights since they were formed by the Black Panther Party. BHS played a major role in protests to end apartheid, just one example of actions the BSU took. More recently, they’ve been extremely involved in the Black Lives Matter movement around campus.
However, there are challenges that the BSU, AFAM studies, and the legacy of the Black Panthers still face. Wasserman expressed his concerns with decreasing diversity in BHS’s population.
“When I was at Berkeley High School, more than 50 years ago now, one out of every four residents in Berkeley was African American, fully 25 percent of the town. Today (the population) is less than 8 percent,” he said.
Despite these challenges, the programs have formed strong foundations within the Black community and their allies that have continued to empower generation after generation. “I think there is a legacy of activism which has been successfully embraced and expressed down the decades,” Wasserman stated.