The comedian (and style icon) Ziwe Fumudoh likes to talk about the concept of “decolonizing our own minds.” When I first heard this phrase, I immediately recognized a process I continue to embrace, and even more so as Independent Sector continues to support efforts to build a healthy and racially just nation.
As I have grown older and more closely examined United States history (or perhaps, more acutely Black United States history), I have complicated narratives that originally, I thought were simple. Harriet Tubman didn’t just escape enslavement herself, but reached back into the South and led to freedom many who were still enslaved. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress who sat down on that Montgomery bus; she was a strategic and seasoned civil rights leader working as part of a concerted effort.
Perhaps the most engaging decolonization of my own mind from the last several years has been my understanding of the Black Panther Party. When I first was exposed to the Party as a young adult, “terrorist group” was used as a descriptor. Images of black bereted men and women, slinging guns with military precision, only furthered that impression. And for years, I left the narrative there. That is, this idea that the Black Panther Party was a terrorist organization designed to scare white people.
And yet, and yet. I kept coming across histories of the Party that didn’t square with what I thought I knew. The Party cropped up in a college class about the radicalism of the 1960s, where I learned about their free breakfast program for school-age children (eventually co-opted by the United States government). The film, “Jesus and the Black Messiah,” depicted Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton’s efforts to unify multicultural factions to better serve local communities in Chicago. Even Beyoncé’s Superbowl half-time show, with costuming emulating the Party (and the ensuing uproar), led me to further my knowledge about the Party. Piece by piece, the Party seemed less and less like a “terrorist organization” and more and more like a grassroots effort to aid the disenfranchised.
Perhaps no one symbolizes the grassroots, intersectional nature of the Party itself more than Brad Lomax. Learning about Lomax’s life and legacy finally solidified for me the Party’s aims and reach – to provide for those in need. Lomax helped found the Washington chapter of the Party in 1969, as another civil rights movement was burgeoning: for disability rights.
Lomax was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was wheelchair bound. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the disability rights movement was solidified in the public consciousness in 1977, when more than 100 activists (Lomax among them) occupied the San Francisco Federal Building for 25 days. Many of these protesters were wheelchair bound, or otherwise handicapped. For nearly a month, they endured hunger strikes, cut phone lines, and limited access to hot water and medicine. Their ultimate aim – enshrine the illegality of any federally funded facilities or programs to discriminate against people with disabilities (what became known as Section 504) – would go on to become the model for the standard of disability rights laws in the United States: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
During the sit-in, Lomax was the key point of contact to the occupiers’ vital lifeline: The Black Panther Party. The Party, with a strong outpost in nearby Oakland, provided hot meals for the activists and even paid for Lomax and others to fly to Washington, D.C. to further advocate on behalf of people with disabilities. Lomax had already served as a bridge between the two movements: two years prior to the sit in he approached the director of the Center for Independent Living, an organization started by people with disabilities that was instrumental in getting curb cuts for wheelchairs at street corners, to combine efforts with the Party.
When Section 504 was officially signed into law, protesters vacated the building while singing the civil rights standard, “We Shall Overcome.” Lomax continued to be a cross-sectional movement leader and advocate until his death in 1984.
Brad Lomax represents just one leader among many who prove what strong advocacy and leadership can do, especially when we look at the world through an intersectional lens. The mission of the Party may not be yet fully realized, but their efforts live on in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement and those committed to tell the history of Black Americans truthfully.