Felix Lindsey “Pete” O’Neal was a chairman of the Kansas City Black Panther Party Chapter, officially recognized by the national Black Panther Party in 1969. Despite the more negative and violent connotations associated with the Black Panther Party, O’Neal’s chapter in Kansas City cooperated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in their activism, and they ran social outreach programs including a free breakfast program for children, free health clinics, free legal services,and voter registration drives.
Rated R for Race, Radicals, and Revolution: Pete O’Neal and the Kansas City Black Panther Party
by Annie Derrell
Amidst the rapid radicalization of the civil rights movement, two men, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton established the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). The party originally triggered police suspicion and mistrust, media curiosity, and captured the imagination of young black activists who traveled from all over the country to join the ranks. By the end of the decade, the Black Panthers were a nationwide social and political organization with independently run chapters in cities from Oakland to New York City and all points in between. The stories of the BPP national leadership, Seale, Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver, their rise and respective declines, have been told. But the story of the BPP in Kansas City, and how its activism reverberated throughout the nation’s heartland, is the focus of this article, with key figure Chairman Felix Lindsey “Pete” O’Neal at the center.
Fast forward to January 1969, in Kansas City, Missouri, the pulsing heartland racing to the anxious beat of a nation divided. Blacks in Kansas City had been fighting hard for equal rights since at least the 1920s, if not earlier. Kansas City became a bastion of civil rights activities by the 1950s, in part because of its close proximity to the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Born in Kansas City in 1940, Pete O’Neal was a precocious and defiant youth. In the eighth grade at R.T. Coles, the vice principal called him into his office for corporal punishment.Scheduled to receive several licks from a wooden board with holes in it, O’Neal refused to accept his punishment. “I told him I wasn’t going to let him do it,” O’Neal recalled decades later, “We’re going to have a fight. I put my guard up and started circling around him.” The vice principal was shocked by this defiance,declaring that he had never seen anything like it, and predicting O’Neal was destined for trouble. “You are going to be executed,” he sternly warned young O’Neal, “You’re going to the penitentiary. You’re going to be executed before you’re 25.” A fighter and underdog from the start, O’Neal always had a bad relationship with authority. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and never went back.
As a young man, O’Neal enlisted in the military, a popular career choice for African American youth at the time, as well-paying job opportunities were hard to come by. O’Neal’s father served with distinction in World War II as a member of the U.S. Army, so his military service was a natural choice. When the Navy discharged O’Neal in the late 1950s, he settled for a time in Stockton, California, about seventy miles east from where the BPP was founded roughly a decade later
Arrested and jailed for receiving stolen property in 1959, O’Neal again refused to be dealt punishment from authority. Only three months into his nine-month sentence, O’Neal made a daring escape from jail. He traveled by railway back to his hometown of Kansas City. After almost a year and a half on the run, however, KCPD apprehended O’Neal at his mother’s home in March 1961 and sent him back to California to complete his prison sentence.
At this point in O’Neal’s story a miscarriage of justice occurred, the likes of which he would later spend his activist life fighting against. When O’Neal completed his sentence,and was paroled in 1962, his felony conviction should have been expunged from his record, according to California law, but it was not. The felony on his record made obtaining an already hard-to-get, steady paying, aboveboard job almost impossible and it deepened O’Neal’s animosity towards authority and the police.
When O’Neal decided to become an activist is well-known, but what provoked him to take that path not as clear. O’Neal himself has never given an explanation for it. The Kansas City BPP chapter, originally founded in 1968 under the name “the Black Vigilantes,”gained formal admission into the BPP in early 1969. With O’Neal as the chairman, the Kansas City BPP followed and promoted the national party’s Ten Point Program. Clearly declaring the movement’s goals the Ten Points were:agency for the black community, full employment, “an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community,” decent housing, education, exemptions for blacks from military service, an end of police brutality, the release of imprisoned blacks on all levels of the judicial system, blacks to be judged by a jury of their peers instead of the predominately all-white juries they often faced, and basic necessities of life such as “land, bread…clothing.
Following the Ten Points, the BPP issued a series of statements on what the party believed in. These statements were purposely modeled after the U.S.Constitution. Strong, racially charged language and clear, assertive tone made the Ten Point Program resonate within the black community, especially for young people like Pete O’Neal. According to one scholar, “The Kansas City [BPP]chapter focused on the discontent of the African American working and lower class, on the rage of black youth, on developing survival programs, and on building a functioning relationship with other community organizations.”
Unfortunately, most people today classify the BPP as a hate group. They were black nationalists, which must, as the argument goes, mean that they hated white people. That stereotype is incorrect, and while the BPP’s main concern was the well-being and advancement of African Americans, it did not mean the party categorically hated all white people. Shortly after the formation of the Kansas City BPP, however, a reporter asked O’Neal if the group would be willing to work with white activists and O’Neal replied yes, “If the white people sincerely were interested in the liberty of black people. We are not a racist organization.” BPP members were race conscious, but the Kansas City BPP made a good effort not to be that which it fought against—racist. Despite misgivings, many BPP chapters, including O’Neal’s in Kansas City, cooperated and worked alongside non-black activists. Kansas City’s Black Panthers drew members from other well-established civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), both of which worked with white activists.
History remembers the BPP for its fiery rhetoric, but has mostly forgotten what the group actually did. The national BPP founded and ran a variety of social outreach programs, including a free breakfast program for children, free health clinics, free legal services,and voter registration drives. The group members were serious about wanting to uplift blacks in the communities they served. They wanted to be a resource, to fill a need they knew existed, a need that white controlled governments turned blind eyes to.
One of the first social programs O’Neal’s BPP started was the free breakfast for children program. The reasoning behind this program was the recently published literature stressing the importance of a good breakfast to child development and educational success.O’Neal wanted no black child to go to school hungry, so the Kansas City BPP served breakfast from various locations throughout the city.
O’Neal believed that education was one of the greatest needs not only for Kansas City blacks, but for whites as well. They made an effort to educate the white population, focusing most lyon open-minded college students who showed genuine interest in the BPP. O’Neal and his Panthers gave the white students graphically detailed history lessons,starting with the brutality of slavery to the far reaching and harmful effects of racism not only against African Americans, but also Native Americans and Latinos. Kansas City BPP member Andrew Rollins recalled, “In our message we taught about the history of white racism in America. America was founded up on the genocide of one race, the Native Americans, and the enslavement of another,the African American. We also examined the various kinds of white racism namely: institutional racism, individual racism, overt racism and covert racism.” Not surprisingly, O’Neal’s candid discussion on race relations in1960s Kansas City was not well received by many, but it did make a genuine impact on some.
O’Neal proved to be a charismatic leader for the chapter. He was much sought after by the Kansas City press, both white and black, for comments on anything remotely to do with racial matters. When asked how blacks should commemorate the anniversary of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, O’Neal stated, “We do not advocate spontaneous rebellion. We will support an orderly observance…” While O’Neal had a reputation for being hot-headed and even combative, the black community generally respected him as an authority and a spokesman. According to one historian, “The Panthers were well integrated into the community, and party leaders (such as O’Neal) were invited to sit on committees, speak as representatives of the community, and participate in community activities.”
O’Neal worked closely with BPP chapters throughout the Midwest, putting Kansas City at the center of this new revolution. While the gravitational pull for all Midwest BPP chapters was Chicago, which had the largest and best organized chapter outside the national headquarters, O’Neal made Kansas City’s BPP a major player. The Kansas City BPP collaborated with chapters in Des Moines and Omaha, establishing their own social programs tailored to the needs and resources available in their communities.
O’Neal did a lot of good as a Kansas City activist. He agitated for necessary change and gave a voice to a down trodden portion of the population. He is the first to admit though that he did and said things that were indefensible and wrong, most notably his elated reaction in the BPP national paper to the murder of a Kansas City police officer in August 1969. The piece, in retrospect, was abhorrent and O’Neal knows it. “Regardless of who wrote it, that was me. That was my responsibility. That is the only thing that I did during the entire course of the Black Panther Party that I regret. Why? It was insensitive to an unbelievable degree. Even in war, people don’t take glee in the death of people. You just don’t do that.”
O’Neal saw himself as a soldier on the front line of a revolution. O’Neal was a radical, as many young people in the 1960s, black, white, and all other races, were. It was an era of radicalization with the realization that the status quo could no longer be justified and perpetuated. O’Neal sought to change the world he cared about,Kansas City, through his activism. His social programs were conceived to help a struggling community fulfill its potential. His outspokenness allowed a suppressed minority to have a voice. He taught the black community in Kansas City that in order to be heard, you must first speak up. And that is what O’Neal did.
Many black activists of the civil rights era got to see Jim Crow segregation end across the nation. They got to see their activism shape policy with both the Civil Rights Act of 1964and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some like O’Neal’s cousin, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver, went on to prominence. Most returned to their everyday lives. Pete O’Neal, however, did not have the same experience. In 1969, he was charged with transportation of a gun across state lines, which was not only a felony, but a federal charge. Rather than risking a return to jail, O’Neal and his wife Charlotte fled the country, going into exile and eventually ending up in Tanzania, where they have been now for many years. Even abroad, O’Neal is still an activist, co-founding the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) with his wife, which offers education and other community services. There is an effort, led by Congressman Cleaver, to pardon O’Neal and allow him to return to the U.S. To date those efforts have failed, but the more people know about Pete O’Neal and his legacy of activism, the better the chance that someday he can return to his home in Kansas City.