Gayle Fleming, a native of Oakland, California, is a writer and retired real estate agent. The views in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)Fifty-six years ago, I walked into the Black Panther Party storefront headquarters on Grove Street — now Martin Luther King Jr. Way — in the heart of my native city of Oakland, California.
I was a 19-year-old college student at Merritt College, a hothouse of Black activism and the place where the Panthers were founded. My awakening about the oppression of Black people began with reading W.E.B. Du Bois and my participation in a Black drama club.
In October 1967, a few days after Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton was falsely arrested for the murder of a White police officer, I was at a rally demanding his release. It was at that gathering that Eldridge Cleaver, minister of information for the party, asked me if I would come to the office to "help the brothers out." I showed up the next day a little nervous, but eager to help. That's when my journey with the Black Panthers began.
It's not where my path of activism ended, however. My years with the Black Panthers were a formative time for me and laid the foundation for subsequent political activity, just as the group laid the foundation for current-day groups like Black Lives Matter. I've since moved on to other causes, lived in other parts of the world — I even worked for a time in Corporate America, and I recently retired from a years-long career as a real estate agent. Through it all, my sense of social justice were shaped by those years in my early 20s.
What can I say that hasn't already been said about a group that looms so large — even today — in the popular imagination? The Black Panthers came into being at the dawn of a national Black consciousness movement and amid the fury of a protest movement that rocked the country. It was a time when people dared to say "no" authority — to the police, to the military, to "The Man."
It was no accident that the Panthers emerged from Oakland, a community where a particularly brutal form of policing by White cops toward the Black citizenry was the order of the day. The Panthers saw themselves as part of a popular movement to counter the brutal excesses of authority. In fact, the official name of the group, which was created by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, the year before I joined, was The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
In time, I would come to understand that the Panthers suffered from excesses of their own — a kind of machismo, and limited vision of the role that women could play. But during that national political and cultural awakening, being part of the group opened my eyes to injustice all around me and helped shape a sense of social awareness that has defined my life to this day.
On my first day working with the Panthers, I met Kathleen Neal, who would later become Cleaver's wife. The daughter of a career diplomat and recent dropout from Spelman College, she and I bonded immediately.
Had Kathleen not been there, I'm not sure I would have stayed. She was a college girl like me. She wasn't from "the hood" and neither was I. In my decidedly middle-class Black neighborhood in the hills of Oakland, most residents were teachers, lawyers, doctors and such.
By contrast, many of the young men who milled around Black Panther Party offices were a little rough around the edges. But my reservations about them didn't last long. They were street-smart, brave, dedicated and determined to be change agents. One of them, who went by the moniker "Li'l Bobby Hutton," spent many a night on my living room couch. He later was killed by the Oakland Police in a shoot-out. He was just 17.
There was no official membership process for joining the Panthers. If you started showing up at the office regularly, you were considered a member of the Party. When Cleaver asked me to come to the office and help out the brothers, he was asking me to do the tasks that were deemed women's work: answering phones, keeping the office clean, cooking and other chores.
For the most part, women weren't expected to be spokespeople or hold positions of authority, although that changed in later years. This was before the days of feminism in the Black community.
For most of us, the early women's movement was synonymous with upper class, college-educated White women and was seen as irrelevant to the lives of Black women. The role of Black women was to support Black men, period. I helped edit the newspaper in those early days. Women also went to rallies and sold the BPP weekly newspaper and Panther buttons.
The party was unique in its structure and mission. The weekly newspaper and the distinctive presence of black leather jackets and berets made the Panthers a visible part of the community. When Black people were stopped by the police, Panthers would gather at the scene in an effort to prevent abuse. If an act of police abuse occurred, the party would help the victim find legal representation.
Nationally, many White people came to think of the Panthers as a violent Black power group dangerous to their very existence. But that's not how we saw ourselves. Ordinary Black folks saw us as protectors and spokespeople for the community.
The party never officially declared itself a socialist organization, although its tenets certainly leaned that way. In order for equality to ever exist, those with the most would have to give up some of their wealth and privilege so those with the least could have more.
It was out of this sense of social justice that the free breakfast program was started at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church. Feeding poor children a nutritious breakfast before school was a political act. The program was such a success that it eventually went national, and eventually came to be duplicated in government-run programs across the country.
The four years I spent with the Panthers corresponded with the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, the nascent women's movement and a fledgling environmental movement. It was a heady time, and I came to realize that my views on social justice and equality had broadened to include those other movements.
That's one of the reasons why I left the Black Panthers in 1971. Not long after that, the movement died out, after years of being targeted by the federal government, including having been infiltrated by informants. Over time, some Panthers abandoned the party, others ended up in prison, some were killed by police, still others were killed on the streets of some of the same communities they had once fought so hard to help.
By this time I also was a single parent and had a child to support. I met and married a man from Britain and moved with him to Aberdeen, Scotland, where for the first time in my life, I encountered poor, underprivileged White people who -- like Black people back home in the United States -- had been oppressed and discriminated against. It was eye-opening. I returned to the United States with my by-then teenage daughter who would need to be put through college.