THESE DAYS, Portland's Black Panthers are civic-minded tour guides.
Kent Ford, founder of Portland's chapter of the '60s-era black empowerment organization, was sporting a dapper newsboy cap and red tie when he ambled into the packed room at Portland's Architectural Heritage Center on Thursday, March 18. Forty years ago, the city threw Ford into Rocky Butte Jail for inciting a riot and set the bail at $80,000. This week, he was the guest of honor at a crowded Portland history lecture, attended by the likes of accomplished researchers, a state representative, and me.
The story of how Ford and his co-presenter and fellow Black Panther Percy Hampton became activists has eerie similarities with issues playing out in Portland today concerning police and race.
Hampton grew up going to Catholic school in Northeast Portland, where his family settled after the construction of Memorial Coliseum demolished their original neighborhood.
"I was pretty straight. To go from being a Catholic schoolboy to joining the Black Panther Party was a pretty big jump," says Hampton. One night in July 1968, Hampton was walking to the grocery store when a police car rolled up.
"A cop stopped me and said, 'Boy, where you going?' I said, 'My name is not boy,'" recollects Hampton, who says the two officers got angry, beat him up, and sent him to jail for 90 days for assaulting the police. When he got out of jail, Hampton joined up as the distribution guy for the Black Panther Party's Portland newspaper.
"Just by grace I'm here tonight, sitting up in front of everybody in one piece," says Hampton.
Ford remembers tensions between police and African Americans in his NE Portland neighborhood running at a dangerous high in the late 1960s.
"The night I crossed over [to the Panthers] was the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I just lost all hope," says Ford, who remembers standing on Union Avenue (now MLK) with a shotgun, monitoring police arrests of black people.
With the help of donors and doctors, the local Panthers chapter set up a free health clinic on North Russell.
Curiously, all but one of the doctors who staffed the Panthers' clinic were white. On Thursday, Ford shouted out to the crowd, asking whether anyone in the room had worked at the clinic. Three aging white people raised their hands: a wiry postal worker in the front row and two cute elderly nurses in back. The nurses, sporting thick, knit sweaters and jangly earrings, said they didn't think about politics when they started volunteering for the Panthers. "There was such a strong need," explained one, recalling how she treated the boils of prostitutes who used to line Union Avenue and inject themselves with their preferred drug of heroin mixed with Ritalin.
These days Ford and Hampton lead history tours of NE Portland, mostly for college students interested in the history of dissent. Their tours involve pointing out a lot of what used to be.
The clinic on North Russell is gone. The Panthers' free dental clinic next door is now run by Oregon Health and Science University. The office that the black activist group shared with Vietnam war resistors on Union Avenue is a vacant lot. The free breakfasts the group handed out to school kids on NE 7th and Wygant are no more.
But the Panther pair say they still get smiles of recognition from now middle-aged Portlanders who remember them as the guys who handed out free pancakes.
The Panthers remained active in Portland throughout the 1970s.
"We were still kicking in 1980, when Reagan was elected," says Ford. "Then it was every man for himself and God help us all."