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'We wanted justice': Member of Des Moines Black Panther Party reflects on chapter's work, lessons learned

A lieutenant in the Des Moines Black Panther Party told Local 5 what it meant to be part of the organization and what it means to him today.

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) was becoming a fixture in cities across the country, including Des Moines.

Ako Abdul-Samad was a lieutenant in the political organization, which called for Black people to have more rights and helped protect Black neighborhoods. 

"I joined the Black Panther Party with several of my other friends that were here because we wanted justice," Abdul-Samad said.

The Des Moines chapter was started in 1968 by Mary Rhem. The organization's goal was to help Black people defend themselves against police brutality and become self-sufficient.

To meet those needs, they created free breakfast programs for kids and gave clothes to those in need. The food was served out of Trinity United Methodist Church and the building Creative Visions operates out of now.

"We fed almost 300 children in the mornings…at that time schools didn't have a breakfast program and we knew that it's hard for children to learn if they were going to school hungry," Abdul-Samad said.

Reynaldo Anderson, a professor at Temple University who has researched the Des Moines Black Panther Party, said the group also helped people struggling with substance abuse.

He also noted the Des Moines chapter had over 100 members, but they experienced mistrust and hate from parts of the community.

"By spring of 1969 their headquarters was blown up," Anderson said. "And the party members suspected that the police along with the minutemen were part of the assassination attempt."

None of the members died from the explosion but some nearby houses were damaged. 

Abdul-Samad said after the explosion, their group started carrying guns for safety, which they had never done before.

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In 1970, the group left the national party and then created their own Black Revolutionary Communist Youth party.

Abdul-Samad said his experience with BPP taught him life skills he still carries.

"The Black Panther Party taught me that we had to look at life and be able to say that 'I can live for you,'" Abdul-Samad said. "That means my commitment is what I have to do."

Abdul-Samad said after the bombing of their headquarters, someone bombed the Des Moines Police Department. He said it was never confirmed who did that bombing, but people suspected it was a Black Panther.

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