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Black History Month 2017: Brad Lomax, Disabled Black Panther

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Image of 2 Black men outside wearing suits. Brad is on the left in his wheelchair and Greg is on the right crouching down. Both men are smiling for the camera.

One Black disabled advocate from the past I have enjoyed writing about is Brad Lomax, who was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP).  One of the reasons Brad’s story and involvement resonates with me is because of him confirming his unapologetic Blackness and disability.  He was a proud member of BPP and used his participation to urge the Party to become a part of a major time in disability rights history – demanding the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973.

I want to take a different angle in discussing Brad by focusing on the impact of the activism that led to the enactment of Section 504, and why Brad’s advocacy matters.  

Power of 504:  The Early Years of the Disability Rights Movement

I was told that Brad had a small feature in the documentary The Power of 504 that discussed the advocacy efforts it took to get the Section recognized and implemented.  The film (which is broken into two parts on YouTube:  Part 1 and Part 2) shares how the advocates strategized and mobilized in San Francisco and across the nation to place pressure on our government to give us the anti-discrimination rights we deserved.  To see disabled people of all disability types come together for their freedoms were both powerful and sombering.  I say the latter because in 2017, we are still fighting to be seen as human and equal, and fighting that those in government positions do not infringe on our rights.  

One of the things I found most interesting about the documentary was the way government officials viewed the protestors.  When the advocates started their fight, representatives were seemingly respectful to them.  However, that tone changed when they realized that the advocates meant business, and were not going to back down from what they wanted.  For me, I took that 180 degree tone change to mean that those in power did not expect us to be a dynamic force to be taken seriously.  In a way, their original tone felt dismissal – we (government officials) give the cripples some attention and they will go away.  They were dead wrong – we were not going to be shooed off.  We knew what was at stake and was ready for battle until we got what we wanted.  

The tactics used by those with authority back then are still witnessed today, as we are still not considered to be a powerful group in demanding our rights.  One thing I want to make clear – disability rights are civil rights, and we will not settle for policies that strips us of inclusion and humanity.  Seeing the advocates in the film displayed how our community has so much strength when we are united than when we are not, and we need to think of the solidarity used to acquire victories as we push forward through these uncertain political times.  

The Whitewashing of 504:  Why Brad Must Be Remembered

In watching the documentary, I noticed one thing:  most of the voices heard were from white advocates.  Being someone who created the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag, that did not come as a surprise.  Our community has a well-known history of erasing the involvement of disabled people of color in our movement (case in point:  my feature on Johnnie Lacy).  In the film, I was able to single out Brad in this screenshot.  Luckily for me, he was wearing his black beret while sitting in his wheelchair:

Image of a group of disabled advocates at a protest. In the center is a Black man in a wheelchair who’s holding a sign and wearing a black beret. That man is Brad Lomax.

Not only were there a lack of color, but also a failure to mention how non-disabled activists groups assisted in the success of the sit-ins.  One stark omission is that of the Black Panther Party itself, who fed the advocates during the protests.  In one of the few detailed articles about Brad Lomax and BPP’s presence, we learn the following:  

In addition to providing food, the BPP contributed substantially to the historical record of the 504 action in issues of their newspaper in April and May of 1977. In the pages of the Black Panther the protest was given an individual transformative face by Dennis Billups, described in one BP feature article as “a young blind Black man from San Francisco….one of the active and enthusiastic participants in the ongoing occupation of the HEW offices by handicapped and disabled people fighting for their civil and human rights.”  An interview with Billups by an anonymous Panther reporter resulted in a compelling, lyrical, mysterious transcription of a speech that framed the audience for the 504 demonstration as one composed of black disabled people:

to my brothers and sisters that are Black and that are handicapped: Get out there, we need you. Come here, we need you. Wherever you are, we need you. Get out of your bed, get into your wheelchair. Get out of your crutches, get into your canes. If you can’t walk, call somebody, talk to somebody over the telephone; if you can’t talk, write; if you can’t write use sign language; use any method of communication that is all — all of it is open.

We need to do all we can. We need to show the government that we can have more force than they can ever deal with — and that we can eat more, drink more, love more and pray more than they ever knew was happening….

We shouldn’t have to fight for our rights, …they should already be there. But since we have to fight for them we have an infinite amount of strength to walk. The government only has one strength to walk, they only know about the paper and file system….We are all in the light, and we should think of ourselves as being our rights.

To read the BPP’s message that was specific to Black disabled people signified that they understood that disability rights and civil rights are connected, and intersected for those of us who are of color and disabled.  As I always stated in previous articles, this is the side of BPP we are not educated about, in both Black history and disability history.  

Brad was able to be the bridge for both communities to understand that they are fighting for the same goals – equality, justice, ending discrimination and “-isms,” and improving the quality of life for people who have been oppressed for far too long.  In the screenshot image I shared of Brad, to see him representing both his Blackness and disability were important.  Brad, like the other Black advocates I featured this month, knew that he had to fight so that all of his identities are protected by the passages of rights that declares his existence to be equal as everyone else’s.  I always joke that if I lived during that time, I probably would have been involved in BPP in some fashion, and seeing Brad represent BPP while protesting for Section 504 showed that I could have done the same.  

Final Thoughts

I hope that one day, the influences of Brad and so many other Black disabled advocates are just as well known as those who are white.  I still remember the feeling I had when I stumbled across the photo of Brad with his brother Greg:  “there were disabled Black Panthers???  How come no one told me this?”  I took the time to Google him and learned his story from the article written by Leroy Moore, founder of Krip-Hop Nation. There were many Brads during that time whose advocacy needs recognition.  It would be a pleasure to meet someone who was a part of BPP at that time that knew Brad, and to hear about him from their words.  Brad’s story matters because it is a perfect example of Black disabled people owning their identities and forcing two communities to join together for the greater good.  

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Leroy Moore, and screenshot is my own from the “The Power of 504” documentary.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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