Hazel Mack’s passion for justice started with the Black Panther Party

Hazel Mack, retired attorney and former member of the Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party.

Hazel Mack’s passion for justice started with the Black Panther Party
March 24
13:47 2021

The name Hazel Mack is well known throughout the city of Winston-Salem and across the state for many things: her work as an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), a statewide nonprofit that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people; founding Carter G. Woodson School; serving as director of outreach of Wake Forest School of Law; and a host of other accomplishments. When discussing her journey through life, Mack said everything she’s achieved in life was set in motion in the summer of 1969 when decided to join the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP). 

The Summer of 1969

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. Mack, who was 17 years old at time, said that day is still a vivid memory. 

“These people killed Dr. King,” Mack said. “These people killed Dr. King and it’s just as poignant in my mind today as it was then. I was just too through at that point as a young person, I was mentally ready for something else … I felt like if they could kill a beautiful human being like that, then we had to do something else, that’s where my head was.”

The following summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.) held a peaceful protest and march here in Winston-Salem and Mack skipped school to be there and that’s where she met a member of the Black Panther Party. 

Before that day, Mack said she didn’t even know what the Black Panther Party was. She said she was inspired by the Party’s dedication to help those in need. “This brother had on a button with a panther on it and I didn’t know what it was, so I asked him and he started telling me about the Panther Party. 

“He told me about Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and how the party started. That’s when I started to look up information on the Party. But at the same time, the party was developing here. I just didn’t know it.”

The Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party was officially established a few months later and Mack started attending P.E. (Political Education) classes shortly after that. To become a member of the Black Panther Party, prospects had to attend a number of P.E. classes. 

Becoming a Panther 

“You couldn’t just walk up and say you’re going to be a member of the party, it just didn’t work like that,” said Mack while discussing the process of becoming a member of the BPP. 

The BPP’s Political Education classes were held in various locations throughout the city and were centered around assigned readings that focused on the fight against oppression in different parts of the world. 

Mack said the P.E. classes really opened her eyes. She said she enjoyed reading before she decided to join the party, but the P.E. classes introduced her to books she probably never would’ve read. “One of the first books I remember was Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Mask.’ We read ‘Little Red Book’ by Mao Tse-tung … we read about people all over the world, all the people who had struggles against the powers that be and oppression. Those classes really opened my mind to a whole new universe,” she said. 

Not everybody who made it through the P.E. classes went on to become members of the Party. Mack said being a member of the Black Panther Party meant dedicating your life to the cause.

“There was a requirement in the Party that you had to be able to do it 24/7 and not many people could qualify to do that, like if you have a family to feed or a job to go to,” Mack said. “We lived communally and we shared what we had. We were able to accomplish a lot because of the labor we put in.”

The local Black Panther Party hosted several initiatives called “Survival Programs,” including a free breakfast program for children, pest control, clothes and shoes giveaway, sickle cell anemia screening, and registering people to vote. The Winston-Salem BPP is also the only one in the country that offered a free, around-the-clock ambulance service. The Joseph Waddell People’s Free Ambulance Service provided service throughout the city for  those who couldn’t afford to pay the county fee to use the public ambulance.

Mack said after she became a member, most of the meetings focused on those programs. The Panthers raised money for the various initiatives by hitchhiking and selling newspapers in different cities across the state that talked about the programs offered by the Party. 

The Life of a Panther 

On June 15, 1969, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) declared “the Black Panther Party without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”  

That same year 19 members from different BPP chapters across the country were killed. And BPP chapters became one of the FBI’s biggest targets. Hoover’s plot to dismantle the BPP was part of a program called COINTELPRO, a series of illegal projects that started in the 1950s and was aimed at infiltrating and dismantling American political organizations. 

“At the time when we were formulating and joining, we were in the middle of the onslaught by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to destroy the party,” Mack continued. “But it wasn’t just the Party, they did the same thing to any organization or person that was about the business of moving our people forward. They were about killing and there was no doubt about it.”

Mack said it wasn’t a secret that they were being watched by the FBI and at times agents would go out of their way to let members know. 

“I remember vividly walking down Liberty Street with Larry (Little) one day when the guy who was assigned to  watch us rode down the street and made finger gestures as if he was going to shoot us,” Mack said. “There was always this game of intimidation.”

There were also times when the FBI used real guns and live ammo to try to send their message. Mack recalled one summer when the FBI and members of the Winston-Salem Police Department shot into a home on 23rd Street where several Panthers lived. Before the raid, Mack said law enforcement tried to frame members of the Party for stealing a truck full of meat.

“They sent a Black man with a meat truck to the house where people were living and who said he was donating meat to the program. He parked the truck there and left it so they said we stole that truck and they used that as pretense to shoot into that house on 23rd Street. They tore that house up with bullets; they shot in there to kill,” she said. 

Luckily there weren’t many people in the house that day and no one was injured. Mack said there were only two people in the house, an older gentleman they called “Papa Doc” and a teenager who law enforcement let go. Although he wasn’t there at the time, the president of the local chapter, Larry Little, was arrested and charged, along with Papa Doc.

“They ended up charging Larry, Papa Doc and somebody else who wasn’t even there,” Mack chuckled. “The funny part is, Papa Doc couldn’t even drive. So the man that they charged with driving the truck never drove, never had his license, and everybody knew he couldn’t drive. So it was funny in some ways, but we had to go through a trial for that.” 

Another time law enforcement was openly violent. They targeted the local BPP headquarters when it was on 14th Street and Jackson Avenue. According to Mack, the headquarters on 14th Street was fortified and nearly impossible to overrun. “That was not a house that they were going to run up on because there was no way to get in, so they fire-bombed the house,” Mack said. 

At the time of the bombing, most of the members were in Philadelphia attending a conference hosted by the National BPP and no one was injured. 

Mack said members of the Party had an understanding that they had a target on their backs and probably wouldn’t live past the age of 30, but that was a sacrifice they were all willing to make. 

“At that moment, to Hoover and the FBI we were the most dangerous organization in the country, which is why they had to kill certain people … and they did have to kill us because we weren’t going to stop,” Mack continued. “Our goal was to stop the oppression of our people on a daily basis and nothing was going to stop that.” 

Life after the Party

The Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party stayed active in the community until 1978, but that didn’t stop Mack and other members of the Party from continuing fighting against oppression. 

Mack decided to take her fight to the courtroom and in 1980 she graduated from Temple University School of Law. In 1986 Mack started working for Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) were she worked for more than 30 years before retiring in 2016. While with LANC, Mack served as regional managing attorney and project director of the Home Defense Project. 

“In my mind I was going to law school to better serve people and when I graduated law school I still wanted to serve the people, so I went into legal services first in Philadelphia, then I came back home,” she said.

In fall of 1997, with the help of a group of determined people in Forsyth County, Mack opened Carter G. Woodson School, a public charter school that adheres to basic curriculum requirements of the state, but has several advantages, such as new and innovative approaches to improve on standard education practices. 

Mack said she started looking into alternative learning options a few years before the school actually opened. She wasn’t happy with the way her daughter was being treated in public school and she wanted to try something new. “My baby girl was not doing well in school and as I tried to get more involved, I realized it wasn’t that easy. I was in the building a lot and I saw how children were being treated and I wasn’t happy,” she said. After home schooling her daughter for a few years, Mack said she saw other parents having the same issues and started laying the foundation for the school.

“I saw an opportunity,” Mack said. “I put an announcement on a local radio station that basically asked parents to meet me at the East Winston Library on a Saturday morning and when I got there, it was standing room only and I knew I wasn’t alone.” 

Today Carter G. Woodson serves students in grades K-12 and offers free tuition and bus transportation to and from many neighborhoods throughout the city. 

Although she has officially retired, Mack is still working to uplift the community. She is the owner of Other Suns, a multi-use business space where entrepreneurs can rent space to sell their own products and services. 

For her dedication to uplift those in need, in 2016 Mack was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Chronicle’s Annual Community Service Awards. 

When thinking back on her journey through life and her accomplishments, Mack said, “The best training I ever had for life was in the Black Panther Party. The best education I received in life was the years I spent in the Black Panther Party because it taught me that I could do anything that I put my mind to,” Mack continued. 

“My experiences in life, with the help of Almighty God, have always been, take what you have and make what you want with it, and it all started with the Party.” 

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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