The 504 Protests and the Black Panther Party

In April 1977, disability activists around the country held protests to fight for the passage of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of the Act stated that:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, …will be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

The largest and longest protest was held in San Francisco at the federal building, which disability activists occupied for 26 days. Security tried to block anyone else from coming in the building after the protesters had occupied it, but the Black Panther party was able to get in and deliver food. Black Panther support for the protest stemmed from their philosophy of fighting oppression. They published several articles in the BP newspaper discussing the protest and the link between African American and disability rights.

“Black Panthers saved the 504 sit-in.” – Corbett O’Toole, participant in the 1977 504 protest in San Francisco

Media release from the Black Panther:

For Immediate Release April 8, 1977
”Along with all fair and good-thinking people, The Black Panther Party gives its full support to Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and calls for President Carter and HEW Secretary Califano to sign guidelines for its implementation as negotiated and agreed to on January 21 of this year. The issue here is human rights – rights of meaningful employment, of education, of basic human survival – of an oppressed minority, the disabled and handicapped.
Further, we deplore the treatment accorded to the occupants of the fourth floor and join with them in full solidarity.”

The following is the May 7, 1977 edition of The Black Panther Party newspaper describing the occupation.

Courtesy of Billy X Jennings: Black Panther Party Archives

Black Panther News: Handicapped Win Demands (complete text below)
Black Panther News - 2nd page of story (text below)

Text Version:

The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service – Published weekly by the Black Panther Party – 25 cents

Handicapped Win Demands – End H.E.W. Occupation

Sub-heading: Pressure Forces Califano to Sign 504 Regulations

Three photos:

Top – an African American man sits in a wheelchair; another African American man stands behind him; both are smiling. Left – a young African American man holds a hand-written sign saying, “You Don’t Have to See It to Know.” Right – A large group of people watch as a protester using a wheelchair exits a building. Caption: Blind demonstrator Dennis Billups (left) and other protesters triumphantly ended their 26-day sit-in at San Francisco’s HEW offices last week. Black Panther Party members Chuck Jackson and Brad Lomax (top, photo) played an integral role in this strategic struggle for human rights.


(San Francisco, Calif.) – “We Have Overcome – can you hear it – We Have Overcome,” said the final group of handicapped and disabled people returning from Washington, some with wide smiles, others with lingering tears, bunched together in the airport lobby.

“We Have Overcome,” they sang to the depths of their hearts, just as their counterparts had sung that same tune before ending their triumphant 26-day sit-in.
It was their unofficial theme song, once a source of hope and inspiration, now transformed to coincide with their tremendous victory, just as their powerful protest will soon transform the face of America.

In truth, the wheelchair-confined and disabled people who successfully took on the federal government – occupying the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) offices in San Francisco for nearly four weeks, while sending a delegation to Washington, D.C., to directly confront their oppressors – had overcome, and, indeed, their message was heard across the land.

On Thursday, April 28, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano, signed into law the far-reaching Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, thus barring discrimination against disabled people in all buildings and facilities receiving federal funds.

The signing of the long-delayed implementation regulations was the significant victory the handicapped and disabled had sought in nationwide demonstrations on April 5, resulting in building occupations at HEW offices in New York and Los Angeles.

But there’s another victory, a triumph of the human will, actually, achieved here in the Bay Area. It is the type of victory that can’t be pinpointed by any one single act, but in the long run is as significant as Califano’s signing of Section 504.

Its expression came in many ways; for instance, when protest leader Cece Weeks, a frail, blond-haired young woman confined to a wheelchair, suddenly explained the night before the HEW occupation ended, “You know, for the first time in my life, I’m proud to be handicapped;”

Or when a young Black woman came up to Brad Lomax, a Black Panther Party member victimized by multiple sclerosis, upon his return from Washington, and embracing him in his wheelchair, remarked, “Thank you for setting an example for all of us;”

Or when Dennis Billups, a 24-year-old Black man blind from birth and in many ways the spiritual leader of the San Francisco demonstrators, marched joyfully out of the Old Federal Building holding a sign he instructed to be made, “You don’t have to see it to know.”

As Kitty Cone pointed out at the group’s final press conference – at which they announced they intended to leave the building at 12:00 noon on Saturday, April 30, and would spend the night before cleaning up:

“Second to the signing of the regulations the way we wanted them to be signed, the most important thing that came out of this is the public birth of a disabled movement.
“People all over the country, not just people shut in convalescence homes, but everyone in this country has learned that disabled people have a tremendous amount of strength, that we are capable of leading a struggle that has won major gains from the government.

“There’s a great deal of self-confidence, a great deal of pride, that we have given to ourselves and to disabled people all over the country. But we’ve also shown that if you wage a really effective struggle and you don’t give up, you can win a victory.”

In a very real sense, ending the HEW occupation was like breaking up a family – a farewell to the tightly knit, caring, human community the disabled demonstrators and their aides formed among themselves.

It was this feeling of happiness in victory, combined with a hint of remorse, that Ron Washington expressed when asked how he felt about leaving.

“Well, there’s some hesitancy because of the relationship that was developed here – the comradeship around political needs and working together to get those needs taken care of. It’s just an incredible feeling.”

During the course of the 26-day sit-in, the Black Panther Party played a leading support role in providing food for the demonstrators. Over and over again, the disabled protesters credited the BPP with literally sustaining their struggle, “keeping us alive body and soul,” as one person put it.

One woman jokingly accused the Party of undermining her fast of close to two weeks: “I couldn’t stand it when I saw those bar-be-qued ribs,” she commented.
Thus, when Ericka Huggins, a leading BPP member and director of the model Oakland Community School, addressed the crowd at the Saturday victory rally, she received a tremendous ovation.

“I’ve been thinking since I’ve been here this morning that the United States has always had its niggers,” Ericka said. “And they come in all sizes, shapes, colors, classes, and disabilities.

“The signing of 504, this demonstration, the sit-in, this beautiful thing that has happened these past weeks, is all to say that the niggers are going to be set free…”

Over and over the significant themes were repeated at the rally – “human rights,” “equal access,” “and end to segregation,” “finally feeling like a human being” – all summed up by Kitty Cone when she simply yelled into the microphone the one thought behind all the smiling emotions, “WE WON, WE WON, WE WON!”

Pullout box:

504: Civil Rights for the Disabled

No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States…shall, soley by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

So reads Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the focus of the recent month-long protest by activist handicapped and disabled people.

Since it was passed by Congress four years ago, no regulations were ever signed to assure the direct implementation of 504, thus leaving over 35 million disabled Americans with a law on paper but with no concrete form.

Last week, however, acting under tremendous pressure, Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Joseph Califano signed a 47-page document of sweeping regulations implementing Section 504. The regulations signed by Califano provide that:

  • Alcoholics and drug addicts are included in the definition of handicapped persons, one of the major goals of the demonstrators.

Handicapped Child

  • Every handicapped child is entitled to be educated in regular public school classrooms with nonhandicapped children, unless placement in a special residential setting is necessary. In that case, public authorities will be financially responsible for providing all necessary facilities, including tuition, room and board.
  • All new buildings and facilities must be readily accessible to and usable by the handicapped, free of architectural barriers. This apparently includes buildings in the blueprint stage, another key goal of the demonstrators.
  • Programs and activities in existing buildings must be made accessible to the handicapped within 60 days. If the buildings are inaccessible, they must be made accessible within three years without exception.
  • Employees not discriminate against the handicapped provided that the disability does not prevent them form performing the work if reasonable accommodations is provided to meet their specific needs.

These regulations apply to institutions or programs receiving HEW funds, therefore covering virtually all public schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, social welfare agencies, offices of doctors receiving Medicare funds, as well as many private businesses.