The Gray Panthers was organized by Maggie Kuhn in 1970, when she was forced to retire from her job at age 65, which was legal then. The name was a play on The Black Panthers, then a controversial, revolutionary black nationalist group.
It was Ms. Kuhn’s charm and feistiness that propelled the Gray Panthers to prominence and the group wasn’t just for old people. Maggie’s goal was to unite young and old for social change and they focused not just on elder rights, but poverty, civil liberties and joined in the anti-Vietnam War protests of the time. [Full disclosure: I produced several television interviews with Ms. Kuhn in the 1970s.]
Maggie Kuhn died in 1995, at age 89.
The Gray Panthers Today
The Gray Panthers is now a shadow of its former self. It national website is an embarrassment of poor design, bad navigation and boring content of a few position papers filled with Whereas and Be It Resolved statements. As far as can be determined, they don’t actually do anything, although there is a recent note on the home page about what would have been Maggie Kuhn’s 100th birthday earlier this month.
There are several local chapters that, with one or two exceptions, seem as moribund as the national office. The San Francisco group appears to be the most active, holding monthly meetings on the topics of health, war and peace, civil liberties and books.
The Detroit chapter held a protest against the Iraq War in March. Austin, Texas lists a meeting for October and a holiday potluck in December. And there is a note on the home page of the Washington, D.C. chapter to “Click here for spring 1999 newsletter.”
The one time in the past ten years or so that the national Gray Panthers made an attempt to affect public policy was a disaster of their own making. In 2003, the group bought full-page ads in several U.S. newspapers attacking the federal government for awarding contracts to MCI WorldCom after the company had committed one of largest corporate frauds in history. At the bottom was the usual disclosure appended to partisan political ads: “This ad was paid for by Gray Panthers.”
There was just one little problem with that statement – it was false. The money for the ads came from Issue Dynamics, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm among whose clients was Verizon which was then campaigning to prevent MCI WorldCom from emerging from bankruptcy.
Can you spell conflict of interest?
The Future of the Gray Panthers
The only thing the Gray Panthers has going for it these days is a clever name, but I’m not even sure of that. It was catchy when everyone in the U.S. knew the Black Panthers reference, but who remembers that today? And the times have changed, requiring a different, more sophisticated kind of action than issuing a poorly-written press release now and then.
A national organization promoting the rights of older people and campaigning for their inclusion in public affairs – from as local as the neighborhood to Congress and the White House – is a good idea. But the tattered remnants of the Gray Panthers aren’t up to it.
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