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The Forgotten History of the Radical ‘Elders of the Tribe’

Kuhn also railed against the rampant negative stereotypes about older people in the media, charging, in testimony before Congress, that “old people are depicted as dependent, powerless, wrinkled babies.” So the Panthers monitored how older people were portrayed on television — if they appeared at all — and then lambasted network executives for demeaning caricatures, and got some eliminated.

But crucial to the Panthers’ progressive agenda were intergenerational alliances to promote issues that remain of pressing concern today: affordable housing, better access to health care, racial equality in employment, economic justice and environmental protection. Their motto was “age and youth in action.” Kuhn was also outspoken about the ravages of racism and sexism.

“We’re the elders of the tribe,” she said. “We are concerned about the tribe surviving.” Older Americans, she said, “are most free to transcend special interests and seek public interests.” She shared her home in Philadelphia with “panther cubs,” youthful activists, and argued against age-segregated housing that isolated older people from the young. She was especially perturbed by how the generations were pitted against each other in the media, with older people cast as getting benefits they didn’t deserve.

So why have she and the Panthers been mostly forgotten? In part, it’s because Kuhn was such a charismatic leader that once she died, the organization began to drift. In the decades since, there’s been a shift away from activism on the part of older people and toward more institutionalized forms of political power; these, in turn, have certainly seen some success. Starting in the 1980s, the American Association of Retired Persons expanded and built up its lobbying activities. Now called simply AARP, it focuses almost exclusively on issues affecting older people, like ageism and preserving their safety net. Its magazine combats stereotypes but emphasizes self-actualization, not activism, a safer and often more comfortable message. It does not seek to unite old and young in the name of broader social justice efforts.

Today we’re seeing the limitations of that narrower agenda.

On the one hand, many older people, including older women, are more visible and powerful than ever before. “Disengaged” is the last word you would use about Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters or Elizabeth Warren, not to mention Joe Biden.

On the other hand, the fate of nursing home residents in the coronavirus pandemic — a true debacle — has revealed the persistence of ageism. We’ve seen narratives about the pandemic pit old and young against each other, with the old cast as “expendable” and the young as “irresponsible.”

At the same time, the Trump administration’s cruel, destructive and divisive policies continue to expose great inequities in our country across multiple lines — race, gender, class and age. Kuhn’s activist agenda, both age and youth in action, is more relevant, and more necessary, than ever.

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