Photographer Stephen Shames documented the Black Panther Party over seven years, creating the definitive record of America’s Black nationalist movement.

Photographer Stephen Shames documented the Black Panther Party over seven years, creating the definitive record of America’s Black nationalist movement.

The Black Panther Party mounted the most defiant challenge to White America in the history of the United States.

Dressing sharply in all black, they paraded in front of TV cameras with their guns held high and a self-assured determination. But beneath the militant swagger that struck fear into White households across the nation, the party was building the most comprehensive programme of community organisation and self-improvement for African-Americans.

Founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966, it was a White photographer, Stephen Shames, who created the definitive visual record of the Black Panther Party over seven years, from their political organising to free food programmes.

Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968. The light-skinned man is Gregory Harrison. His brother, Oleander, was in the group that went to Sacramento.

Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968. The light-skinned man is Gregory Harrison. His brother, Oleander, was in the group that went to Sacramento.

There was much more to the Panthers than the black berets and armed self-defence units, focussed on by an alarmist White-dominated media, and Shames captured the Party’s day-to-day grind in Black communities across the nation: organising voter registration drives, fielding political candidates, organising boycotts of racist businesses, running free food programmes and much more besides.

Shames documented their rise and effective collapse, brought on by a combination of political in-fighting and immense outward pressure from the authorities in the mid-‘70s. Published on the 50th anniversary of the party’s founding, Shames co-authored Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers with Bobby Seale, to reveal the breadth of his archive and provoke a reassessment of the Panthers and their legacy.

Panther Jerry “Odinka” Dunigan talks to kids while they eat breakfast on Chicago’s South Side, November 1970

Panther Jerry “Odinka” Dunigan talks to kids while they eat breakfast on Chicago’s South Side, November 1970

What drew you to spend seven years documenting the Black Panthers?
The late 1960s were a time of turmoil. The war in Vietnam divided the nation. African-Americans struggled to gain their rights. In 1965 the voting rights act was passed and the Civil Rights Movement achieved its goal; however black people still were not equal. The Black Power Movement arose to take the next step. Poverty was also an issue.

This was a revolutionary time. The USA’s ghettos exploded following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The Black Panther Party was a leader of the revolution; not just the Black Power Movement, but also leaders of the student movement. They also offered solutions to poverty and racial issues. Their 10 Point Program was a road map for the changes America needed to make in 1966. It remains valid today since most of the 10 points have not been achieved, 50 years later.

That is why I spent seven years documenting the Panthers. I felt they were a very important movement and political party.

Kathleen Cleaver at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968

Kathleen Cleaver at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968

Were you aware of the impact your images were having at the time? Who was seeing them and where were they being published?
My photographs were published in the alternative, underground press and the Black Panther paper. Some of them also appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and other national publications. I was aware of the impact the photographs were having on those who were part of the movement for change. I was not aware of their historical importance when I was taking the photographs. I was young. I started photographing the Panthers when I was 20. I was a student at Berkeley.

A boy salutes the Panthers, New Haven County Courthouse, May 1, 1970

A boy salutes the Panthers, New Haven County Courthouse, May 1, 1970

Your images create a wide-ranging perspective on the variety of activities the Panthers were involved in – from political organising to free food programmes. But this is not the picture of the party most of America saw. Could you speak to the level of misinformation and media misrepresentation of the Panthers during their period of activity?
President Nixon and the FBI went to great lengths to paint a false picture of the Panthers as thugs and terrorists. They created COINTELPRO which included using informants to commit crimes to blame on the Panthers, assassinations of Panther leaders, and spreading misinformation and rumours. Right after his election as president in 1968, Nixon ordered J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI and his Attorney General to get rid of the Panthers by the end of 1969. The FBI and the Attorney General are supposed to be independent, and above politics; but Nixon turned them into political tools.

The media did not see black people in a fair and balanced way. To some extent, the media still does not. Most people are unaware of their racial prejudices. Institutional racism also contributes to this. The Panthers had a 90% favourable rating in the Black community, according to a Gallup Poll. That was not reflected in media reporting which sensationalised them.

Power to the People, the new book by Bobby Seale and me tells a different, more nuanced picture. Given my almost complete access, we see many behind the scenes things that never made it to the mainstream media. Stereotypes of Black men are dispelled as we see moments of tenderness as Black men talk with children. How often do we see positive images of black men — even today? In the book, we see Panthers interacting with the community at rallies and through their programs. Lastly, the book has first person accounts from dozens of Panthers. It is an oral history of sorts.

Panthers stand just offstage at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968. Che Brooks (arms folded) was a San Francisco Panther who went to San Quentin State Prison and started the prison chapter.

Panthers stand just offstage at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968. Che Brooks (arms folded) was a San Francisco Panther who went to San Quentin State Prison and started the prison chapter.

What do you feel the most important legacy of the Panthers has been?
The most important legacy of the Panthers is the idea that people can affect change. More importantly, they showed specifically how to create social change. The Black Panther Party was a political party. They main goal was to register people to vote so progressives could take political seats and pass laws. They registered thousands of people to vote and ran candidates for office. The Panthers started more than 50 community programs — free breakfast for children, free health clinics, a school, free food, etc. They also addressed the issue of police brutality. Their offices were community centres where people came when they had problems; the Panthers helped them with their issues.

The Black Panthers did not just demonstrate, their programs highlighted what was wrong and offered solutions. The US government copied many of the programs started by the Black Panthers. The school breakfast and lunch programs, legislated by President Johnson as part of the War on Poverty, are one example. Community policing is another approach based on the Panther’s ideology. The election of the first African-American president might not have happened without the voter registration efforts of the Panthers.

People’s Free Food Program, Palo Alto, 1972

People’s Free Food Program, Palo Alto, 1972

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers by Bobby Seale and photographer Stephen Shames is published by Abrams.

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