Truthout - July 20, 2020

The Black Panther Party (BPP), originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was co-founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in Oakland, California. Motivated by outrage against police abuse in Black and Brown neighborhoods, Seale and Newton compiled a Ten-Point Program for their new organization.

Representing the vanguard of the revolution throughout the 60s and 70s, the BPP was immortalized for its iconic, powerful imagery of armed Black men and women dressed in leather and berets, determined to protect communities from vigilante and institutional forms of white supremacy.

However, safeguarding the Black community was only one tactic in the BPP revolutionary strategy, which included free breakfast for school children, health clinic programs, and a sophisticated educational agenda with teach-ins and an official media organ — The Black Panther newspaper.

In the following interview, Truthout speaks with Emory Douglas, artist, designer, producer of The Black Panther newspaper, and minister of culture for the BPP from 1967 until The Black Panther ceased publication in the early ‘80s. Douglas’s iconic artwork and design were a centerpiece of the BPP’s highly successful messaging and outreach, which inspired revolutionaries in the United States and the world. Douglas speaks of the history of The Black Panther newspaper as a tool of empowerment, the aims and techniques of his artwork and design, and how these relate to current mediums employed during present uprisings.

Yoav Litvin: Co-founder and Minister of Defense of the BPP Huey Newton said: “When the slave kills the slave master it acts as a cleansing process. Because then a man is ‘born’ and an oppressor is gone.” What have been your goals with your art? Does it serve to kill the slave master, transform him, or both?

Emory Douglas: My art is intended to connect to an audience, to the masses. It appeals to victims of oppression, with a focus on brothers and sisters in Black communities, but not exclusively.

The Black Panther was a community newspaper, which told the story from our perspective. It focused on a class of people who were not necessarily readers, but rather learned through observation and participation. The headlines, captions, artwork and photos reflected the gist of the drawn-out articles and therefore appealed to those who were not able to or going to read them.

My art for The Black Panther combined various mediums to help convey our messaging. These included pen and ink original drawings collaged with photography and inexpensive graphic arts methodologies — mimeographs, photostats, prefabricated press oh types and screentones, along with offset printing for the newspaper.

The artwork and newspaper got the attention of police early on. A man claiming to be an art dealer called me at the BPP communal housing space showing interest in my art. I knew he was police because the number was unlisted. Later on that week, the same person called the BPP central headquarters office asking to speak to me and I had comrades listen to the conversation on another phone line while the police pretended to be an art dealer interested in my work. He told me he would make me rich and that they wanted me to meet them at the hotel they were staying at in San Francisco. I told him twice I was not interested, he became frustrated and I hung up the phone.

My art also served to support BPP programs such as the free breakfast for schoolchildren. A gallery in Los Angeles which focused on social justice issues exhibited my poster art and we used the show to raise funds.

How did you arrive at the panther and the pig as positive and negative representations?

The image of the black panther was first adopted by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Alabama in 1966 after the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law. The black panther was conceived as a response to the Alabama Democratic Party symbol of a white rooster, which stood for white supremacy.

Huey Newton used to say that the black panther was an animal that would not attack unless it felt in danger and only then it defended itself.

Eldridge Cleaver, who later became the BPP’s minister of information, was in contact with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who were involved in the campaign in Alabama, such as Stokely Carmichael [later known as Kwame Ture], as part of his regular travel to Atlanta, Georgia, at the time.

Because of Huey Newton and Bobby Seal’s great respect for SNCC they asked Eldridge to seek their official permission to continue using the black panther as a symbol for the BPP. Stokely Carmichael approved.

Both Bobby Seale and Huey became familiar with Eldridge Cleaver’s writings while in prison.

Huey and Bobby first met Eldridge Cleaver when he worked as a writer/reporter for Ramparts Magazine. However, because he was on parole, he could only be around the BPP in that official capacity, otherwise he would have been in violation of his parole and sent back to prison. They were eventually able to recruit him as a journalist for The Black Panther newspaper.

We defined the pig (police) as “a low natured beast that has no regard for law, justice, or the rights of people; a creature that bites the hand that feeds it; a foul, depraved traducer, usually found masquerading as the victim of an unprovoked attack.”

The many images portraying the pigs encountering provocative retributions in reaction to state-sponsored violence were quickly picked up around the world, transcending the African-American community and becoming international symbols that defined the oppressor by its victims.

Though associated with police, images of pigs represented fascists in general to many in the Black community and beyond. At the same time, the images evoked feelings of humor, disgust and a form of violent reckoning with injustice associated with fascist elements.

Talk about the media landscape back in the days of The Black Panther compared to today. What does it demonstrate regarding differences in struggles?

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, there were many community media operations that reported on the adverse conditions throughout the U.S. ...
Read full interview at Truthout