A black man helps an older African-American woman as she shops in an Oakland, Calif., supermarket. The image from 1972, by Stephen Shames, documents an initiative to protect the elderly in a crime-ridden neighborhood.[/two_fifth][three_fifth_last padding=”0 0px 0 10px”] It doesn’t just show community activism, it also challenges lurid media stereotypes about the organization responsible for the initiative: the Black Panther Party.
This is one of many photographs in an important new book by Mr. Shames and Bobby Seale, “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers” (Abrams), that help us to better understand one of the most innovative, if controversial, American movements for racial equality and justice. An accompanying exhibition of Mr. Shames’s Panther photographs opens this month at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York.
Published on the 50th anniversary of the party’s founding, “Power to the People” constitutes an impressionistic visual and oral history of the Panthers. It combines in-depth commentary by Mr. Seale, a major figure within the Panthers; the photographs and observations of Mr. Shames, the group’s principal visual chronicler; excerpts of interviews Mr. Shames conducted with party leaders — including Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Elbert (Big Man) Howard, Ericka Huggins, Billy X Jennings and Jamal Joseph — as well as the words of Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.[/three_fifth_last]
BLACK NATIONALIST & SOCIALIST ORGANIZATION[/two_fifth][three_fifth_last padding=”0 0px 0 10px”]At its inception on October 15, 1966, the Black Panther Party’s core practice was its armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behavior of police officers and challenge police brutality in Oakland, California. In 1969, community social programs became a core activity of party members. The Black Panther Party instituted a variety of community social programs, most extensively the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, and he supervised an extensive program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain the organization of resources and manpower. The program was also accused of assassinating Black Panther members.
Government oppression initially contributed to the growth of the party as killings and arrests of Panthers increased support for the party within the black community and on the broad political left, both of whom valued the Panthers as a powerful force opposed to de facto segregation and the military draft. Black Panther Party membership reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members, then suffered a series of contractions. After being vilified by the mainstream press, public support for the party waned, and the group became more isolated. In-fighting among Party leadership, caused largely by the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, led to expulsions and defections that decimated the membership.Popular support for the Party declined further after reports appeared detailing the group’s involvement in illegal activities such as drug dealing and extortion schemes directed against Oakland merchants. By 1972 most Panther activity centered on the national headquarters and a school in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics. Party contractions continued throughout the 1970s. By 1980 the Black Panther Party had just 27 members.