In today’s entertainment world, it is hard not to know about the massive Marvel-Disney blockbuster Black Panther. Most of us rushed to the theaters to see it, as we do every MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) film. I mean, come on! Not only was it the first-ever African-American comic character to have his own film, but it was the last solo film before the much-anticipated battle royale “Avengers: Infinity War” scheduled to be released that Spring. Like all of the characters in these films (such as Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, and Thor) Black Panther was based on a comic character. As someone who was a child in the 1970’s, I have vivid memories of T’Challa fighting bad guys alongside The Fantastic Four, The Avengers and Spidey.
Speaking of the seventies, I also have memory of a social movement with the same name. In the news during those times there was a lot of discourse. The Vietnam War was still in full swing, and President Richard Nixon had resigned after being caught spying on his opponent’s campaign. The thing that interested me about the Black Panthers was their uniform. Before I delve into the art itself, I need to tell you about a movie that made their look iconic.
Growing up with a cop dad who loved crime films, the 1971 film “Shaft” was always a favorite. Not only was the titular character the coolest guy in the world, but he was sort of a bridge between cultures. He was close friends with a white police lieutenant, war buddies with a prominent Black Panther, and he even helped the Harlem mob avoid war with the Italians.
Oh yes. The cultural significance of the uniforms. Imagine, if you will, a tall, strong black man wearing a cool black leather jacket and a beret. Yes, a beret. Not like you see hipsters wear in movies. The kind people wear in war. They were soldiers. But not the kind you would think. The Black Panthers were a symbol of strength in a community that was still fighting for its rights. I mean, heck. African-Americans could not even vote in elections until 1964. Until the late 1960’s there were still restaurants and schools that did not allow blacks to enter. Politicians ignored the black neighborhoods, leaving children often hungry and alone while their parents worked multiple jobs. So the importance of a group like the Panthers can not be understated. I told you that story as a bit of a primer so I can tell you this one…
The goal of this article is to inform you about a newspaper that I believe changed the world. We all know about the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and even the Sacramento Bee. Even the Washington Post published breaking stories during this period that affected the world, and journalism, as we know it. But, in my opinion, none of them were as specifically empowering to the people as The Black Panther.
The first issue of The Black Panther newspaper was issued as a four-page newsletter in Oakland, California in 1967. The purpose of it was to be a voice for the newly-formed political party of the same name. The Black Panther Party (or BPP) was formed by college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale the year prior in 1966. The initial purpose of the formation of the BPP was police brutality. As an alternative to rioting like their neighbors in Los Angeles, Newton and Seale believed that utilizing the power of the Open Carry laws in California to act as a security patrol would proactively create accountability to the police. Lawfully armed black men would patrol the streets so that folks in the neighborhood could pass by without being unlawfully harassed. This concept grew exponentially after only a few months. By 1968, the BPP had thirty-eight chapters nationwide. Some chapters were in prisons and some were in inner city neighborhoods. The BPP stood for something, mainly the term Black Power, which is an often misunderstood phrase. Black Power does not (and did not) mean the same thing as White Power. White Power means domination of one race over another. Black Power means equal justice for everyone, but lifting the black voice in order to do it. This is similar to the term Black Lives Matter. The phrase does not mean the other lives do not matter. To the contrary. It just means to raise the voice for the underrepresented. In this instance, the African-American. The BPP was the organization that began this age of empowerment.
In an article from Volume 2, Issue 5, dated September 7, 1968, journalist Frank B. Jones writes “Although white supremacist historians have attempted to establish that black people in the South were happy and contented slaves, we have historical evidence that such was not the case.” To readers in the twenty-first century, this is not a revelation. But, in the 1960’s it was. The article continued with Frank B. Jones stating that “Black men possess a quality that is evidently alien to the white supremist historians. A quality that is rare in establishment oriented societies – an untiring tenacity to resist injustices.” In this same issue, the front page headline was “World Awaits Verdict: Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit.” BPP Co-founder Huey P. Newton was arrested in 1967 for allegedly shooting and killing a police officer, of which he was found not guilty in August 1970. Newton’s freedom did not come without political pressure. It was the success of the publication of The Black Panther newspaper and its then circulation of over three hundred thousand. Due to the international awareness of Newton’s unjust arrest, and the Free Huey! campaign, pressure became too much for local law enforcement who had no evidence of his guilt.
As an avid supporter of the Second Amendment myself, I’ve always related to the Black Panther Party’s adamant mantra embodied in the headline of a September 7, 1968 article entitled “Black People: Keep Your Guns.” The article cited state and federal law on citizen gun ownership and gave recommendations on how to legally possess firearms and use them as protection. Yes, the National Rifle Association existed and, to my knowledge, does not discriminate membership based on race. But it did not market to or educate the black community in the sixties and seventies. That’s where The Black Panther came in.
In order to really appreciate the awesomeness of the breath and reach of The Black Panther newspaper, you need to step back more than fifty years. Back then, there was no Internet. There was only one mainstream newspaper in every major city. Television consisted of three channels, a far cry from the thousand or so channels and endless supply of fake news we are bombarded with today. These folks were real journalists. Yes, we had Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, and Walter Cronkite in those days, but no one in the mainstream that specifically spoke to the plight of the back individual. Of course there was the occasional human interest story buried at the end of a news hour. But nothing existed that gave credence to the life of the urban African-American citizen like The Black Panther.
In my opinion, no other news organization was able to mobilize pre-Internet like The Black Panther newspaper. Revolutionaries of every race all over America and worldwide heeded the words of Huey P. Newton and his team of journalists. Through this publication, a boycott of Safeway grocery stores was organized nationwide to help negotiate fair treatment of black employees. Just as the paper did with its founder, it used its platform to lobby for the fair trials and/or release of wrongfully-accused black men from prison. They even published editorials on presidential elections. In fact, their 1973 article on Alabama Governor George Wallace has been credited by some as one of the factors that kept him from clinching the Democratic nomination in 1976, which eventually went to Jimmy Carter.
From an economic standpoint, the Black Panther newspaper did something that no other publication had ever done to date, and since. The cost of an issue was twenty-five cents. Those funds were not collected in order to enrich the publishers or a select few. No. The money was collected for one single solitary purpose. Guess what it was? Most people have no idea about the Black Panthers’ community programs, in particular their children’s breakfast program. No kidding. The Black Panther Party was busy freeing wrongfully convicted black men, defending citizens from bad cops and, yes, feeding kids before school. The money they received went directly toward setting up breakfasts for kids in inner cities. As I mentioned earlier, most inner city parents worked multiple jobs. This meant that inner city children were often waking up and going to school unsupervised. The Black Panther Party created this breakfast program so children had a place to go in the mornings not only to eat a meal, but also to have fellowship with other like-minded individuals.
Have you ever heard of the FBI’s program called COINTELPRO? The name is derived from the words COunter INTELligence PROgram. The focus of the FBI at that time was to keep tabs on black voices and anti-war activists. In fact, the director of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, had headed the organization since its inception in 1924. In 1969, it was reported that Hoover actually stated that the breakfast program was a threat to national security because the BPP was “infiltrating the community.”
Believe what you want about the causes, no one can argue the effectiveness and relevance of The Black Panther newspaper, and how the media today often fall short of its standard.