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SUSAN C. INGRAM
Based on Shames' book 'The Black Panthers,' marking 40th anniversary
Media attention last week focused on the 40th anniversary of the
assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the urban rebellions
that followed it.
Another anniversary associated with the tumult of the late 1960s
managed to slip by but with less fanfare. It could be recalled in a
recent photography exhibit at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The exhibit, "The Black Panthers: Making Sense of History," was based
on Stephen Shames' 2006 book "The Black Panthers," marking the
party's 40th anniversary.
The exhibit focused on a six-year period of the party, 1967-1973,
through about 100 black-and-white images taken by Shames.
In the book's foreword, party founder Bobby Seale addresses his sense
of urgency to organize as blacks took to the streets during the era's
civil rights and anti-war protests expressing their discontent with
the government and racism.
Seale writes that he and party co-founder Huey P. Newton were
inspired by a number of people and events of the time, including
King, Frantz Fanon's book "The Wretched of the Earth" about black
liberation, Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement, and Malcolm X.
Seale recalls marching in an anti-war demonstration with Newton when
Hell's Angels motorcyclists attacked marchers.
"Throughout the American South peaceful demonstrators were viciously
attacked and murdered, and people were brutalized simply because they
wanted to register to vote," Seale writes. "I came to understand that
America's power structure and its racism were fundamentally about
bullying and terrorizing those with the audacity to oppose
Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he and Newton
decided to found a new organization.
And so, the two who met while attending Merritt College in Oakland,
Calif., drafted the "Ten Point Platform and Program: What We Want,
What We Believe," in October 1966.
The platform included demands for self-determination, full
employment, reparations, decent housing, education, black exemption
from military service, ending police brutality, freeing unfairly
incarcerated blacks, fair and impartial trials, and a United
Nations-supervised vote for blacks to determine "the will of black
people as to their national destiny."
The document borrowed from the missions of other civil rights organizations.
"But what really distinguished the Black Panther Party was an
emphasis on our right to defend ourselves from any vicious racist
attack," Seale writes.
The plank demanding an end to police brutality cited the U.S.
Constitution's right to bear arms: "We therefore believe that all
black people should arm themselves for self-defense."
Although the Black Panther Party message was one of civil and human
rights, and the party worked with white, Latino, American Indian and
Asian civil rights groups, their stance on self-defense prompted the
federal government, FBI and local police departments to focus on
discrediting the party.
"Over the years the media continually distorted facts, saying we had
instigated shootouts with the police, when in fact, as we know now
from Freedom of Information Act documents, the FBI worked with police
departments to plan attacks of Black Panther Party offices," Seale writes.
Photographer Shames tried to get this volume of photographs published
36 years ago, but said his publishing deal was quashed by the Nixon
He notes that issues addressed in the party's platform still demand
attention, including employment, housing, education, fair trials,
police brutality and economic justice.
The party's community service is often overlooked, such as their free
breakfast for children program, clothing drives and medical clinics
that served the poor.
"They gave purpose to the aimless, angry youth loitering on street
corners, molding young people into disciplined hard workers who
served their community," Seale writes. "Their black pride was based
not on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community that it
needed to control its own destiny."
The striking photos in the 150-page book recall a time when blacks
coalesced powerfully behind a common cause for change.
The book provides a magnifying glass for anyone seeking a greater
understanding of the times and its people.
For more information on the traveling exhibit or book, go to aperture.org.