Part political theatre, part revolutionaries, the Black Panthers were
the most iconic civil rights group of the 60s. In a remarkable new
book, photographer Howard Bingham recalls the six months he spent on
Panther patrol in 1968
25 October 2009
When Howard Bingham was commissioned by Life magazine in 1967 to
photograph the Black Panthers, he was, at 28, already a veteran
observer of what he calls "the 60s black radical scene". He'd met and
befriended Cassius Clay in 1962, and observed him metamorphose into
Muhammad Ali, a world champion heavyweight who had shocked mainstream
America by embracing the extreme politics of the separatist Black
As a photographer for the LA Sentinel, Bingham had also met Malcolm X
and Ron Karenga, a Black Power leader. Having travelled to Sweden
with Ali in August 1966, Bingham had missed one of the biggest
national news stories of the year, the Watts race riots in Los
Angeles in August which, over six days, had left 34 people dead.
Nevertheless, he had become Life's preferred photographer of urban unrest.
"I covered a mini-riot in Los Angeles in 1967 and, even though all
their star photographers were shooting that night, it was my
photographs they ended up using," says Bingham, laughing. "I'm an
easy-going guy but I have no fear. I wasn't worried about getting
hurt. After that, they put me on a riot retainer. Wherever riots
broke out that summer, Howard Bingham went."
But nothing he'd witnessed in those increasingly turbulent times
quite prepared him for his encounter with the Black Panthers. "Life
contacted the Panthers in 1967 after they'd made the national news,"
adds Bingham. Now an affable 69-year-old, he speaks slowly and
self-deprecatingly, the traces of a childhood stammer still
detectable in his measured words. "Their Minister of Information,
Eldridge Cleaver, was in jail, but still running things. He said they
could do the story, but only if I took the photographs. That was the
first surprise, as I had never even met him."
It turned out that Cleaver knew of Bingham, though, mainly through
seeing his photographic reportage for the LA Sentinel and hearing of
his role in the various community schemes instigated by Muhammad Ali.
"I also like to think I got the job," says Bingham, laughing,
"because I was a humble and good-looking guy."
The Black Panthers had been formed in Oakland, California, in October
1966 by 24-year-old Huey P Newton and 29-year-old Bobby Seale,
seasoned political activists who had met while attending Oakland City
College. Like Mississippi-born Bingham, both Newton and Seale had
Southern roots, one hailing from Louisiana, the other from Texas.
Both had been involved in the Civil Rights movement, though they had
gravitated to the militant Malcolm X rather than the peaceful Martin
In Oakland, amid the burgeoning radical counter-culture of the
mid-60s, they began recruiting local youths for their self-styled
Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a quasi-paramilitary
organisation whose initial aim was to defend the local community from
alleged harassment by the city's predominantly white police force.
The Panthers had drawn up a soon-to-be infamous Ten-Point Plan for
revolution which set out their demands, ranging from the practical
"Full employment for our people" to the extravagant "An immediate
end to all wars of aggression."
Until 2 May 1967, the Black Panthers were a local organisation, whose
political extremism, drawing on Marxist and Maoist ideology as well
as the writings of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, was typical of the
times and unsettled many older, more traditional black community
leaders. It was on that day, though, that the Panthers first showed
off their talent for carefully choreographed and provocative public
protest. With the local press and TV in tow, 30 Black Panthers,
including Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver, travelled from their
headquarters in Oakland to the State Capitol building in Sacramento
to protest against a bill being debated that would prohibit the
carrying of loaded firearms by anyone other than members of the
police, army and security guards.
A young black journalist from New York, Gilbert Moore, had been
commissioned by Life to write the story that would accompany
Bingham's images. In his illuminating foreword to Bingham's new book
of photographs, Black Panthers1968, Moore describes the events of that day.
"They came with .45-calibre pistols and 9mm Lugers. They showed up
with M1 rifles, America's favourite companion in three wars. They
came with .357 Magnums. (They say when a bullet from a Magnum hits
you, you feel like you've been struck by lightning.) They came with
12-gauge pump-action shotguns. They came with bandoliers strapped
across their chests… Six women and 24 men, all dressed in black, head
to toe black berets, black leather jackets, black pants, black
shoes, or black combat boots."
Though the Black Panthers were lined up against the bill alongside
extreme Republicans and the right-wing rank and file of the National
Rifle Association, the ironies of the event were overlooked in the
subsequent media furore that ensued one precipitated by the
Panthers' staged invasion of the State Capitol building, where the
Assembly was in session. "The proceedings came to a screeching halt,"
writes Moore, "as some of the Panthers took up 'combat' positions in
This was the moment part-theatre, part- violent revolutionary
threat when the Black Panthers went overground, when, as Moore puts
it, their reputation soared "from local notoriety to national and
In the uneasy months that followed, Bingham hung out with and
photographed the leading Black Panthers Cleaver and his stylish and
beautiful young wife, Kathleen; Huey Newton, whose controversial
trial for murder in 1968 would swell the ranks of the Black Panthers,
as well as Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, David
Hilliard and H Rap Brown. With Eldridge Cleaver's blessing, he gained
access to Panther meetings, lectures, rallies, protests and even
training drills, and caught on camera their increasingly violent
clashes with the police who the Panthers always referred to as "the
Pigs" as well as their courting of Left-leaning celebrities such as
Jane Fonda, Leonard Bernstein and Sidney Lumet. (Tom Wolfe would
later coin the term "radical chic" in a characteristically
devastating satire of Manhattan's pseudo-socialist socialites,
written for New York magazine in 1970.)
Bingham's photographs, many of them now shown for the first time,
capture the moment when the Black Panthers briefly became the most
notorious and the coolest revolutionary movement in 60s America.
He photographed Eldridge Cleaver as he lectured on college campuses
to vast crowds and did book signings for his chilling prison memoir,
Soul on Ice. "Eldridge was a hell of a speaker," he recalls. "He drew
queues that stretched for blocks and he'd get started up about the
white folks being devils and the white folks would cheer him on along
with the black folks."
Gilbert Moore attests that he was constantly on edge around the
Panthers. Did Bingham ever find them threatening? "No, man. I got
along with Eldridge. I got along with everybody. But I'm like that.
Gilbert, he was a little more nervous and maybe afraid and he had
some cause to be. They couldn't figure him out and he wasn't used to
the black radical scene."
For a time, Eldridge Cleaver was convinced that Moore was an
undercover cop or, worse still, an FBI plant. (The FBI regarded the
Panthers as "the greatest threat to national security in the country"
and would soon instigate a covert programme of surveillance and
infiltration that, by 1970, had wreaked havoc on Panther morale and
"A few days after we went up to Oakland to meet the Cleavers,"
recalls Bingham, "Eldridge pulled me aside and said, 'I know you,
man, but this motherfucker over there, I think he's a pig.' I had to
put him right about that," he says, laughing hard. "I told him
Gilbert was just a little nervous because he had never been around
brothers like them before. The thing is," he says, turning serious,
"that story changed Gilbert all around. He ended up writing a book
called A Special Rage after Life refused to run his story the way he
saw it. He really was a principled guy, and one hell of a writer."
Gilbert Moore resigned from Life when they rejected three different
rewrites of his feature on the Panthers. "I knew what they wanted,"
he writes, without bitterness, "but I was not prepared to cough it
up. The price, psychologically speaking, was too high."
Moore's introduction is the second best thing about Black Panthers
1968. Bingham's photographs, though, are unsurpassable, both as a
glimpse of recent black history in America at a moment when anything
even violent revolution seemed possible, and as great images in
their own right. Bingham captures the Black Panthers standing
sentinel outside Alameda County Courthouse, where Huey Newton's trial
was taking place, and in one unforgettable series of shots, snaps a
long line of them pretending to shoot at a passing motorcycle cop.
Their talent for political theatre and real threat is evident
throughout, but there are many images that show the human side of
their struggle, their camaraderie as well as the stress and
exhaustion of a life lived in confrontation with the white establishment.
The surprising star of the book is Kathleen Cleaver, who, with her
Afro, sunglasses, black poloneck and high leather boots, looks like
she might well have been styled for a radical-chic fashion shoot.
Just 22 when she married Eldridge Cleaver, she lectured and organised
alongside him, and later went on the run with him, fleeing America
when he was threatened with imprisonment for a parole violation. They
lived in Algeria, North Korea and France before returning to America in 1974.
In 1987, the couple divorced and Kathleen gained a law degree from
Yale. She is now a senior lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta.
Likewise Angela Davis, who was once jailed for owning the guns that
were used in a failed attempt to free her fellow Black Panther,
George Jackson. Davis, for so long the face of Black Power, is now a
tenured professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is
a prominent anti-war activist.
Many of the male Black Panthers did not fare so well. Bobby Hutton
was just 17 when he was killed in a shoot-out with Oakland police in
1968. The following year, John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were shot
during a violent argument with another black nationalist group,
Organisation Us, led by Ron Karenga. Fred Hampton died the same year
in a police raid on his apartment in Chicago. Both founder members of
the Black Panther Party have also since died. Huey P Newton was
killed in a drug deal in 1989 on the same Oakland streets where he
had first formed the party. Eldridge Cleaver, too, had struggled with
drug addiction before his death from natural causes in 1998. Bobby
Seale and David Hilliard both remain activists.
In 1989, the New Black Panther Party was formed in Dallas and, today,
it seems to have a strong Black Muslim membership. It has since been
defined as a "hate group" by the American Anti-Defamation League and
surviving members of the original Black Panthers have strongly
questioned its legitimacy.
It is difficult to quantify the Black Panthers' political legacy,
though, like Malcolm X, they insisted that black self-empowerment was
the key to self-determination. At the height of their popularity in
1969, they had instigated the famous Free Breakfast for School
Children Programme that was distributing free meals to 10,000 young
people. Thirty-five other community programmes were in place under
the collective slogan, Survival Pending Revolution.
"Those days are gone," says Howard Bingham, when I ask him what he
thinks is the Black Panthers' legacy. "Sometimes I wish it was like
that now, but it ain't. Then again, we have a black president now and
that would have been unimaginable back then. They helped changed
things for sure, but I always think the Panthers would have had a
bigger legacy if so many of them had not died and if they had had a
natural leader. Huey [Newton] got shot, though. He was involved in
too much other stuff that was not good for the organisation."
In the final paragraph of his essay for Howard Bingham's book,
Gilbert Moore hints at the real reason why the Black Panthers had to
exist: the anger that propelled their cause.
"The Panthers were lunatics and I was sane and I couldn't shake my
sanity… not until one night in Cape Cod… when I completely lost my
mind for 48 hours. I had a brief encounter with a Massachusetts state
trooper whom I called to his face, 'a dirty white racist
motherfucker'. I was thrown in jail for a night and became, in
spirit, if not in the flesh, a bona fide member of the Black Panther Party."
Black Panthers 1968 by Howard L Bingham is published by Ammo at
£29.95. To order a copy for £27.95 with free UK p&p go to
guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847