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All power to the image: Huey, the peacock throne and the enduring visual legacy of the Black Panther Party

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APRIL 15, 2018

In the weeks after Marvel’s “Black Panther” exploded into box offices across the United States, essays drawing the inevitable connection between the movie and movement of the same name started to appear online.

In GQ and Time, parallel histories of the Black Panther comics and the Black Panther Party, or BPP, were compared: how, for example, the comics were written by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee just months before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded their organization in the backroom of a welfare office in Oakland, or how Marvel briefly rechristened T’Challa as “The Black Leopard” to avoid association as the party became fractured by infighting in the 1970s.

The New Yorker argued director Ryan Coogler’s choice to set the childhood of his villain Erik Killmonger in Oakland rather than Harlem, where the Killmonger of the canon is raised, introduces “a slip of reality” to the film by basing “the origin of the film’s power struggle” in the birthplace of the Black Panthers.

In Esquire, the author pointed out how the movie, through Killmonger, “evokes the revolutionary politics of … the Black Panther Party” before frustratingly asking “How could I root against Killmonger?”

As explained by the Atlantic, Killmonger “seeks more than aid or revolution — he seeks hegemony … (echoing) the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in its later years, as radicalized chapters sought a direct armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government — a plan that most of the Party’s established leadership saw as folly.”

Meanwhile GQ’s photos of Michael B. Jordan includes one where he sits coolly and commandingly in his chair, fitted in a beret, sunglasses and a leather jacket, evoking both the look and the poise of a Panther in the 60s.

It is, however, the most popular image of “Black Panther” which sparked heavy discussion about the film’s connection to the Black Panther Party: an image of T’Challa sitting on his throne, clad in his Panther suit, staring intently at the viewer. For many, this image bore an unmistakable resemblance to a photo taken of Newton: the wicker chair portrait, the most reproduced photo of any Black Panther that served, in the eyes of the media and Panthers around the nation, as the leading image of the party itself.

The wicker chair photo was first shot in May 1967, in an apartment connected to Eldridge Cleaver who, along with party co-founders Newton and Seale, formed the leadership of the BPP at the time. Only days earlier, the party had seized national attention when Seale led a troop of 24 men and six women to Sacramento, where members of the California legislature were preparing to outlaw the open carry of loaded weapons.

In the BPP’s eyes, the legislature’s actions were a direct response to the structured patrols that were being carried out by the BPP, during which organized Black men and women carrying guns, cameras and law books would follow and observe police activity in Black communities.

On that day, reporters and film crews assembled on the capitol steps captured the image of armed Black men and women striding confidently past a stunned Gov. Ronald Reagan and into the halls of the California legislature, where Seale read out a statement expressing the BPP’s opposition to the bill to the assembled delegates.

With the heightened media scrutiny, Cleaver felt it crucial that a publicity photograph of Newton be created, one that would take advantage of the moment and raise national awareness of the BPP. Keenly aware of the power of image and personality, Cleaver placed Newton in an elaborate wicker chair, with a zebra rug underneath, and leaned two African shields against the chair.

Newton himself was clad in the Black Panther uniform of a beret and a leather jacket, and he held in his right hand a spear and in his left hand a rifle. His face partially hidden in shadow and staring intensely into the camera — paralleled by the throne portrait of Chadwick Boseman more than 50 years later — Newton seemed to evoke all the poise and power of a revolutionary imperator.

The image blew up across the nation.

Writing in her book “Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare,” Leigh Raiford — an associate professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley — described the image’s expansive reach: It appeared in the windows of future Black Panther offices from Harlem to Algiers; it was carried in the pages of the New York Times and Esquire, hung on the dorm room walls of college students and held aloft by protesters at freedom rallies.

Each of these constituencies, Raiford writes, “infused the image of Newton with their own meanings, political or otherwise.” Interestingly, Newton seemed to dislike the image; according to Kathleen Cleaver, the BPP’s communications secretary, Newton often complained that the picture misrepresented both the party and himself. Later, in his memoirs, Bobby Seale emphasized that the importance of the image lay not in the spear or the rifle, but rather the shields next to Newton’s chair, writing: “This is what Huey P. Newton symbolized with the Black Panther Party — he represented a shield for black people against all the imperialism, the decadence, the aggression, and the racism in this country.”

Meanwhile, members of the mainstream press, quickly became invested in their own image of the Black Panther — one that, Raiford explains, relied upon the spectacle of “Panther iconography.”

The Newsweek cover of February 23, 1970 was one such example, featuring three Black Panther members in the by then familiar uniform of the leather jacket, the sunglasses, and beret, mugging in front of a poster of the then-incarcerated Seale. According to Stephen Shames — one of the creators of the cover photo — Newsweek had turned down the BPP’s original submission of members in sports jackets and ties, an attempt at establishing a more professional image in the face of amplified political prosecution.

The editors had objected to these “unrecognizable” Panthers and issued an ultimatum to the party: “If you don’t wear the leather jackets, you won’t be on the cover.” The party complied.

In the aftermath of the portrait’s release, as media coverage increased, so did police scrutiny of the Panther leadership. In October 1967, just a month after the wicker chair portrait was taken, Newton and another Panther were stopped by two policemen in an early morning encounter. Chaos ensued, and when additional police arrived on the scene, they discovered one of their officers dead and the other seriously wounded.

Newton was later found at the local Kaiser’s supermarket, blacked out from shock after being shot in the stomach, and was summarily charged with assault and murder. Though later eyewitness testimonies disagree on exactly what happened  — a bus driver who claimed to have seen Newton shoot both of the officers should have been more than a mile away according to his bus schedule, and one of the officers changed his testimony in the second retrial that he had seen a third Panther in the street  — the effect was unchanged: Newton, the head of the BPP, was now behind bars.

On Nov. 26, 1968, Eldridge Cleaver elected to miss his grand jury hearing and departed the country via Canada. He made his way to Cuba and eventually settled in Algeria, where he and his wife Kathleen Cleaver would work to strengthen the BPP’s international reach.

For the party back home, he came to represent the judicial system’s failings and discriminatory practices. “Cleaver is in political exile because a man of his convictions cannot get justice here,” a treatise by the International Committee to Defend Eldridge Cleaver declared in the April 6, 1969 issue of The Black Panther. A list of signatories, ordered by profession, accompanied the missive. The very last name was Newton, listed under the heading “POLITICAL PRISONER.”

Cleaver would remain abroad for seven more years. During that time, the FBI — under director J. Edgar Hoover, who had earlier that year declared the Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” — concentrated its efforts on dismantling the organization through surveillance, espionage, localized attacks and police raids. Their reasoning was that with one of its leaders in prison and the other in exile, the group would be more vulnerable to collapse.

Missions launched under Hoover’s 1960s counterintelligence program COINTELPRO, many of which were illegal in nature, entailed sabotaging the Party’s overall messages as well as Party members’ personal lives.

Members frequently had their mail stolen or false letters sent in their name to induce familial, martial or organizational chaos. FBI-authored cartoons and news releases masquerading as official BPP materials would be sent to regional offices and other similar organizations to provoke civil divide. Here, the narrative of imagery which had propelled the party to success was co-opted to divide and alienate them from members of the Black community.

Capitalizing on the BPP’s rocky past with another Black activist group, the US organization (based on  “us and them,” “United States” and “United Slaves”), a cartoon produced and distributed by the Los Angeles FBI bureau depicted a serpent, labeled “US” coiled around birds bearing the names of BPP leaders. Another cartoon, masquerading as US materials, showed the Panthers taking money from a horde of pig-faced policemen while pointing them toward the US offices. Tensions between the groups heightened as each accused the other of slander.

“It (became) harder for people to offer critiques without being misunderstood as going against the larger mission.”

— Ula Taylor

To further sow discord, the bureau exhorted party members to become informants: Earl Anthony, a young law student involved with the San Francisco branch of the Panthers, saw two agents knock on his door in 1967. If he did not cooperate, Anthony was told, he would be charged for past political engagements and implicated with a murder he did not commit. Anthony initially refused, and he was beaten until he was unconscious. He agreed to join the FBI, and he played the role of informant and actor in efforts to divide the party until he was discovered and expelled in 1969.

Aside from clandestine operations, many overt raids were carried out on BPP offices, which were seen as centers for violent insurrection. Headquarters in Des Moines, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans experienced heavy raids — in one instance, police were even armed with submachine guns.

Though many members were tear-gassed, handcuffed and even killed during these events, those who were arrested were also released without charges, convincing party members that the raids were nothing more than abusive harassment ungrounded in any semblance of justice.

Paranoia within the organization slowly abounded. “It (became) harder for people to offer critiques without being misunderstood as going against the larger mission,” said professor Ula Taylor, department chair of African American studies at UC Berkeley. “The Counterintelligence Project fanned the flames for mistrust between the members and the leaders.”

When the Panthers inevitably collapsed — crumbling under the weight of internal chaos and FBI battery — the media and the public at large rejoiced in the downfall of what they saw as a spat of domestic terrorism. “During that time period, it was very difficult for people to separate violence from power,” Taylor explained. “And so for an organization to call themselves the Black Panther Party for Self Defence, to have its members call for Black power, it was difficult for (the public) to disengage that from the idea of violence.”

The photos and video reels that had been broadcast on television screens every night, filled with images of young Black individuals with guns and berets, had fueled the impression of an armed insurgent force primed for takeover that resonates within the lingering mythology of the BPP.

Prior to its collapse, the BPP had consistently called for an end to police brutality and the creation of police forces which lived amongst and recognized the struggles of minority communities. “It would be useless for us to attempt any description of the psychotic hatred for all law enforcement officers that exists in the Panther organization,” wrote the U.S. House Un-American Activities Subcommittee in 1970.

“Everyone was talking about the image — what it looks like when Black people are in control, in power, (and) can just live their lives.”

— Ula Taylor

That taboo still holds today. In the fall of 2017, an incensed letter sent to President Donald Trump by the National Fraternal Order of Police contested a $98,000 grant awarded to UC Berkeley by the National Park Service to study and document the legacy of the BPP. The grant, whose initial purpose was noted as “(memorializing) a history that brought meaning to lives far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area,” was pulled without further justification.

Yet in the realm of the arts, images of beauty, strength and power resurface and becomes adopted, accepted within modern consciousness: The vision of a somber Black leader on their throne, be it T’Challa, Newton or Barack Obama in official presidential portrait, evokes a reclaiming of a history that has been overwritten, overlooked and misconstrued.

When a BPP-themed exhibit entitled “All Power to the People” and featuring a gallery of archival images opened in Oakland, the showing was welcomed and embraced by the community. “Former Panthers came with their families as well as folks who were allies,” wrote curator René de Guzman in an email. “(So did) young people of high school and college age, which told me the show was touching something vital. … Families came.”

Expounding on the success of the BPP’s newspaper cartoons, Taylor similarly emphasizes the power of seeing. “Everyone was talking about the image — what it looks like when Black people are in control, in power, (and) can just live their lives.” She speaks of a technique, but also of the timelessness of its narrative that never fails to provoke and that continues to voice its power.

Contact the Weekender at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dcweekender.

APRIL 15, 2018