The Black Panther Party shook the US with its revolutionary demands in the late 1960s. Emory Douglas was the party’s “Minister of Culture”, responsible for the design
of their newspaper and producing most of their striking graphic images.
He looks back with pride on his time in the Black Panthers. “We did so many things,” he says. “There was confronting the state government in Sacramento.
“Then there was serving the needs of the community with the breakfast programme for poor black kids. Also we gave away 10,000 bags of food. We were concretely articulating what politicians should be doing.
“In the end it was just being able to stand up against oppression.”
In 1967 Emory was studying art at San Francisco City College. He explains, “The radical poet Leroy Jones was at San Francisco State University doing plays at that point. I started going up there to do props and stuff.
“Someone in the BSU (Black Student Union) asked me to come to a meeting with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. They had invited Huey Newton and Bobby Seale down to do security. After I saw them I knew I wanted to get involved.”
The two had recently set up the Black Panthers and Emory was an early recruit.
“I used to get the bus over to Bobby’s place early in the morning. I began to go out on patrol and that was my initiation.”
Going “on patrol” was no small thing – it often entailed armed confrontation with the police. Emory says, “When I started I had to observe cadres who had been trained in the use of weapons. I just stayed in the car as they approached the police.”
He adds, “This was long before any internet, but soon everybody knew what we were doing.”
When the state government moved to change the law to make carrying arms illegal, the Panthers marched on the state capital, Sacramento to protest. This made the organisation nationally famous.
The party was already involved in other activities as well. Emory remembers, “They had an advisory committee of folks they knew. One of them was the well-known dancer Ruth Beckford.
“She suggested the kids breakfast programme. We started running it out of her pastor’s church in West Oakland. Father O’Neil was the minister, a revolutionary theologist.”
The Panthers initiated a range of social programmes.
The party decided it needed a newspaper to put its ideas across. The writer Eldridge Cleaver, famous for his prison book Soul on Ice, was made editor.
Emory was brought in because he was an artist. He says, “Huey Newton said most of the community wasn’t a reading community that would study long articles, but they would look at a picture and read the caption and get the gist of what was going on.
“So the whole concept was to try to do pictures with a lot of captions. The first couple of papers it was mainly Eldridge writing. Also we’d transcribe things that Huey had said.”
As the party became better known more people contributed.
By 1970 the circulation of their weekly newspaper was well over 100,000. “We solicited articles and encouraged chapters and branches to send stuff in. And then there were people in the movement who would give us stuff too.”
Selling the paper also started out small. Emory laughs, “At the start I was the only person who used to sell it in San Francisco! Bobby, Huey and Little Bobby Hutton would sell it in Oakland.
“Eventually chapters and branches developed and everybody started to sell it. We set up our own distribution and used to mail it out all over the country.
“Before long we were selling papers everywhere. We even had subscribers in Europe and Africa.”
He reflects on the situation today from his perspective as a leading activist in the 1960s. “Much has changed, much has stayed the same,” he says. “Of course there’s personal achievement on Barack Obama’s part and it does do something for race relations to a degree.
“Yet at the same time you’ve still got the bigotry and hypocrisy. That was what you saw with Hurricane Katrina. People are very much aware of that.
“Obama is tied into the system. His campaign raises $40 million a week. That’s not coming from common folk. It comes from lobbyists and those people.
“At the same time there is a symbolism for people, particularly elderly black people.
“They look back to a time when they could be murdered for going to vote. They still remember that and that’s why they have voted decade after decade. They see this as a new hope.
“But if he does get elected people are going to see that things don’t change just because you get a black president. He needs a grassroots movement to hold him to his promises.”
Emory thinks it is vital to keep the radical history of the 1960s alive. “I visit art schools and universities,” he says.
“The young people want to do political and social commentary. They’re trying to find their own way to go about it. When they see work from that period they become inspired.”