Shedding new light on the (real) Black Panthers

By James Jeffrey
Austin, Texas

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Huey Newton (center), one of the founders of the Black Panther Party

Most people watching the new Black Panther movie know little about the radical political party with the same name as the film's hero, beyond its reputation for militancy. But the photos of Stephen Shames reveal a far more humane side.

Both the opening and final scenes of the Black Panther movie are set around an apartment block in Oakland, California.

It's an appropriate choice, acknowledging the birth place of the former radical political party with the same name as the Marvel Comics superhero currently packing out cinemas, and which similarly championed black rights.

Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, at its inception the Black Panther Party's primary role was to provide armed citizen patrols to monitor police behaviour and challenge police brutality in Oakland.

The movement grew in popularity while garnering a formidable reputation for being militant and the embodiment of Black Power.

In 1967, a group of Black Panthers carried loaded weapons into the California State Capitol building to protest against legislation to make their patrols illegal.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J Edgar Hoover called the party "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and supervised an extensive counter-intelligence programme against the group.

But another side to the Panthers was captured by photographer Stephen Shames, who through his friendship with Seale became the party's "unofficial official" photographer, Mr Shames says, gaining access to the likes of the its community outreach programmes and intimate moments among the movement's leadership.

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Huey Newton and Elaine Brown, who went on to become chairwoman of the party

Despite alarming many Americans with its credo of black liberation and armed self-defence, the Black Panther movement was about giving African Americans more power, but not through violence or intimidation, according to Mr Seale.

"It was about getting political seats to get political equity," Mr Seale said at a panel discussion to mark the opening of Shames's photo exhibition on the Panthers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas.

"We wanted more politicians who could represent black people. In 1965 there were only 52 blacks among the 500,000 public official jobs nationwide."

The movement encouraged African Americans to vote, Mr Seale explains, by demonstrating through its community programmes that they weren't forgotten or a lost cause.

The most successful and extensive of these programmes was Free Breakfast for Children, initially run out of an Oakland church before spreading nationally.

Other free services included clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defence and first aid, transportation to prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance programme, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and testing for sickle-cell disease.

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
The popular breakfast programme was identified by Hoover as a public relations disaster for the FBI

The movement also advocated its famous Ten-Point party platform of "What We Want Now!", which advocated for the likes of "an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community" and "decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings".

Black Panther Party members were involved in numerous fatal clashes with police, including Newton who went on trial for the killing of Officer John Frey in 1967. His conviction was eventually overturned by an appeals court.

Government oppression initially contributed to the party's growth, with killings and arrests of Panthers increasing its support among African Americans and those on the broad political left, both of whom valued the Panthers opposition to de facto segregation and the military draft.

Black Panther Party membership reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members.

But as the 70s progressed, the movement was increasingly riven by infighting, government infiltration and controversy.

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
A Black Panther Party office window in Oakland shattered by bullets

In 1974, Huey Newton went into exile in Cuba to avoid charges of killing a 17-year-old prostitute (his eventual trial ended in a hung jury).

Public support waned as mainstream media becoming increasingly hostile toward the party. By 1982 the party disbanded.

Today the party's legacy remains controversial. Some argue it was the most influential black movement organisation of the late 1960s. Others decry it as having more criminal than political substance.

"The movement represented marginalised people looking for alternative systems, and the whole time the state was arranged against and infiltrating them," says Kevin Foster, a professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin.

"That quest for autonomy and building up institutions is still an important part of the black experience in America today."

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with a black director and majority-black cast, the Black Panther movie has been heralded as a long overdue wake-up call about more nuanced and better representation of African Americans in the mainstream.

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Bobby Seale in full flow

The film has also been noted for having a much stronger sociological undercurrent than the average superhero movie, touching on themes such as the plight of African Americans, the relationship between Africans and African Americans, foreign developmental aid and female empowerment - none of which has stopped audiences from coming.

Black Panther is set to be one of the post popular and profitable superhero movies of all time in America.

Meanwhile, the film and its themes have ignited reams of commentary including, as with the activism of Black Lives Matter proponents, the expansive use of social media to focus the public's attention on the continued unequal treatment of African Americans and police violence against them.

But former members of the Black Panther Party note that when it comes to instigating tangible change within communities, and rectifying problems that continue to especially afflict African Americans, activists must not neglect the old-fashioned methods.

"What I tell people is that social media is fine, but you've got to get out to people, talk to them, have eye contact," says John Crear, known as Bunchy when he was a Black Panther member.

"You've got to hit the streets."

Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Bobby Seale, in front passenger seat, with other Black Panthers
Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Newton and Seale talk in Newton's apartment in 1971
Image source, Stephen Shames Photographic Archive
Image caption,
Angela Davis speaks at a rally in Oakland in 1970