Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
The group’s Minister of Culture designed posters that were glued on the walls of decaying buildings in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods.
One day in 1969 while filming a mural across from the Black Panther Party’s Boston office in Roxbury, I was approached by three black youths. The mural depicted an egg cracking open and giving birth to a Black Panther—I thought they were coming to congratulate me for my interest in it.
Instead, a member of the group informed me that they were appropriating the movie camera “for the community.” When I refused to hand it to them I was punched and pushed to the ground. My first encounter with the Panthers only increased my interest in the ghettos in which they were active.
I was able to survey Black Panthers’ street graphics from the high point of the early 1970s, when they stood for black beauty, a respect for their African roots, anger at the police, self defense, and public service, all while exhibiting a unique style. They had moral authority as they risked their lives resisting arrest, taking over buildings, feeding children, and marching. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther Party opposed the Vietnam War. But unlike him, the Panthers advocated self defense and demanded reparations for centuries of slave labor.
To the Panthers, the police were “the pigs.” As their leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, and forced into exile, the Panthers’s visibility in the national media increased. In a nation distrustful of their political leaders, the young, articulate, and stylish Panthers became media celebrities. Emory Douglas, the Panthers’s Minister of Culture, designed posters that were glued on the walls of decaying buildings in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. His work seemed designed for survival, gaining power as they were ripped and defaced.
The appeal of these posters was enhanced by the decay that surrounded them and by the advertisements and other revolutionary images placed next to them. The Panthers’ imagery reached a peak during the riots of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Among the most memorable was a black and white poster on Manhatthan’s Lower East Side depicting Bobby Seale sitting on an electric chair placed over a beer add that said, “Beautiful.” Another poster of Seale showed him arms up breaking his chains—an image made even more haunting because of its placement next to a photograph of a ditch full of corpses from the Mi Lai Massacre.
In Chicago, the local leader Fred Hampton, assassinated in 1969 at the age of 21, outshines the national leaders. One mural on a crumbling brick wall along Hoyne Avenue, two blocks from where he was killed, depicts his face crying tears of blood.
After the end of the Vietnam War the Panthers’s imagery became part of murals depicting African American History in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit, among others. Angela Davis and H. Rap Brown appeared in these murals in the company of MLK, Malcolm X, and local politicians.
Then-party leader Huey Newton disbanded the party in 1982, but its legacy endures. The popularity of Black Panther murals has been influenced by historical developments such as the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the subsequent uprising. The owner of a hair salon located in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, believing that the painting of a Panthers mural would indicate that his business was black-owned, allowed artist Noni Olabisi to paint “To Protect and Serve” on the wall. After the King trial, Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr. (AKA “The Chairman”) was sent to prison for firebombing a Korean grocery store in Los Angeles. He was released in 2001 and has his own mural in Chicago near the site of his father's murder.
The discovery of interview tapes with Black Panthers leadership by a Swedish television journalist lead to The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a documentary aired in 2011. To advertise the documentary, posters made to resemble the “Free Angela” portrait that appeared on the cover of a 1971 issue of Black Panther Manifesto were put up around Harlem. I found one of the posters ripped, showing a fragment of her screaming face emerging from a dark blue background, the word “people” spelled out above her head.
The rediscovery of Douglas’s work has rekindled interest in Black Panther imagery. A LACMA exhibition in 2007 and a 2009 exhibition at the New Museum have lead to books and articles about Douglas’ work. The New Museum show inspired the painting of a mural featuring a boy yelling while selling copies of the Black Panther Party newspaper on East 122nd Street in Manhattan.
The early images with tears in their eyes and screaming mouths and their revolutionary texts seemed right against the backdrop of decay and abandonment. What I found uncanny, however, were playful details Douglas included in his works: the pink rifle being carried by a convict as he escapes from prison, the sparkle on H. Rap Brown sunglasses, and the two teeth on Angela Davis’ gaping mouth reminiscent of Alfred E. Newman.