On the 40th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, photographer Stephen Shames finally published his monograph, The Black Panthers. The book, which had originally been set for publication in the early 1970s, had been driven off the presses by none other than then-Vice President Spiro Agnew.
But government intimidation was nothing new. Named “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States,” by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense stood at the vanguard of the most powerful movement for social change in America before being systemically destroyed by the United States government.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) used existing laws to challenge the power structure that subjugated an entire race of people in a country that decried freedom and equality as one of its basic tenets. Co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966 in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, following the uprising in Watts, and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers were armed with a revolutionary agenda while availing themselves of the Second Amendment to ensure their own protection.
Employing their Ten Point Program, which called for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, and Peace,” as well as freedom, full employment, free healthy care, and an end to oppression, police brutality, all wars of aggression, hate crimes, and false imprisonment, the BPP organized community-based service programs including free breakfasts for school children, free busing for senior citizens, preventative medical health care, co-operative housing, people’s free-food programs, and mass voter registration drives in forty-eight states. The BPP organized to put members on the ballot during local elections around the nation, notably Eldridge Cleaver’s run for president in 1968 and Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland in 1974.
Widespread support for the BPP was first evidenced by the fist salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics by two medalists during the playing of the American national anthem (the athletes were later banned for life by the Olympic Committee). By 1969, the BPP was the primary target of COINTELPRO, who employed a campaign of disinformation, infiltration, and assassination. Much of what is known about the government’s activities at that time has come to light through the Freedom of Information Act. It is with these revelations that we may better understand the lengths to which the government went to destroy a revolutionary movement seeking to better the living and working conditions for the people of the United States.
During the height of the movement, from 1967 to 1972, photographer Stephen Shames had unprecedented access to the organization and captured not only its public face—street demonstrations, protests, and militant armed posturing—but also unscripted behind-the-scenes moments, from private Party meetings held in its headquarters to Bobby Seale at work on his mayoral campaign in Oakland. Shames’ prolific output has produced the largest archive of Panther images in the world. His remarkable insider status enabled him to create an uncommonly nuanced portrait of this dynamic social movement, during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history.
Stephen Shames has graciously agreed to speak about his time with the BPP and share his photographs, which are collected in The Black Panthers, which also features an essay by Bobby Seale. Not to be missed.
How did you get involved with the Black Panther Party?
Stephen Shames: I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. I went on the first San Francisco Peace March (against the War in Vietnam) in April, 1967. I saw Huey and Bobby selling Red Books. I shot off a single frame (which accompanies Bobby’s essay in the Panther book).
There was something about them that attracted me. They exuded charisma and positive power. I was a revolutionary back then and saw them as the leaders of the movement. I wanted to work with them. I do not remember when I talked to Bobby or where – probably at their office. But I went and talked to Bobby Seale. We hit it off. He became a father figure to me. I think he thought I had talent as a photographer so he worked with me. The Panther were very media conscious and knew the value of photos.
I started taking photographs of the Panthers. I was a photographer for the Berkeley Barb and other underground papers. I also worked for the AP, Newsweek, and the New York Times as a stringer. I was one of the artists of the movement. I was very active and I became the Panthers photographer. I had a chance to photograph the public events but also had incredible access to the behind the scenes moments.
Bobby taught me a lot. He taught me how to organize. He taught me “black”. He taught me how to use media. The Panthers were very good at conveying their message.
From the outside Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale look like the perfect team: charisma and wisdom, fearlessness and forcefulness. Please talk about these two leaders, and how they effectively catapulted a platform of empowerment across the country.
SS: Bobby and Huey worked as a team. They started the Panthers together and wrote the 10 Point Platform together.
Huey was more introverted. He was the intellectual. He liked to think about abstract concepts, the ideology of the Panthers. He was more the professor.
Bobby was more practical. He was of the people. He loved people, mixing with them. Bobby was outgoing, a born organizer. Bobby could talk. His speeches were electrifying. I put him up there with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He could move a crowd.
Bobby built the Panther organization since Huey was in jail. He started the food programs and the other programs. But he consulted with Huey. They were a team.
The Panthers captivated young black men and women with their fearlessness. They patrolled the streets with a law book and a gun, monitoring the police. That was not done in those days.
They were the only organization that talked about self-defense. They wanted power for black people. The Panthers used their fearlessness and actions to galvanize people—to make them see they could stand up for justice.
They monitored the police but they stayed within the law. It was legal to carry guns in those days. The California Legislature made that illegal (with no opposition from the NRA or talk about the 2nd Amendment) because of the Panthers.
But they were a political movement. They were interested in gaining power for black people. They did not loose site of that. So, it was not about the media posture and the public acts. That is where the community programs came in. Huey and Bobby knew that you had to provide services for people to organize them. You had to do things for them—not just talk. They ran the free breakfast program so kids could eat and therefore concentrate on their studies, before the US government gave breakfast at school. Their motto was “Serve the People, Body and Soul.”
How did the BPP use your photographs to communicate their political and social ideals?
SS: First of all, the Panthers portrayed their image of strength through photographs. They were sharp in their black leather jackets and berets. They were strong and organized. Photography showed these traits. Bobby and the other leaders felt my photographs captured the essence of their message. They were willing to let me do my honest photojournalism and realized that the images would speak for themselves. They never tried to tell me how to do the photos or tried to censor images. They had faith that the truth of the photos would push their agenda. And it did.
What was their response to you as both a white man and as a photographer?
SS: That was never an issue. The Panthers wanted to end racism. They believed in the words of Martin Luther King, in “judging a person by content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” They saw me as a comrade, a person who wanted to end injustice like they did.
Please talk about how the government ordered the shutdown of the original book you had planned to publish back in the 70s.
SS: I had a signed contract to do a book on the Panthers. Huey Newton was going to write the text. I drove from California to New York with my wife, photographing along the way.
When I got to New York to sign the contract, the publisher started making ridiculous requests—impossible things. I agreed to a few of them and then they came up with other things. We talked back and forth for a whole day. I took the editor aside and asked him what was happening.
He told me that the Nixon Administration found out that a New York publisher was going to do a Panther book. Spiro Agnew, the Vice President golfed with the chairman of the publishing house. Agnew told him that Nixon did not want the book to come out. In fact, the publishing house had fired him. He was only here until I left. They did not want me to know the real reason they were not doing the book.
He told me that they would never sign the contract, that their tactic was to make stupid requests hoping I would balk. That the book was never going to be published by them. I had two choices, take them to court for the money since I had a letter of intent, but I would never get the book; or to try other publishers.
I chose to try other publishers, but Nixon had gotten to them all, scared them all. It took another 35 years for the book to come out. In the meantime, Nixon was impeached and Agnew sent to prison. So there was some poetic justice.