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The Black Panthers
Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution
By Bryan Shih
Introduction by Peniel E. Joseph
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“A brilliantly conceived volume. Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams demonstrate why the Panthers’ story-its lessons and failures-even fifty years after its founding remains key to understanding national and international struggles for freedom and justice today.” — Cheryl Finley, professor and director of visual studies, Cornell University
Even fifty years after it was founded, the Black Panther Party remains one of the most misunderstood political organizations of the twentieth century. But beyond the labels of “extremist” and “violent” that have marked the party, and beyond charismatic leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, were the ordinary men and women who made up the Panther rank and file.
In The Black Panthers, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams offer a reappraisal of the party’s history and legacy. Through stunning portraits and interviews with surviving Panthers, as well as illuminating essays by leading scholars, The Black Panthers reveals party members’ grit and battle scars-and the undying love for the people that kept them going.
IN DEFENSE OF SELF-DEFENSE
PATHWAYS TO THE BPP
PEOPLE JOINED THE BPP FOR MANY DIFFERENT REASONS. THE MOMENT of politicization was different for everybody, but a few were commonly shared, including the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 1965 Watts urban rebellion. A more general sense of frustration and alienation compelled others to join the Panthers’ ranks. The party exerted enormous pull on the imaginations of the members, especially those who experienced police brutality. In the rebellious spirit of the times, the party’s bold stance on self-defense resonated with those seeking fresh alternatives for achieving social justice and Black Liberation. Party members expressed a deep appreciation for other aspects of the Panthers’ program, including its community service programs, which grew out of a genuine love for the people.
Claudia Chesson-Williams (b. April 23, 1951) was a member of the Corona, Queens, Branch of the Black Panther Party. She later worked in the Information Technology Department of Columbia University for twenty-three years, and then for Greenhope Services for Women, an alternative-to-incarceration program. She is part of the Black Panther Commemoration Committee New York, which hosts an annual film festival to raise money for political prisoners.
MY NEIGHBORHOOD FRIEND, A SISTER THAT I’VE KNOWN SINCE I WAS about eleven years old, said, “Claudia, I want you to go with me. We’re going to go and hear these Panthers speak at PS 92,” which was an elementary school in our community. I said, “Okay, I’ll go. I’m down.”
I listened to these brothers speak, and I heard the pitch. I saw the determination, and I saw the compassion. I thought, “Wow, this is the feeling that I used to get when I went into clubs and popped my fingers and got on the dance floor.” It was the same feeling, except it was bigger than me now. It was bigger than I. It was full of love of the people.
No longer did we have to argue and fight about, “What are you looking at me like that for?” and “Don’t step on my sneaker,” and “This is my block.” Now, we really had something to fight for. We had a people to fight for. That was bigger than any gang or any club. We had a goal. We had something to look forward to, which was the betterment of black people.
It was most definitely something that I was searching for, but I didn’t yet know that I was searching. I didn’t find it. It fell on me. That was the first meeting. That’s what actually started the wheels of my mind for me to become political.
I was rank and file. I did a lot of things. The easiest way to say it is just to imagine worker bees. You’ve got one queen; everybody else works. Rank and file—those were the worker bees. We did it all. The one thing I enjoyed the most was teaching the political education (PE) classes on Seventh Avenue in front of the Harlem office. That was the most fruitful, but anything I did, it was for the love of the people. Wherever I was, wherever I was sent, or whatever I had to do, it didn’t matter anymore because it was for the love of the people. We were trying to get the word out. If I had to sell 125 papers in a day, and I got close to that goal, then I did a good job.
I was originally from Queens and came out of the Corona Branch of the Black Panther Party. When the Panther Twenty-One were arrested and went to jail,aa in order to keep those offices open and functioning, Panthers were sent from all over the city to Harlem. I was one of the Panthers that ended up in the Harlem Branch. That’s how I got to be there on Wednesday nights to give the PE classes. I was extremely nervous the first time, but once I found my voice, then it went like clockwork. A lot of the people in the community who were just walking by were like, “Well, let me stop and see what this little girl is talking about,” because I was indeed a little girl at that time.
We started off every PE class with the Ten-Point Program, and we ended every PE class with, “Okay, let me hear from you guys. What do you want to see different in your community? How are you living?” Then we would get the feedback, and then we would know how to concentrate our efforts. Rent strikes were crazy because if you had to live like that, why should you pay rent? We did clothing drives. We did food drives. We did, of course, the breakfast program.
There were a lot of other things that happened, and they might have been more meaningful, but those PE classes stayed with me. We were outside on the street in front of the office. When you were giving a class or you were having a talk inside the office, and there were only Panthers around you, the feeling was just different than outside on the street. The Panthers knew what you were doing because they were Panthers and they were doing the same thing. Outside, there were constant questions and answers with the people. You had to give yourself up when you were outside in that crowd. You never knew who was going to say, “We don’t care about that, and we don’t care about you. You need to go away.” There were a lot of people that just did not know where we were coming from and were afraid that if they were seen at the office or they were seen asking questions that they’d get the reprisals; that they would end up getting hurt. They were afraid.
Things went so fast. Time seems to accelerate when you’re always looking over your shoulder. At this time, it was all-out war against the Panthers, and brothers were being shot down in the street or set up or going to jail for years. We have brothers in jail since that time, forty, forty-one years. We’ve had brothers that we’ve lost on the inside that we can’t let the world forget. The government said, “Okay, we’re going to lock them up and throw away the key and nobody will ever care.” That’s not true. We want them out. We want freedom for all political prisoners. We don’t want any more of them to die on the inside. That’s the biggest injustice.
There were times that our cadre consisted of almost nothing but women, and that was when the brothers were locked up or had to go underground. I remember being on a front line against a policeman on horseback and being six months pregnant. What we wanted was a simple streetlight, and we got the community out there, and we blocked traffic. I didn’t know whether I was going to be trampled and my baby killed, but I knew that I had to be there. I was an active member of the party from 1968 to 1971, and in those few years, I aged ten, fifteen years. We didn’t have much time to be little girls. We went straight to womanhood.
Talking about these things is bringing up all of these feelings, things that I haven’t thought about or touched on for a long time. It seems that as you get older, and you look back on the things that you’ve done in your life, you say, “Oh my God, I could have gotten killed then.” When you’re young, fear is really not in your vocabulary, and once you look back, you wonder, “Why wasn’t I afraid?” We didn’t have time to be afraid. It was all about survival. That’s pretty much what it was. You worked hard, and you grew up fast.
Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr. (b. February 12, 1945) grew up in Queens, New York, where he joined the Corona Branch of the party. He held several leadership positions, especially following the arrest of the Panther Twenty-One. He retired from the New York City Board of Education. He is part of the Black Panther Commemoration Committee New York, which hosts an annual film festival to raise money for political prisoners.
EVERYBODY HAD STOPPED “JITTERBUGGING” (FIGHTING)—THERE were no more gangs. The people that I knew who were in gangs, the majority of them were at this cultural center, the Malcolm X Cultural Center. And I said, “Oh!” I came in, and some of my old friends were there. I met Mr. Bill Brownville,bb and I asked, “Can I become part of this?” With the expanding knowledge of myself that I got through books such as From “Superman” to Man by J. A. Rogers, I figured this culture center would help me to learn even more about myself.
I was more into the progressiveness of the Malcolm X Cultural Center. We were doing things in the community, which I liked to do. Now, in 1968 the Black Panther Party had started. I heard about them. We all heard about them. They were already in New York, and the Jamaica Branch of the Panther Party in Queens was functioning. The brothers and sisters from there came to our office in Corona, Queens, and we sat down and met. They asked, “Would you guys like to become part of the Black Panther Party?”
I was attracted to the Black Panther Party. I was a reader and had read a lot about what they were doing in California. I embraced that military look. They had their little guns, and they were stepping to the man. And to me, I enjoy stepping to the man. I never had a fear of the police at all.
But let me go back. There was a piece in my life that really hurt me at one point, and to this day I always think about that because I never could understand it. It was back when they blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama and killed those four little girls. I never knew that people could be so vicious and so deranged and so racist that you could blow up a church. Now mind you that in the Corona, Queens–East Elmhurst area we come from, a lot of our families were very churchgoing people. So even if I was a little, bad knucklehead, I still had that church thing. I went to Sunday school. I believed in the church. So when this happened I said, “White people don’t have any respect for our churches. They killed these four little girls.” That stayed in me. And then, Emmett Till! I saw a picture, how they beat him and hung him. I said, “Wait a minute! This is crazy.” All of that was festering in me, so for me to become a Panther? I was already ready. You created me to become the one who’s going to be against you. You’re my adversary now. I’m going to defend my community, and this is what the Panthers were doing. I felt that I would be a hell of a fine Panther.
After Malcolm was assassinated, the Corona Branch of the Black Panther Party became Sister Betty Shabazz’s bodyguards for a while. It was an honor to make sure that we protected what we called the “first family” because of Malcolm. We were the seeds of Malcolm. I’m not talking just about the Corona Branch, I’m saying the Black Panther Party as a whole. We did what Malcolm said needed to be done, and we weren’t afraid to do it. One concept that I would tell people that they have to understand is that we were young, but you know what? We weren’t afraid of death because we knew that was the epitome of being a true revolutionary. Che Guevara said it. Patrice Lumumba said it. A lot of people said that power cedes to nothing but power, so it was an honor to be a Panther, and if I were to die, to die as a Panther. I knew I was fighting for my rights. I was fighting for something that I truly believed in my heart.
J. Yasmeen Sutton (b. March 10, 1950) was on the Finance Committee of the Corona Branch of the Black Panther Party in Queens, New York. Currently, she is senior accountant at the Center for Rapid Recovery, a mental health nonprofit organization in Hempstead, New York. Previously she was the vice president of finance and operations at Greenhope Services for Women in East Harlem, a criminal justice program offering alternatives to incarceration. She volunteers as the treasurer for the Finance Committee of New York state assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry and is active on the Black Panther Commemoration Committee New York, which hosts an annual film festival to raise money for political prisoners, as well as the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party.
UNLIKE COMRADES THAT LEFT HOME AND LIVED IN “PANTHER PADS,” I never left my house and still did Panther work. I was in college at the time, and I stayed in college. Actually, I sold my papers on campus. Before classes I had a little part-time job working in a cafeteria out at Kennedy Airport. I would take the leftover bread and milk—kind of liberating it—for the breakfast program. Then after I came home from school, I went to the Panther office in Corona, Queens.
The uniqueness of the Corona Branch was that you had all different types of people. I was nineteen. Claudia (Chesson-Williams) was eighteen, but we had people who were fourteen, fifteen. There were people who followed Malcolm and others that followed Paul Robeson. Others were part of the Communist Party. There were older people and people that were part of street gangs. Then you had drug users that were cleaning themselves up down in the basement of the office who then came up as Panthers. I was a good kid who went to school. I was square. I was quiet. But there I was, because it was about the party, the injustices, and the revolution. We were all part of something.
Another unique thing about Corona was that we were involved in starting the Langston Hughes Library, not just as a library but as a cultural center as well. Members of the party were part of the committee. That was one of the things we fought for. Another thing we’re proud of is getting a traffic light installed in our neighborhood, where there were a lot of accidents and hit-and-runs. People were getting killed out in the street. We ended up writing letters to the mayor, to the traffic people. Finally, one day, we just disrupted traffic in order to get the light.
To illustrate how young we were, Omar (Barbour) and I had to open up a party bank account. We went to a bank on Jamaica Avenue, and they said to us, “Well, who’s your president? Who’s in charge?” We told them Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. We had no inkling. We were that young. I just knew that I was studying accounting at community college at the time and that they trusted me. So I would count the money when newspaper sales came in, write it up, and record it. That’s how I really became involved in the finances for the Black Panther Party.
My first experience with a gun was going to the arcade on Forty-second Street, where you could just aim and shoot. Eventually we went out into the woods to practice. You had to learn how to shoot a gun, how to respect it. They actually blindfolded us, and we had to break a gun down and put it back together within a certain time. We were preparing ourselves for the revolution, even if it meant dying, because we knew that it was going to make a difference, that people were going to be better off.
It’s interesting now when I think about how much we thought about death and dying. That’s not natural with young people. But we were blinded by our love and devotion. I think that’s what revolution is.
ANATOMY OF A SETUP NO. 1
AS TOLD SEPARATELY BY
CYRIL “BULLWHIP” INNIS JR., J. YASMEEN
SUTTON, AND CLAUDIA CHESSON-WILLIAMS
Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr.: Here’s a story for you, and only Corona Panthers know it. As soon as we became Panthers we had an incident. It was 11:30, 12 o’clock at night, and we just came from a party at the office, brothers and sisters. We were walking down 102nd Street. Now mind you, we had just become members of the Panther Party, so we were celebrating.
J. Yasmeen Sutton: We used to be together all the time. After doing party work during the day we would sit up and drink “bitter dog” (red wine and lemon juice) and then go home. Well, one night, we’re on our way home, singing “off the pig” and “no more pigs in the community.”
Claudia Chesson-Williams: I was in awe of some of these people I had known all my life. They were fierce, and they were determined, and they had on their fatigues and berets. It was just wonderful to be a part of something. They were singing their songs, and I was just walking and looking and listening when all of a sudden this man pulls up, jumps out of his car, and says that he was robbed.
CI: The guy jumps out of his car with a gun, black dude. “Where y’all going?! Stop! I want y’all to stop now! Wait right here!” So we’re like, “Oh shit!” He’s got this gun, and I’m looking at the dude. He’s got it pointed at Claudia’s face.
YS: He says somebody stole his TV, record player, and all this other stuff from him.
CW: The gun was pointing right at my face, and the brothers surrounded me to protect me while they were trying to talk to him.
YS: One of the brothers named Daoud said, “Brother, we’re Panthers. We don’t steal from the people. If you tell us what was stolen, we’ll try to help find it for you.”
CI: So we’re trying to negotiate with this guy, because he’s got this gun out, but you could smell the liquor on him.
YS: This guy was drunk.
CW: While the other brothers were trying to talk to him to make him put the gun down, he fell. He was drunk.
CI: So, we’re looking at each other, and we’re looking at this guy, and I don’t know how it happened—we closed in on him and hit him at the same time. We held his hand up so we could force the gun from him. We’re hitting him, and as he goes to the ground, handcuffs come out.
YS: They pushed him over and took the gun, but while they were doing it, his handcuffs fell out of his pocket along with his shield. That night it was . . . they beat him up.
CW: We came to find out it was a policeman. I guess he figured if he locked up that many teenagers at one time, it would be a big feather in his cap.
CI: I see these cuffs, and I scream, “This motherfucker’s a pig!” because it blew my mind. And he’s there on the ground, “No, don’t hit me. Don’t hit me no more.” Well, I wanted to do things that my comrades stopped me from doing. I was no joke. I didn’t care.
YS: They took his gun and his badge and the handcuffs. They took everything from him.
CW: That’s why we always said, “A pig is a pig is a pig is a pig.” It didn’t matter what color they were. If someone’s going to brutalize you and victimize you, they are still a pig.
YS: The next day, the newspaper said young thugs had robbed this guy, but it wasn’t true.
CI: When we opened up the trunk of his car, everything that this sucker said we stole was in his car! It was the first set up of the Corona Branch of the Black Panther Party.
YS: A couple of days later, some of our guys were arrested, charged with robbing the cop.
CW: Protect and serve was really not what it was about.
CI: Ronnie got picked up. They came to us looking for the gun. We knew what to do. “You let Ronnie go no charges, you get the gun back.” That’s all we said, because we had already given Bill (Brownville) the gun.
CW: Mr. Brownville had us go down to the Civilian Review Board and get signatures. He said, “Let’s do it by the book. Let me show you how it is with the legal system and how to do things.” We did that. We did that, and nothing ever happened. Two of the brothers that were with us were on probation and ended up going back to jail because of this arrest.
CI: That was the very first litmus test for us as Panthers, and we passed. After that, they knew we were not a group to play with. To this day, every group that has worked with us knows, “Those Corona Panthers? They don’t play.”
YS: The interesting thing about it was that twenty years later, this same cop was killed in an illegal after-hours spot, where he shouldn’t have been anyway.
CW: He got a parade. He made it all the way to gold-shield detective. But we know.
YS: It was that particular night that always made me doubt and not trust the police.
CW: That was the turning point. That’s what brought me into the Black Panther Party.
Katherine Campbell (b. October 8, 1951) was raised in San Francisco, where she also first encountered the party. In addition to working on the newspaper, she was a longtime worker at the Oakland Community School, where she was in charge of preparing special menus for people with allergies.
IN AN ENGLISH CLASS AT SAN FRANCISCO CITY COLLEGE, THE TEACHER asked us to write a paper on the most beautiful animal in the world. I thought, Everybody’s going to write about a horse. I don’t want to write about a horse. I want to write about something else. I came upon a book in the library, and on the cover was a panther, the cat. It looked fierce and scary. I read that it was very gentle and nice unless provoked, and I thought, Wow, what a good thing to write about.
So I wrote my paper on that and turned it in to my English class. When the teacher handed the papers back I didn’t get mine, so I asked her, “What happened to my paper?”
She said, “Well, you have to go to the dean for your paper.”
I was so excited! I thought, Oh gosh! I’m going to get credit for this. They really liked my paper.
So I go to the dean’s office, and this man is sitting there furious. “What’s the meaning of writing this paper? You must belong to the Black Panthers.”
I didn’t know anything about the Black Panthers at that time. My legs were wobbling. I said, “I just wrote it. The teacher asked us to write on an animal, and I just chose that.” I got scared. I went home and told my mother, “I never want to go to college again, ever.”
My sister lived across the street from Sacred Heart Church at that time. She had a couple of children. She said, “You know what? You can do some volunteer work. Why don’t you go across the street to that church? They have a breakfast program. I send the kids there in the morning.” I started volunteering there, and it turned out to be the Black Panthers’ Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program. It was like I was destined for it, like I couldn’t get away from it.
They gave me the newspaper, and I took it home and was reading it. I thought, Wow, this is what’s really going on? Gosh, I guess I’m not black enough. What I mean by that was I really had all these ideas and dreams of what I was going to be and how I was going to do it. I was going to go to university and get my degree. I was going to be really equal with people. My grandmother and grandfather had a church, and that’s one thing that I did grow up in. They taught us there’s no prejudice when you’re Christian.
Still, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into until I started working on the newspaper and I started reading some of the articles that we had to cut out and put together. They were calling the police “the pigs.” Then there was the incident where the fire department came in, and they took their fire hoses and sprayed all the newspapers. We were just getting ready to take the newspapers to the airport to send them all over the world. They really destroyed them. They were really trying to break down our structure.
I was there during the time someone blew up the office in San Francisco on Fillmore Street. My husband at the time was doing security. I got a call in the middle of the night that the office had been blown up after someone had been calling just about every day for weeks threatening to blow it up. We had a big printer that wasn’t being used that was blown ten feet from the wall. It blew the bathroom up right after my husband had just come out of there.
"The Black Panthers succeeds by destroying any assumptions you may have had [about the Black Panther Party]. The book tells the story of the Black Panthers through first-person accounts from people who were part of the movement but who mostly were not the stars-people who look like they could be my aunts and uncles...[It] does the much needed task of bringing the movement down to earth."
—Rembert Browne, New York Times Book Review
"Shih's powerful black-and-white portraits...are by turn-and sometimes all at once-bold, unflinching, poetic, familiar, cloaked, direct, joyful, defiant, mischievous and suspicious....To many readers, these stories of nascent revolution and service will be enlightening, even eye-opening, giving a new view of an organization that was vilified, feared and opposed in history and the press. For others, they are a reminder of a time when black organizers and other people of color declared an unstinting willingness to improve their communities and radically change the trajectory of their people's lives."
—Tina McElroy Ansa, Washington Post
- "While no doubt rooted in the past, Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution focuses squarely on the present, with portraits and interviews with former members today. While the authors did an excellent job of tracking down higher-ups in the party, the book smartly turns its focus to the 'real heroes,' the group's rank-and-file members, giving us a fuller picture of life as a Black Panther, and the impact those years had on people's lives... A well-rounded primer on the Black Panther Party, then and now, top to bottom."—Mother Jones
"A brilliantly conceived volume that offers a refreshing take on a well-trod history too often told from the perspective of its Oakland-based, male leaders and their iconic images. Uniquely, this powerful book is driven by Bryan Shih's recent portraits of local chapter rank-and-file members, whose gripping recollections told in oral histories illuminate the complexity and importance of the BPP's grassroots organizing structure in history and for our own times. This innovative volume boasts a remarkable series of essays by leading scholars on a range of topics including Black Power, women, the rank-and-file, ethnic nationalism, health activism and international outreach as well as a treasure trove of archival images from the Black Panther Newspaper. Together, Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams demonstrate why the Panthers story-its lessons and failures-even fifty years after its founding, remains key to understanding national and international struggles for freedom and justice today."
—Cheryl Finley, Associate Professor and Director of Visual Studies, Cornell University
- "An hypnotic reflection pool on the movement, the mythologies, and the women and men who challenged oppression as no other organization made in America ever had before. Brilliant, painful, enlightening, tearful, tragic, sad, and funny, this photo-essay book is at its core about healing, and about the social justice work that still needs to be done in the era of hip-hop, Black Lives Matter, and the historic presidency of Barack Obama."—Kevin Powell, author of The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood
- "During our moment of Black Lives Matter on the one hand and Trump-enabled open racism and hatred on the other, connecting to the stories of a previous generation of activists feels vital, and in these portraits, quite stunning."—Flavorwire
- "An eye-opening experience...Reading The Black Panthers has changed a lot for me. The photos, the essays, the information found in this volume have now made my education on the Party paramount. Their movement will now be part of my activism, their fight, which sadly still rages on, is my fight."—Dan Arel, Patheos
"Fifty years [since the party's founding], photojournalist Shih and historian Williams observe that the party remains 'one of the most misunderstood organizations of the twentieth century.' To dispel this fog, they met with 45 surviving rank-and-file members, men and women who went on to become teachers, professors, attorneys, elected officials, founders and directors of not-for-profit organizations, and artists. Each is present here in striking photographic portraits and revelatory oral histories...Incisive essays provide a larger historical context."
—Booklist, Starred Review
- "With a splendid assemblage of pictures and interviews, photographer Shih and historian Williams shine fresh light on the people in and the diverse activities of the Black Panther Party (BPP) on the 50th anniversary of its founding. Shih's photographs of the 45 interviewees have the vibrancy and immediacy of treasured family portraits. The interviewees' compelling recollections are buttressed by succinct but substantive essays...The special virtue of this book is as bottom-up, rather than top-down, history-an illuminating view of the everyday aspects of 'one of the most misunderstood organizations of the 20th century.'"—Publishers Weekly, "Most Anticipated Books for Fall 2016"
- "This highly recommended compilation of interviews and photographs of the Black Panther Party helps reframe its legacy to include the humanitarian work they performed across the United States. Readers interested in the current Black Lives Matter movement will find resonance in the Panthers' stories."—Library Journal
- "An intelligent, unapologetic book."—Shelf Awareness
- "An interesting celebration of a unique era's activism."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2016
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Bold Type Books