This photo essay attempts to map some of the historical moments that likely influenced the birth of the black panther as an icon and hero in the worlds of both political activism and comic books. From its initial appearance in Alabama to its incarnation in Oakland, the black panther has stood the test of time and remained an index of Black power. This essay examines the births of the Lowndes County Freedom Movement, Marvel's Black Panther character, and the Black Panther Party—all in 1966. The founding of that first proves to be a seminal, highly influential moment that presaged what was to come later that year. The events described trace how community action transformed into black power–cum–panther power.
The story of the black panther as an icon of strength, power, and resilience in the struggle for Black civil rights, one could argue, rightfully began on the day that John Punch, a seventeenth-century African indentured servant in Virginia, decided to run away from his master—in other words, the day he decided to get free—for the story of the black panther as an icon of resistance is a story about struggling to get free. Despite Punch's actions ultimately resulting in his enslavement, the event serves as an example of the kind of resistance the black panther has come to symbolize: Black people fighting against dehumanization, heteronomy, and domination. For four hundred years, this struggle has waxed and waned in accordance with the political, social, and cultural climate of the times. What has not changed is the ferocity of the desire for freedom that lies behind both the moments of action and the moments of quiet in the Black community. While we think of the black panther in its various incarnations, we must also think about the histories that went into its making. This essay examines the birth of the black panther as an icon and a hero, from early to late 1966, beginning with its first appearance in Alabama and concluding with its incarnation in Oakland, tracing how community action transformed into black power–cum–panther power.
The birth of the black panther as an icon and hero began between February and November of 1966, when the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed. By the mid-1960s, 80 percent of Lowndes County, Alabama, was Black, and yet no Black resident had successfully registered to vote in more than half a century. This is because the county was controlled by some eighty white families who owned 90 percent of the land.2 Stokely Carmichael and colleagues from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been sent to Lowndes the year prior, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, to organize a voter registration drive, which had not been very successful. After the law passed, the number of registered Black voters increased, but so too did voter intimidation. Frustrated by and impatient with white machine politics, Carmichael joined forces with local activist John Hulett to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) as an independent Black political party. Its opposition was the all-white Democratic Party, whose mascot was a white rooster and whose slogan was “White supremacy for the right.” Jack Minnis, SNCC's head of research, chose the black panther as the party's emblem under the slogan “One man, one vote” (fig. 1). Standing for “courage, determination, and freedom,” the black panther offered, in the organizers’ eyes, an appropriate and fierce challenge to the white supremacist political position.3 The LCFO (fig. 2), which became known as the Black Panther Party, was working to achieve nothing short of using legitimate means to wrest community control from those who had for centuries used illegitimate means to oppress Black people, suppress their freedom, and maintain an imbalance in power.4 The LCFO's tactics involved educating Black residents on state political laws, registering voters, running candidates for the seven open seats in the county board, and creating health clinics—all work presaging what the Black Panther Party would do in Oakland and beyond.5 The party was overtly cultivating Black power.
The work of the LCFO was influential and spread to other cities through coalitions. For example, SNCC representatives working in Harlem with local nationalists, the Radical Action Movement (RAM), formed a support arm of the LCFO and chose “Black Panther Party” as the name of the new organization. It was to serve as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties as well as to “exhaust the legal political means of protest.”6 The New York Black Panther Party did not last beyond a year; it and the other parties struggled with internal conflict. But they should not be viewed as failures. Rather, they embodied the zeitgeist of the movement.
During this time, comic book writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby added the Black Panther to the comic book pantheon as the first Black superhero. The Black Panther character made his first-ever appearance in Fantastic Four,no. 52, published in July 1966, at the height of the LCFO's activities and during a time when SNCC representatives were active in New York. While it would be conjecture to suggest that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ran in the same circles as SNCC and RAM, they were clearly aware of what was happening with the movement at the time, especially given the media attention it was receiving. They noted the absence of Black superheroes in the comic book universe, and decided to create one. Furthermore, when we consider Wakanda as it has been presented in the comics, we can see clear connections to Black power and Black nationalism. With Black Americans seeking political autonomy and many African nations seeking independence, Wakanda reflected the desires articulated in the freedom movements of the era.
THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
On October 15, 1966, Huey Newton (fig. 3) and Bobby Seale (fig. 4), founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland. They were influenced by the work the SNCC had done in Lowndes County and planned to organize the “brothers and sisters off the block” in a similar fashion.7 Newton drafted the party's ten-point platform, which articulated its ideals and goals. They simultaneously declared themselves Black nationalists, made a call for Black power, and announced the rise of panther power, which was the specific capacity of the Panthers to build community programs in Oakland and beyond as well as the influence they wielded to encourage self-empowerment among Black Americans (figs. 5, 6, 7).
They began with armed patrols in Black neighborhoods in Oakland and nearby Richmond to address police brutality. On February 21, 1967, hoping to garner some media visibility, the party served as a security detail for activist Betty Shabazz during her visit to the area. They drew the attention not only of the local media but also of the police, mainly thanks to the guns they openly carried—these became a key aspect of their identity as freedom fighters and proponents of Black power.
The following month, the party planned an action that earned them the attention of the national media. California State Assemblyman Don Mulford, a Republican, introduced a bill that would forbid citizens from openly carrying guns in incorporated areas, aimed at putting a stop to the Panther patrols and their armed monitoring of the police.8 In response to this maneuver, the Panthers marched on the state capitol the day the legislature was considering the bill. Twenty-four men and six women wearing the Panther uniform were there, some bearing arms, to protest the bill's introduction.9 The press largely responded negatively to the protest, framing the action as an invasion rather than a march or a demonstration. The Panthers were framed as “threatening and out of control” because they were Black and openly armed.10 Early in its inception, the idea of a Black Panther, let alone a Black Panther Party, was anathema to the establishment's ideas of good blackness, which had been demonstrated by the mainstream civil rights movement's philosophy of nonviolence, even in the face of the most brutal violence, and the movement's willingness (to an extent) to operate within the establishment's socio-legal parameters. The Panthers were not willing to play nice. Unfortunately, their refusal to participate in the political theater by the expected ground rules resulted in the party being perceived as a gang of dangerous thugs, a characterization that overshadowed the necessary good works they were doing in their communities.
One woman took a particular interest in this problem. In 1968, Ruth-Marion Baruch, renowned documentary photographer, poet, and educator, decided to get involved with the Panthers and assist them in refashioning their public image. Already friends with Kathleen Cleaver through the Peace and Freedom Party, which had partnered with the Panthers in 1968 by nominating several Panthers as candidates for various elections, Baruch approached her with a proposition to photograph the Panthers over a six-month period. The decision was Eldridge Cleaver's as the Minister of Information, and he regarded it favorably, understanding the importance of media representation. Baruch's husband, award-winning documentary photographer and educator Pirkle Jones, collaborated with her on what was to become one of the most recognizable photographic series of the Black Panther Party. Baruch and Jones gave their photographs to the Panthers free of charge, and many of them appeared in the party's media arm, the Black Panther Black Community News Service.
A news service, political education tool, and recruitment mechanism, the Black Panther Black Community News Service was more than just a newspaper and more than just propaganda. It was a community-building apparatus intended to bring together Black nationalists from around the country and perhaps even the world and provide a space where they could further define what a Black Panther was and should be, just as they could define what the revolution was. Images were crucial to this endeavor. Emory Douglas joined the party and the staff of the News Service with the title Revolutionary Artist, and with his help, the paper shifted to offset printing and thus to its signature graphics, most of which were his. Many of his drawings featured armed women and children engaged in the struggle. Often the women were depicted defending their homes from the police or from landlords, both of whom were represented as corrupt and enemies of the Black community. The first woman to join the party, Tarika “Matilaba” Lewis, served as an Assistant Revolutionary Artist under Emory Douglas, who by that time had become the Minister of Culture. Her work differed from Douglas's bold use of solid blacks, using instead heavy crosshatching to give the figures dimension and more of a realist style. Women also featured in many of her drawings, fighting alongside men, helping to protect the community. Lewis's and Douglas's images in the Black Panther stood in direct opposition to what Robyn Ceanne Spencer calls the “[then] dominant sociological and public policy arguments” that maintained that “strong black women were detrimental to the family and therefore the community.”11
The revolutionary Black woman, such as the one Pirkle Jones captured in figure 8, was integral to the Black Panther Party. She is a combination of feminine and militant, wearing a sleeveless minidress and dangling earrings, and carrying a heavy shotgun. While often presented as hypermasculinist, the party's identity was heavily influenced by the contributions of its women members and supporters (figs. 9, 10, 11, 12). In Figure 11, we see women preparing food during a Free Huey rally. They are calmly but intensely focused on the task at hand: feeding Newton's and the Panthers’ supporters. They are committed to the cause. This image also provides one possible answer to the question, Just who is the revolutionary Black woman?
The Black Panther Black Community News Service was the key venue in which party members debated and defined who she was to and in the struggle.12 In one issue, an author defines her as a woman who has pride in her African looks, finds beauty in her blackness, is capable of communicating to her man her unrest and disgust at having to live under the “controlling power structure,” is ready to take up arms and fight alongside her man, and is secure in her knowledge of her self and her race (fig. 13).13 Another writer supplies the following definition: a worker, a mother, a companion, intellectual, spiritual, mental, and physical; representing the strength of the struggle; Black liberation is her goal; within this goal lies fulfilling the Black man in every way that he must be fulfilled in order to live and fight (fig. 14). “She is militant, revolutionary, committed, strong, and warm, feminine, loving, and kind,” all at once. She must be for the revolution and Black liberation; otherwise she will “inactivize” those around her.14 What is interesting about these two definitions is that they both emphasize how much the Black revolutionary man, and ultimately the revolution, depends on the Black revolutionary woman, however couched in conservative gender ideals the language may be. Defining the Black revolutionary woman and theorizing her role in the revolution, in the party, and in the community at large was integral to defining the Black Panthers and Black power.
The birth of the black panther was a decidedly aesthetic project. For the LCFO, choosing the black panther for a logo was a matter of visual appeal as much as one of ideology. For the party, defining the Black Panther also meant defining a style for Black liberation. This was not a trivial issue; style, in this context, was of the utmost importance. In advocating for self-determination and self-definition, the party was calling for Blacks to dislodge the Eurocentric worldview, including its aesthetics, and embrace a more Black-centered understanding of the self and a Black aesthetic. As Clyde Taylor argues, the aesthetic is co-constitutive with theories on race and racial difference.15 The notion of white beauty depends on the assertion of Black ugliness. The suturing of beauty to morality and goodness underpins the aesthetic as a racialized ideology. In sum, the aesthetic is a hegemonic, colonizing, dehumanizing concept that delineates the parameters of the human, the perfect, the acceptable—what is knowledge, what is art, what is civilized, what is modern. In this sense, the aesthetic functions as a disciplinary technology. The aesthetic has been conflated with culture, thereby expanding and extending its domain to all representation. The Black Panthers understood this and thus advocated not only for Black pride but for Black people to find beauty in blackness. Out of this emerged the “Black is beautiful” movement (figs. 15, 16). Though it was an unofficial movement, its impact was immense, both in the community and in the marketplace. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, an entire market opened up to the new Afrocentrism encouraged by the Panthers. This was particularly the case in the beauty industry, which, for good or for ill, capitalized on the new consciousness. The Afro, in particular, was a popular symbol of Black beauty commonly seen in advertisements, cosmetic and otherwise. The Afro also became a symbol for Black liberation and Black pride. The “Black is beautiful” movement was a significant aspect of the freedom struggle, encouraging Black people to feel free to love the skin they are in, their natural hair, the shape of their noses and lips, hips, and buttocks—to love Black bodies without shame.
White supremacy, voter suppression, discrimination, and general anti-Black violence generated a range of responses from the Black community, all of which revolved around the idea of harnessing the power driving both Black resistance and the struggle to get free. In the early to mid-twentieth century, although the language of Black power was not yet in broad usage, it was Black power that enabled Black people to survive and forge identities as Americans deserving of the franchise, decent and affordable housing, fiscal equity, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By 1966, activists embraced the language of Black power and sought a symbol that would capture the ferocity of all it meant to them. So, out of the conditions of the long freedom struggle emerged the black panther as a sign of Black resistance.
As Stokely Carmichael said in a 1966 speech at a Students for a Democratic Society–sponsored “Black Power and Its Challenges” conference at the University of California, Berkeley, “We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he's back so far into the wall, he's got nothing to do but spring out. Yeah. And when he springs he does not stop.” It has been a little more than fifty years since the birth of the Black Panther(s). In that time, the black panther has remained an icon of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, Wakanda, and the Black Panther Party. It has remained an index of Black power.