'Power to the People' Bleeds History on The Now

by Jedd Beaudoin

13 February 2017

Fifty years after the formation of the Black Panthers, a pictorial/oral account reminds us of the movement's power, and promise.
 
cover art

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers

(Abrams)
US: Oct 2016

The tumultuous story of America in the ‘60s is often told in a shadowy (at best) outline. The assassination of John F. Kennedy begat a war in Vietnam, which begat the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all of this led to major social and political upheaval within the country. Those same accounts find room for Malcolm X, Woodstock and the arrival of radicalism on college campuses across the US. The Democratic National Convention of 1968 gets some play, too, and if someone can fire off a round about Barry Goldwater and LBJ’s role in these matters, so much the better for our history lesson.

History, of course, represents many streams toward understanding, and in the climate of that decade, there were sometimes unexpected confluences resulting in seismic waves. Even accounts that attempt to include some mention of the Black Panther Party can exclude some of the organization’s major contributions and its true significance.

Power to the People provides a glimpse into the lives and efforts of the Panther co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale as well as the many who fought and thought beside them. If not a comprehensive history, it will forever remain one that makes the story more vivid and clear in part thanks to the candid and illuminating photography of Stephen Shames as it appears in this well-crafted volume.

The outline of his story and relationship with the Black Panthers goes like this: While attending the University of California-Berkley, Shames photographed Seale at an anti-war rally. The Black Panthers were still a young organization at that time, having formed in late 1966, thus making Shames an early voice in documenting the movement. He became a photographer for the party and a close companion of Seale’s throughout the coming years, including during the Panther co-founder’s mayoral bid in Oakland in 1973.

The two have found each other again in these pages as Shames presents some of his most memorable images from the time, accompanied by Seale’s commentary and recollections from Kathleen Cleaver, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Ericka Huggins; they are joined in these pages by the voices of Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.

Beyond the sphere of the political theatre, and not quite everything you’ve probably been taught to believe it was, the Black Panther Party sought to respond to the ravages of racism and economic inequality upon their community. Through initiatives such as providing nutritious meals, healthcare, and legal guidance, the Panthers in some ways resembled their white counterparts who were working to move children and the economically disadvantaged forward. There were stark differences, too. Their white counterparts can best be described as social workers armed with three-ring binders and a mountain of case files destined to cause the neediest to become lost in the chaos of bureaucracy. The armed Black Panthers, however, saw reality and responded to the call of need with militant accuracy and efficacy.

That thin line between advocacy and action made a significant difference in the lives of the senior citizens who found community protection in the Black Panthers who shielded them from muggings and robberies. It also made a difference in the free breakfast programs the party created for hungry children and in the offers of clothing, sickle cell screenings, and even schooling.

This description and these words fail to give the full magnitude of the story. The Black Panthers faced criticism and scrutiny from outsides sources, including J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the community-building efforts as little more than propaganda meant to hide nefarious motives he believed the organization held. One may have hoped that by now events and attitudes would more clearly show which side of history Hoover was on, but the world continues to be a reluctant student, one who can be shown the outcomes and still fail to reflect on their significance.

As informative as the accompanying text often is to the full scope of the Black Panthers’ struggle, it is Shames’ photography that tells the story in the sharpest relief possible. His work provides historically significant images of humans finding their voice in society against the odds; images of people of dignity and worth faced with circumstances that lesser souls would shrink from.

There are great struggles chronicled within these pages, including struggles that, upon the book’s publication still lay ahead: Income inequality and the ever-pervasive nature of racism become a focal point for the final chapter. The images on those pages change from black and white to color and the faces are no longer the faces of the Black Panthers and the ordinary people they reached in the time of their struggle. These are the faces of people who face similar circumstances today—no matter that the clocks and calendars have changed. People are moved by injustice and when circumstances demand it we can count upon the best of them to act.

The final paragraph of the final chapter of Power to the People suggests that in order to carve out a better future there must be a movement to carry the message forward. What none of the Black Panthers nor Shames himself might have realized was how quickly the movement would begin forming before the ink had even dried, if you will, on these pages. Where there is fear, people will react to it. The deepest hope is that that reaction is informed by truth and strength. In that, the Black Panthers provide a template for this and future generations to build a better world.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers

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