[5 August 2009]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
OAKLAND, Calif. — It was the summer of 1968. Oakland was the epicenter of the Black Panther Party movement, and its members were fighting for the release of party co-founder Huey P. Newton, jailed after being accused of shooting an Oakland police officer to death.
Now-defunct Life magazine wanted a story on the Black Panthers and asked photographer Howard L. Bingham to shoot scenes around Oakland and Los Angeles while reporter Gilbert Moore took notes.
Bingham took nearly 10,000 pictures — from stunning portraits of Panther leaders to Panther gatherings outside the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland — while Moore filled three dozen notebooks over several months following the revolutionary group.
His photos, and Moore’s story, were never published by Life.
This month, California-based AMMO Books is releasing Bingham’s unpublished work in a stunning new coffee table book, “Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968” ($44.95). The book displays not only Bingham’s photos but essays from Moore, biographies on Panther members and guest essays from curators of museums that focus on black issues.
“I think the book now really shows a history of the Panthers and what was going on at the time,” Bingham says. “And the same thing the Panthers wanted is being fought for now by other organizations. Maybe they aren’t as dramatic as the Panthers were, but they’re around.”
The Black Panther Party was a controversial 1960s organization established to promote black issues and black power. Centered in Oakland, the party had a 10-point plan that called for freedom, employment, decent housing and education, free health care and the end to police brutality. The party eventually fell apart in the 1970s after years of infighting, turmoil and violence.
You may have heard Bingham’s name before; he is the personal photographer for Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby and has been Ali’s best friend for four decades.
He started in journalism as a photographer for the black newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel and eventually took photos of riots in San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago.
“Wherever riots started, Howard Bingham went,” he says.
The riots during the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention changed him. After seeing Chicago police push a group of people into a window, Bingham told a rioter that, if he had a gun, something else would have happened that day.
“That’s when I said I wasn’t going to do any more riots,” he says.
When Life magazine editors decided they wanted a story on the Black Panthers, Bingham says they had to go through Eldridge Cleaver, acting as chief spokesman for the Panthers after Newton was arrested. Cleaver insisted that Bingham be assigned to the story, he says.
“I had never met Eldridge before. He had heard about me through Muhammad Ali,” he says.
Throughout the months he and Moore covered the Panther story, Bingham took photos of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, in their San Francisco home. He took photos of “Free Huey” rallies at DeFremery Park in Oakland and photos at the Panther headquarters.
Many images collected in the book are striking not because they show a tremendous amount of weaponry the Panthers were famous for carrying but because they show a humanity underneath the black leather and black berets the Panthers often wore.
For example, a head-shot portrait of Kathleen Neal Cleaver at her attorney’s office shows a young woman with sharp eyes, a soft smile and delicate Afro. She could be a teacher or a librarian, not the hard-scrabbled revolutionary activist shown several pages later climbing a protest bus in DeFremery Park.
Writer Moore says Life magazine never published his story, despite several drafts, because of its conservative bent.
“They could do nothing less than print a story chastising the Black Panthers for hating policemen so much and for hating the glorious American system and wanting to overthrow the government,” he says. Moore’s experience with the Panthers, and how it affected him as a black American, was eventually published as the definitive novel “A Special Rage” in 1971 and republished in 1993 as simply “Rage.”
Neither Bingham nor Moore liked Oakland much when they spent time in the city. In fact, in “Rage” Moore writes, “(A) nagging sensation of death comes from walking through ... Oakland.” And “Certainty sweeps over you that you are about to be shot through the head with high-powered accuracy.” Neither Moore nor Bingham have spent any significant amount of time in the city since their assignment.
None of the still-living Panthers contacted for this story have seen the book or are aware of it being published.
Today, Moore is writing a new novel about marijuana addiction and Bingham, 70, is called by professional sports stars and celebrities to shoot photographs.