This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.
In September of 1966, Hunters Point, a predominately black neighborhood in San Francisco, erupted after the murder of sixteen-year-old Matthew Johnson by police. The riots were a catalyzing event for activist Huey Newton, who realized that the black community and its anger, if properly channeled, could be a powerful instrument against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism. With fellow activist Bobby Seale, Newton formed The Black Panther Party with the intent to counteract (or even subvert) police violence through armed patrols by local citizens. Two years after its founding, new chapters opened in cities across the United States – from Boston to Seattle. As the organization grew, its mission expanded to embrace social programs, such as free breakfast for children and community health clinics – a point largely forgotten by the organization’s critics then and now.
Instrumental in spreading the party’s message was The Black Panther, a weekly newspaper that soon became its official voice. Emory Douglas, the party’s Minister of Culture, also served as the art director for the paper, controlling its layout, as well as providing all illustrative content. As a youth Douglas had learned letterpress printing during a stint at a juvenile correctional facility; he later followed up this formative experience with classes in graphic design and commercial art while attending San Francisco City College. Through his artwork, he created an easily identifiable and cohesive visual message that complemented and extended the newspaper’s groundbreaking social message. At its height between the years 1968 and 1971, the paper’s circulation averaged about 300,000 readers at home and abroad.
Empowering the oppressed was at the forefront of Douglas’s artistic vision. In contrast to earlier propaganda by civil rights organizations that relied on simple slogans to effect social change, Douglas created unforgettable visual images that depicted everyday black individuals asserting themselves against white supremacy. As the organization moved away from armed resistance towards social service, his art kept pace by portraying scenes from Panther-sponsored social programs. In addition to promoting the party’s message of empowerment, his artwork also captured the larger social and political issues facing the inner city black community.
Mary Haegert, Reproductions Coordinator, contributed this post.