Visualizing a Revolution: Emory Douglas and The Black Panther Newspaper
Depending on a person’s politics, age, race and class, mention of the 1960s and ’70s radical “Black Panther Party” can elicit a range of responses. One extreme: the Panthers were a bunch of charismatic, grandstanding violent thugs, exploiting oppressive conditions to promote their own pathological agendas, and the United States is fortunate that the FBI and police stopped them before they started a bloody civil war. The other extreme: the Black Panthers were brilliant revolutionary visionaries who tried to expand the African American civil rights struggle into an opportunity to end Western imperialism, global racism and capitalist exploitation of working people. The truth is somewhere between those extremes. To understand the Panthers’ mission, it is more important to consider the range of possibilities than to pinpoint an exact ideological location.
In 1966, after civil rights legislation was passed and before many more inner city blocks would burn in riots, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California. Like other African American communities in post-civil rights America, Oakland’s black ghettos had disproportionate poverty and unemployment rates, substandard education and health care. The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation states that, “The Black Panther Party boldly call[ed] for a complete end to all forms of oppression of blacks and offer[ed] revolution as an option” (Ref. 1).
But police brutality was the most galvanizing issue for the Panthers. After riots in Detroit, Watts, Harlem, Rochester, New York, Jersey City and Philadelphia (Ref. 2) in 1964 and 1965, in which mostly black people were killed, police “occupied” black ghettos across the United States, often ignoring basic civil rights and breaking the law to “maintain order.” (Ref. 3) A generation of young people like Flores Alexander Forbes of San Diego became receptive to the idea of armed retaliation.
“I was 16 years old, and after having read the Black Panther newspaper and most of my older brother’s Black history and literature books that he brought home from UCLA, I was convinced that this was my calling. I had heard from my brother and his college friends that the brothers up north in Oakland had a program to deal with the ‘man.’
...In general, I wanted to be a Black Panther so that I could help my people overcome the oppression they and I were experiencing. In particular, I wanted to get back at the San Diego policeman who had been harassing me since I was 12” (Ref. 4).
The Black Panther newspaper, started in 1967 as The Black Panther Community News Service, regularly reported incidents of police brutality and promoted organized armed resistance as part of the solution to oppression of black people in America (Ref. 5). In a 1967 moment of synchronicity, the young Black Panther and artist Emory Douglas met Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, who had published the first two issues of The Black Panther newspaper using a typewriter and copy machine.
Understanding the emerging visual media culture, Cleaver and Newton wanted to graphically show the party’s work assisting people in their communities and prepare oppressed people for violent revolution, if necessary, in pursuit of psychological and economic liberation. They found the man to do this in 22-year-old Douglas. That night Douglas committed himself to creating and maintaining the organization’s visual identity and produced The Black Panther until it ceased publication in 1979 (Fig. 1).
No stranger to the criminal justice system, as a teenager, Douglas was sentenced to fifteen months at the Youth Training School in Ontario, California. He worked in the prison’s printing shop. Later he studied commercial art at San Francisco City College (Ref. 6). At his first meeting with the party’s minister of defense, Huey Newton, and minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, he volunteered to go home immediately and get some supplies to make the paper look more professional.
Continuing a long tradition of resistant and revolutionary art, concurrently practiced in conflicts all over the world, Douglas was the most prolific and persistent graphic agitator in the American Black Power movements. Douglas profoundly understood the power of images in communicating ideas. The newspaper’s back page poster was often reprinted separately, sometimes in color. His posters were not displayed on pristine gallery walls, but were pasted on abandoned buildings in ghettos, and the newspapers sold on street corners and college campuses all across the United States. At its peak in 1970, The Black Panther had a weekly circulation of 139,000 (Ref. 7).
Inexpensive printing technologies—including photostats and presstype, textures and patterns—made publishing a two-color heavily illustrated, weekly tabloid newspaper possible. Graphic production values associated with seductive advertising and waste in a decadent society became weapons of the revolution. Technically, Douglas collaged and re-collaged drawings and photographs, performing graphic tricks with little budget and even less time. His distinctive illustration style featured thick black outlines (easier to trap) and resourceful tint and texture combinations (Fig. 3).
Conceptually, Douglas’s images served two purposes: first, illustrating conditions that made revolution seem necessary; and second, constructing a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized. Most popular media represents middle to upper class people as “normal.” Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations (Fig. 5 ).
Political cartoons showing policemen and those in power as pigs became another of Emory’s signatures (Fig. 6). He was not the first to use pigs to represent police (Ref. 8), but he certainly helped make “pig” the preferred epithet for law enforcement officers in the 1960s and 70s counterculture. His cartoons extended the pig icon to represent the entire capitalist military/industrial complex (Fig. 7).
Douglas’s statement “Without the party, the [Black Panther] paper wouldn’t have had the same impact” (Ref. 9) reiterates the symbiotic relationship between the party’s and the paper’s mission. The party’s Ten Point Program outlined an agenda that included obtaining full employment, decent housing, education, and health care, and finally “people’s community control of modern technology” (Ref. 10). The Panthers’ community programs, like free breakfast for children, clinics, schools and arts events were featured in the paper, representing implementation of the ten points. Most of the back-page posters directly referred to one of the ten points, illustrating tight coordination between the paper, the party and the mission.
The leaders believed that The Black Panther was not just reporting news, but causing radical change. Like Emory’s drawings, the paper was a tool for liberation, visualizing violent confrontations with perceived oppressors. The drawings showed brutal realities of post-civil rights ghetto life for African Americans. Encouraging metaphoric (fighting oppression through self-help) or physical (armed confrontation) revolutionary action, Douglas’ harshest images simultaneously elicited revulsion at the graphic violence and attraction to the idea of effective self-defense (Fig. 8).
Douglas understood and effectively used visual semiotics before its theory and methods were widely understood and routinely taught in graphic design programs. He fought the revolution with more than presstype and Xacto knives. Because of his leadership role in the party, in producing the paper and participation in the Panthers’ range of community programs, he was closely watched by law enforcement officers. The level of surveillance was so intense the FBI knew the paper’s weekly choice of PMS color (Fig. 9). As the paper’s circulation grew, so did the FBI’s efforts to shut it down. They contaminated printing facilities, enlisted Teamsters to refuse shipments and even convinced United Airlines to cancel the paper’s bulk mail rate discounts (Ref. 12).
Individual members of the party were clearly targeted, as well as the overall infrastructure. In 1969 alone, 27 Black Panthers were killed by police and at least 749 arrested. The police raided offices and seized documents, sometimes without a warrant (Ref. 13). The next year, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, declared the Panthers “the greatest threat to U.S. security” (Ref. 14). Federal law enforcement agencies responded by attacking the organization through COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence propaganda), sabotage and infiltration, contributing to the party’s demise.
In retrospect, it is clear that the Panthers were not the terrorist threat the FBI feared. It does not matter whether the Panthers intended to wage a large-scale retaliatory attack against perceived agents of oppression such as police, politicians and Western ideology. Douglas’ call to revolution, in the form of thousands of drawings, cartoons and page layouts, survives as a lasting vision of empowerment. For 13 years, every week in the pages of The Black Panther, Emory Douglas gave “all power to the people.”
(1) Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. “What Was the Black Panther Party?”
(2) Nelson, Jill, ed. Police Brutality. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). p. 39-42.
(3) Carson, Clayborne. Foreword. Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).
(4) Forbes, Flores Alexander. “Point No. 7: We Want an Immediate End to
Police Brutality and the Murder of Black People: Why I Joined the Black
Nelson, Jill, ed. Police Brutality. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). p. 225.
(5) Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002. p. 8.
(6) Doss, Erika “Revolutionary Art Is a Tool for Liberation.” Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, ed. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 179.
(7) Memo, FBIHQ to Chicago and seven other field offices, May 15, 1970. Cited by Ward Churchill, “To Disrupt, Discredit and Destroy: The FBI’s Secret War against the Black Panther Party”, Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 86.
(8) Doss, Erika, “Revolutionary Art Is a Tool for Liberation.” Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 183.
(9) Rein, Marcy, “The More Times Change... The Bay Area Alternative Press ’68-’98”. (1998). Media Alliance. Media File. Vol. 17 #5.
(10) The Ten Point Plan
(11) Rein, Marcy, Ibid.
(12) Churchill, Ward, “To Disrupt, Discredit and Destroy: The FBI’s Secret War against the Black Panther Party”. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 86.
(13) Nelson, Jill, ed. “Police Brutality”. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). p. 41.
(14) Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, p. 187. Cited by Ward Churchill, “To Disrupt, Discredit and Destroy: The FBI’s Secret War Against the Black Panther Party.” Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 83.
Additional online references
Gaiter, Colette. “The Revolution Will Be Visualized: Emory Douglas in The Black Panther.” Bad Subjects. Issue #65, January 2004.
About the Author: Colette Gaiter is an Associate Professor of Visual Communications at the University of Delaware. Her writing on the Black Panther artist Emory Douglas has appeared in several publications including the Rizzoli monograph "Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas" and just-published "West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America." She is working on a documentary about Douglas and his work.