We always had solidarity

May 13, 2015

Emory Douglas was involved in the Black Arts movement in the 1960s, along with Amiri Baraka, when he joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) shortly after it was formed 1967. He became minister of culture and did the layout and artwork for the Black Panther newspaper. Douglas was responsible for many of the iconic images associated with the Black Power movement today.

At a conference of Socialist Alternative in Melbourne, Australia, Khury Petersen-Smith met up with Douglas and talked to him about his history with the Panthers, and some of its leading figures, like cofounders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver--and about some of the lessons of the 1960s movement for the struggle today.

WHY DID you join the Black Panther Party? How did you get involved?

I WAS involved in the Black Arts movement creating artwork. When Amiri Baraka, a highly respected activist playwright, then known as LeRoi Jones, was brought to San Francisco State University in 1967 in California, I was approached by him while I was hanging around during his theatrical auditions and rehearsals times to do props for his plays--simple, basic props for street theater, community theater and stuff like that.

The 1960s era were some very intense times--lots of police murders of Black youth, which were always being justified--that created high levels of frustration and many rebellions in the U.S. Young people like myself were searching for how we could become organizationally involved in the fight against police repression. There were organizations forming to confront police abuse and murder, the same as what's taking place today. Some people respected nonviolence and Dr. Martin Luther King, but wanted to do more.

Emory Douglas
Emory Douglas (Ayesha Walker | Youth Radio)

There was a group of activists at San Francisco State University who were involved in the program planning to bring Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz, to the Bay Area to honor her. They knew of my artwork, the Black Arts movement and my work with Baraka. They asked me to attend the planning sessions because they wanted me to do the announcement poster for the event, and I agreed.

When I attended my first planning session, they mentioned that there were some brothers coming to the next planning session and would let it be known if they would do the security for the event. So when they came over, they agreed to do the security. That was my first introduction to the Black Panther Party.

I knew then that this is what I wanted to be a part of--because, like others, I was looking for something.

By this time, Amiri Baraka and I had become good friends. I would travel around the area with him quite a bit--we used to have this old milk truck that we had changed into a prop truck. So while we were traveling one day, I let him know I was planning on joining the Black Panther Party. He gave me his support.

So that was my first involvement. I used to catch the bus over to Huey Newton's and Bobby Seale's houses in the mornings--particularly Huey's house at first. Huey would show me around in the community, introduce me to folks, and then we'd go over to Bobby's house. That was my first involvement--going around the community with Huey and Bobby on patrols, the whole bit.

SO YOU were living in San Francisco?

YEAH, I was living in San Francisco at that time. Getting back to the planning sessions to bring Malcolm X's widow to San Francisco, to honor her: They had written her a letter, but hadn't gotten any response back.

They knew Eldridge Cleaver, who had recently gotten out of prison, was a follower of Malcolm X inside prison and was living in San Francisco at his attorney's home. So they made arrangements to talk with Eldridge to see if he would write a letter on behalf of the planning committee to Malcolm X's widow, asking if she would come. They had asked me to come along with them when they went to consult with Eldridge, which I did.

So when Betty Shabazz came to the Bay Area because of that letter, she knew that Eldridge was a follower of Malcolm and wanted to meet Eldridge right away. Eldridge worked at Ramparts magazine in the North Beach area of San Francisco, which was many miles from the airport.

So Huey Newton and Bobby Seale--the two co-founders of the Black Panther Party--along with a Panther cadre and the official planning delegation met Sister Betty Shabazz at the San Francisco Airport. The Panthers went on the plane and escorted her off the plane. Can you imagine going through the airport with guns? You'd get wiped out today!

They took her to Ramparts magazine in North Beach, and that's where she connected with Eldridge. It was after that that Huey and others started talking to Eldridge--about how they knew of his work, and how they wanted him to be involved in the Black Panther Party as a writer. At that time, he was reluctant because he was still on parole, but he was able to work it out, because Ramparts was pretty progressive. He could travel around as a writer for Ramparts and "cover" the Panthers. A little later on, he decided "the hell with it," and he joined.

THERE ARE a lot of young people today who are inspired by the Panthers and its history. What do you think are the most important things for us in this newer generation to know?

UNDERSTANDING that it was a youth movement. You had a few people who had great insight, like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who did all their pre-preparation before starting the organization--looking at different models, looking at different things and putting them together based on their perspective. That's one thing.

The other thing that young people have to understand is that this is a long struggle. And everybody that joined wasn't going to be a scholar or intellectual. Huey and Bobby understood that. The first recruits were people off the street who were beaten down and abused by the police. They knew firsthand what it was about. So they were ready to join when the time came.

Little Bobby Hutton, who they mentored, was 15-and-a-half when he joined the Black Panther Party. Huey and Bobby had to get permission from his mother for him to join. The very first cadre were young people, mostly from the neighborhood.

The diversity of the organization was broad. We had people who were Muslims. We had people who were Rasta. Some were Christians, some atheists. Some were socialists and Marxists. We had some Asian Americans who were party members. Comrades who understood Marxist theory mostly became the political education teachers in the Black Panther Party and the party's ministers of education.

So we were able to set all the different beliefs to the side to work together.

FROM THE start, right?

YEAH. There was Richard Aoki, who they tried to claim was a government informant, which is not true. You could look at Richard the same way you look at some of the ex-Vietnam veterans. They were very patriotic when they went into the service--most of them. But when they got back from Vietnam, they joined the party. We also had a few Asian Americans in the party in Seattle.

THERE ARE people today who are surprised to find out that Asian Americans were part of the Black Panther Party. Can you explain how it happened?

RICHARD AOKI was a childhood friend of Huey. If you go to YouTube and watch the documentary Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers, you can see the connection and how Richard got involved in the party. He and Huey Newton grew up in the same neighborhood together. Richard had a very scholarly insight, so when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wrote the Panthers' Ten Point Program and Platform, they took it to Richard Aoki to get his insight about it. After that, Huey asked him about joining the party.

He said, "Why do you want me to join? I'm Asian American; I'm not Black." And Huey said, in essence, "The struggle for liberation transcends color."

That was the philosophy of the Black Panther Party in relation to its organizing. Of course, we had solidarity with many people of color and organizations across the U.S. and beyond the U.S. border.

I WOULD love to hear more about that because it's a big question today: As people are fighting against anti-Black racism, where do other oppressed peoples fit in?

YES, IF you reflect back historically, there had always been those white activists who worked in the Black community. Then there did come a time in the mid-1960s period, before and during the Black Panther Party, where it was said that they should work in organizing the white community--that Black people need to define the work in the Black community. That was part of Black consciousness at the time.

So there were these struggles about that, but the white left began to see that it was the right perspective. There were some who said, "We can't organize in the white community--they'll kill us!" So that's why they didn't want to go in there.

But the Black Panther Party was always in solidarity with all oppressed people. We always transcended color. We didn't let people tell us how to do it. They could give us critiques, evaluation, constructive criticism, all those things--but if they wanted to tell us how to run our organization, we weren't going to do it that way.

We always had strong solidarity with many progressive and revolutionary organizations, such as our Latino brothers in sister in the Brown Berets, our Puerto Rican comrades in the Young Lords, our Chinese American comrades in the Red Guard and the I Wor Kuen and our white comrades in the Young Patriots. All were inspired by our practice, and we were all united in solidarity--against state oppression and in our efforts to meet the basic quality-of-life concerns of the community with our many community survival programs, such as Free Health Clinics, Free Breakfast Programs for School Children, Free Food Give Away Programs and many more programs.

Then there were our white allies such as the White Panther Party, Prairie Fire, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Yippies, the antiwar movement, the Gray Panthers, progressive unions and the labor movement, and more.

We used to go shoot pool with the Red Guard in San Francisco's Chinatown when we first connected with them. We did security together every now and then, when some of their members would come stay over with us sometimes in the collectives.

You had members of SDS, who were talking about the differences between those who wanted to continue the status quo and those who felt there should be more outreach and more programs like what the Black Panther Party was involved in.

When the Young Patriots first encountered the Chicago Panthers on the West Side, they were racist themselves, until the Panthers were able to engage them politically, and in practice, they began to see they had a commonality. There's a documentary film that shows when the Young Patriots invited the Chicago Panthers to talk with people in the poor, white working-class community, who obviously never really had anything to do with Blacks until the Panthers met with them.

I saw a bit of the footage in this new documentary film about the Panthers titled The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution that's been in many film festivals lately in the U.S. It's footage that a lot of folks haven't ever seen before. This shows us going beyond the boundaries of the Black Panther Party in regards to understanding what Malcolm said: "By any means necessary." I will work with anybody who wants to deal with this racist, decadent government. In essence, that is what he was saying, and what we were practicing.

THE BLACK Panther newspaper at one point shared its issues with a Latino organization?

YES. THAT was La Sieta de la Raza. Some young Latinos in San Francisco, seven of them, were charged with the killing of a San Francisco policeman, which they were finally found not guilty of.

They had no money and no lawyer. So we worked with them to get a lawyer--our lawyer, Charles Gary--and also let them use half of our publication, the Black Panther newspaper, to inform the community about their case. We shared four or five editions of our paper with them. They talked about their history and the challenges they struggled with, and talked about the case as well. That was solidarity.

They had these young, comrade Chicana sisters who used to come to our newspaper production location, and I would show them how to do the layout production part of the newspaper they were producing.

WHAT ABOUT indigenous peoples?

YES. WE were always in solidarity with indigenous peoples. I did a cover design with the Original Caretakers of the Land to show our solidarity. We were always in solidarity with AIM, the American Indian Movement.

A LOT of your art from the time not only shows solidarity with different oppressed peoples in the U.S., but also the Panthers aligning yourselves with struggles in Vietnam and the struggles of Palestinians. Can you talk about how the Panthers saw themselves as part of an international struggle?

WE HAD that solidarity with the oppressed people around the world outlook from the very beginning. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver--all of them had that insight.

However, many of us came in learning it, or had some understanding of it from being in the Black Arts movement, but not really comprehending it. I saw it more and began to internalize it as I worked on the paper, developed the layout and made the masthead for the international section of our newspaper different pictures--like of Ho Chi Minh, Mao, Che and Patrice Lumumba--as part of the international section of the paper.

THE PAPER had an international section?


IN THE international section, say you were reporting on what was going on in Palestine or Vietnam: How did you do that? Who wrote the reports?

WE HAD connections with activists and investigative reporters. Progressive-minded reporters who couldn't get their stories published--they'd give them to the Panthers. Eldridge had also been working at Ramparts magazine, which had dealt with those kinds of investigative stories. Knowing those reporters, he was able to connect them with the party and have them contribute to the paper.

WHEN I look at issues of the Black Panther today, I see these pieces that document the time you were fighting in. But at the time, it was a newspaper that was meant to communicate to other people. I'd like to know more about that. You're using this newspaper that has an international section. And you're trying to organize Black people as revolutionaries. Why did you think it was important to have a section that talked about Vietnam and Palestine, a paper that talked about Native Americans?

IT WAS because they were oppressed, just like we were here. That's the essence of it. And we were a resistance movement. So in that context, you're always in solidarity with those who are like you. You want to show universal solidarity. Huey went to Palestine; he took a delegation. There were Panthers inspired in Australia, like Gary Foley and Sam Watkins, both of whom I met on several occasion. Then you had the Polynesian Panthers, who were in New Zealand and became an official chapter of the BPP in 1971.

All of them were inspired by what we were doing. They didn't take directives from us. You also had the Dalit Panthers in India, the London Panthers--you even had Panthers inside Israel, who were mostly Moroccans. From what I've heard, there were also Panthers in Palestine.

SO HUEY went to Palestine, and then he came back and reported?

AT THE time, he took a delegation with him. It was on the cover of one of the issues of the Black Panther at the time. Thereafter, he and the delegation attempted to enter Israel, but they wouldn't let them in!

TODAY, THERE are a lot of people who aren't Black and are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. They want to know how to be part of the struggle. What would you say to those people?

THEY CAN get some insight from the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, California. Greg Morozumi, who works there, wrote an essay in the book Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. Greg's essay shows the connection between Asian Americans and the Black community. And they said that Black Lives Matter is the most important thing now. Black liberation--they always took it up, and they teach it to young Asian Americans.

That's why you see so much diversity and solidarity. It's because of the history that's being carried on today. If they can understand that, they're in solidarity with people who have been the most oppressed in this country. And at the same time, that doesn't mean it's any less important what their causes are--it's just putting it in a context.

CAN YOU talk about how sexism was dealt with in the party? How did it come up and how was it dealt with?

IT CAME up when sisters began to demand their rights in the party. They were running the offices, they were bailing brothers out of jail, and so they demanded real rights--that they be in the leadership, just like the brothers were in the leadership. They were right there, being shot at just like everybody else, so they demanded their rights.

You also had women involved in starting chapters of the Black Panther Party. In the beginning, it was mostly male-dominated. But you had women who were a part of the delegation that went to the capital in Sacramento, California, in 1967. We went there to observe the racist legislators who were attempting to change the local gun ordinance, because the Panthers were using the existing ordinance legally when patrolling in the community observing police misconduct.

In one TV clip, when they arrested us after leaving the state Capitol, you'll see a Black woman behind the car at the filling station. That was Bobby Seale's wife at the time. She was one of many women who went to Sacramento with us.

We had to deal with the issues of chauvinism in the Black Panther Party by having political education classes, and those brothers who didn't want to work under women or were using the "b-word"--those things that cause the deterioration of party--had to be corrected. Because women demanded that. So when those brothers did that and refused to listen to sisters, they were required to take orders from sisters to learn to respect them as their comrades.

There were people in the party who members had to come to when they had grievances. And if they were relevant, there would be meetings called, or we'd have those discussions at the central body meetings. And we would discuss how we wanted to go forward and which methods of correction for those things. So there was a process as well.

CAN YOU say a word about the role of art in radical politics and organizing?

IT CAN be a reflection of the radical organizing. It can interpret that, and it can be enlightening and informing. It can be a tool, a language--the way you speak and communicate to educate.

THINKING ABOUT a new generation that is trying to learn about our history, can you think of anything else important to know about the Panthers and its relevance today?

THAT IT wasn't about me--it's about we. It wasn't about the individual, even though we have those things in all of us, but you try to have structures and enlightenment and political education classes whereby you can make the practice about the collective, rather than the individual. That's important in regards to moving forward as a collective and being able to do things in the community that are constructive.

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