The first time that photographer Stephen Shames saw Black Panther Party co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, they were selling copies of “The Thoughts of Chairman Mao” at a San Francisco peace march in 1967.
“I remember seeing Bobby Seale and being impressed with the forcefulness of his personality,” said Shames, 53, who was a budding photographer and student at UC Berkeley at the time.
From that day on, Shames was hooked on taking photos of the Panthers at its rallies or at its first office in Berkeley.
The photographs that chronicle the group’s early days are now on display at the Center for Photography gallery at UC Berkeley’s North Gate Hall. The exhibit opened Thursday night and is the largest collection of Black Panther Party pictures ever assembled, Shames said. The display continues until Jan. 19.
Shames said a goal of the exhibit is to display images of the party and its activities that the public rarely sees. One picture shows a child in Oakland eating cereal at the free breakfasts hosted by the Black Panthers.
The free breakfasts, along with free medical and legal services, were part of the organization’s “survival” programs that assisted poor people in the mid-60’s.
Another picture captures a tender embrace between David Hilliard, former chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, and his wife.
But the exhibit does not shy away from displaying the organization’s call for its members to arm themselves. One picture shows Huey Newton giving a speech as another Panther Party member stands nearby by with a shotgun in his hand.
Another photo is a candid shot of some children playing in a bedroom.
“(The Panthers) had a house for the kids. They got raided all the time by the police and they figured that the police weren’t going to raid the kids’ house. They never did,” said Shames.
One image is from the funeral of George Jackson, a Panther Party member and black militant leader who was killed in San Quentin Prison in 1971.
“Those were very depressing, very disturbing times. It was constant psychological purgatory,” said Hilliard, who spoke about Jackson and fellow Panther Party members who were killed. “These were my comrades and my friends. Those were not easy times,” said Hilliard, who ran unsuccessfully this year for an Oakland City Council seat.
Shames said that the relationship between himself and the Panthers, particularly Seale and Hilliard, went beyond that of simply photographer and subject.
“I really think of them as kind of fathers to me. Bobby, especially, saw some merit in my photography. I hung out with them a lot, and that was okay with them,” he said.
Ronald Freeman, 54, a former Black Panther field secretary in Los Angeles was trying to see if there was a photograph of himself in the exhibit.
“You couldn’t say I was camera-shy, but I was involved in a lot of different activities and I really didn’t need to have my picture on the six o’clock news,” he said.
Freeman did not find himself in any of the photographs. But he said he was pleased with the show which brought back memories of a time when he thought the Black Panther Party could solve the problems of the world.
“It’s not over yet. But you just can’t come at it from that position, as far as an armed struggle. You have to come at it from community organizing. But yeah, we thought we could do it,” said Freeman.