“We are challenging the memory that Black Panthers were brutal, the memory that they were violent, and the memory that they were criminal,” said UC Berkeley professor Percy Hintzen at a lecture Sunday.
The challenge is in photographs — taken over a four-month period in 1968 — now on display at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Hintzen, chair of African American studies, called the exhibit “a project of ‘re-memory.’ ”
Former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver spoke at the lecture, praising the series of photographs for focusing on the group’s civic reform efforts in the 1960s, helping temper the violent reputation for which the Bay Area radical liberation group became infamous.
Husband and wife photographers Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones photographed the Black Panther Party members at a time when the radical organization was reeling from the pending trial of co-founder Huey P. Newton for the alleged murder of Oakland Police Officer John Frey. It was also a time when local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were pressuring the organization after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”
According to Cleaver, the Baruch and Jones photos tell a different story. She said they depict a very young, idealistic and organized group intent on making changes in a community that had long suffered the indignities of brutal oppression and little opportunity.
About 250 people, including 15 ex-Panthers, filed into the museum’s theater Sunday to listen to Cleaver discuss the liberation movement while she flipped through a sampling of photos from the exhibit. She paused for a long time at a portrait of an unidentified young man standing guard outside a Black Panther meeting.
“He is intense, completely concentrated and prepared to deal with any situation that arises,” she said. “It’s important to remember that most of the Panthers were teenagers. They were young, vulnerable, committed kids who put their lives on the line to better their community.”
A jail photo of Newton just after he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Frey’s killing captures the youthful resolve of movement, she said. His handsome face is relaxed, his large eyes open and hopeful despite the recent conviction.
“He seemed to be very much the leader,” wrote Baruch, who passed away in 1997, about the photo. “Sensitive and responsive, Huey’s face was a joy to photograph.”
One goal of the photo exhibition, running concurrently with a series of documentaries on the Black Panther Party at the Pacific Film Archive, is to change the image of the Black Panthers, said Hintzen.
He said Newton and Bobby Seale, then students at Merritt College, founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 to challenge a society based on racism, oppression and inequality.
Hintzen described the Panther’s founding doctrine, known as the 10 Point Program, which sought to establish basic rights for the black community. The program demanded opportunities for housing, education and employment and an end to police brutality.
Many of the exhibit photos focus on the Black Panther ethics of education and community service. There are several classroom photos of professor George Murray, a Panther who taught at San Francisco State University, as well as reading programs that were offered to the rank and file Panthers.
Photos of the Panther-sponsored St. Augustine’s Breakfast Program for black children are also included in the exhibit, which runs through June 29.
“It was an exciting, exhilarating and important time,” Cleaver said. “We were doing to politics what Jimmy Hendrix was doing to music.”
Former Panther Elder Freeman, a painter who still lives in Oakland, said he was glad to see the photography exhibit highlighting the group’s accomplishments.
“I very proud to see attention given to the Breakfast Program and the Panther emphasis on education and the voter registration drives,” he said. “We really felt we could make a change.”
Pirkle Jones, 86, said he and his wife thought a photo essay on the Panthers would be interesting, and they proposed the project to Jack McGregor, then director of the de Young Museum. McGregor agreed to support the project.
“We had no idea in the world that this would become as important as it did,” Jones said. “This is what we saw and this is what we felt.”