Fifty Years of Activist Art by Emory Douglas
#BlackLivesMatter–the movement, not just the hashtag–is the most significant broad-based human rights coalition for black Americans since the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The struggle today could not be fought in its current iterations without the contributions of artist Emory Douglas and others who illuminated hidden ugly racial truths in compelling and beautifully executed images. Starting in 1966, Black Panther party leaders, including Douglas–artist, designer, illustrator, and the Panthers’ Minister of Culture–used their newspaper and organization to fight rampant police brutality and ongoing systemic oppression in the US and the world. Nearly 50 years later, it is a profound disappointment that the same issues dominate conversations about race and spark protests in cities and on college campuses around the country. It is also true that these highly visible protests resonate with the efforts of all the revolutionary thinkers who came before them.
Emory Douglas continues to work for justice after decades of triumphs and setbacks. He travels all over the world to talk about his work, collaborate on projects, and inspire young people to advocate for change. In the US, he labors tirelessly on behalf of political prisoners, migrants, and against what he calls “police terror.” In spite of oppression’s persistence in American society, there are some differences since 1966. The current Black Lives Matter protests against police killings, although widely contested, are reported and discussed in multiple media for anyone who wants to know about them. In 1972, the Black Panthers revised the tenth point in their platform to read, “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.” At that time technology included broadcast media like radio and television. In 2015 cell phone videos, surveillance camera footage, and live corporate news coverage reveal the truth of what too often happens in everyday encounters between black people and police. Social media communities like Facebook and Black Twitter quickly disseminate images and information that can seem more trustworthy than mainstream media.
In the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s, the Black Panther weekly newspaper, which Douglas art directed, was considered a radical alternative publication. The word “radical” carried connotations like “fringe,” “delusional,” and “inflammatory,” and the Panthers were branded outright terrorists by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In other words, to mainstream America–including much of the black middle class–the Black Panthers and other progressive alternative organizations were full of people who were crazy and dangerous.
Illustrating Black Life
Douglas and Black Panther leaders provided an alternative reality to the popularly mediated image of the US. In that image, everyone was white, middle class, employed, with their basic needs met by full participation in the society. Post–Civil Rights America was presented as a land of equal opportunity for everyone. W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness trope explains how black people participated every day in a society that dismissed, ignored, and systematically oppressed them. Simultaneously, African Americans negotiated realities rarely acknowledged or addressed in the majority white public. In their time, the Black Panthers relentlessly pointed out the basic hypocrisy that still drives most of American cultural mythology. While major black newspapers and magazines concentrated on motivating people toward upward mobility despite racism, publications like the Black Panther and Muhammad Speaks reported on inequality’s root causes. These publications’ world views insisted on not accepting racism as an inevitable reality that had to be worked around, but developed strategies for fighting and ultimately dismantling it.
People had never seen images like Douglas’s in any other newspaper. Editorial cartoons and illustrations filled the tabloid sized Black Panther’s pages. Almost every week a full-page poster covered the back page, printed in two colors, along with the center spread. Douglas illustrated poverty without patronizing or assimilating those he portrayed. The people in his drawings resembled his relatives and friends–the people he grew up with. Douglas’s work showed everyday experiences of so many black people in the US who were never seen in mainstream media. His drawings meticulously illustrated substandard life–cracked plaster falling from walls, oversized roaches and rodents, patched holes in clothing–clear signifiers of poverty. In his poster We Black People Ain’t Beggin’ No More, a woman sits with a broken comb in her hair, a cigarette, and her stockings rolled down her large thighs to her knees. In front of her are bags of groceries from the Panther Free Food Program. She is not begging anymore.
Creating a Counter-Reality
Along with an honest picture of poverty, Douglas and the Black Panthers tried to visualize an alternative existence that considered black response to world events that did not represent their interests. An example is a poster published just after the moon landing in 1969. It shows a pig-shaped rocket controlled by other pigs, who are herding black people onto the moon to work as slaves. The title, Whatever Is Good for the Oppressor Has Got to Be Bad for Us, reflects the skepticism and distrust of government policy and actions like the Vietnam War, fought with a disproportionate number of African American soldiers. Although it is mythologized as one of the country’s greatest achievements, the moon landing was never as popular as its hype. “In 1979, ten years after Apollo 11, an NBC/AP poll showed that only 41 percent of Americans said the benefits of the space program outweighed its costs.” Interviewed in exile in Algiers on the day of the moon landing, the New York Times reported Black Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver’s reaction: “I don’t see what benefit mankind will have from two astronauts landing on the moon while people are being murdered in Vietnam and suffering from hunger even in the United States.”
Emory Douglas’s signature policeman-as-pig images connect directly to the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Panther party formed in response to rampant police brutality in black communities. People were routinely harassed, arrested and brutalized–sometimes shot and killed in the same kinds of murky situations that are currently under scrutiny. Media images of Black Panthers with guns enhanced their persona as dangerous revolutionaries. What is less well known is that in 1966, it was legal to carry loaded weapons in public in California. (State law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way.) The Panthers used “long guns” to show transparency and allay fears of concealed weapons that might get them arrested or killed. The California Legislature, led by then Governor Ronald Reagan, swiftly drafted and passed the 1967 Mulford Act after the Black Panthers legally carried guns in neighborhood patrols. When Panthers came armed to the legislative session on May 2, 1967 in Sacramento, to protest the vote on the bill, they were photographed and vilified in national media as dangerous black men with guns. Many were arrested.
Although killings of unarmed black people by police continued to happen too often under suspicious circumstances, it was George Zimmerman’s acquittal after killing 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2013 that motivated Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to create Black Lives Matter as a call to action. Since then, the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, and others caused by police in the US sparked massive protests and entered mainstream consciousness. Patterns emerged as each high profile case followed variations of a familiar narrative. Police and U.S. Justice Department investigations operating in broad daylight finally began to respond to calls for accountability and reform.
Economic Oppression: The Heart of the Matter
It is less well known about the Black Panthers that they called for “an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community” in their Ten Point Platform. The Black Panther newspaper regularly reported on global capitalism, using the term before it made its way into everyday discourse. The Panthers’ grand plan was to make alliances with oppressed people all over the world–in Latin America, Africa, Asia, India–places that had recently been liberated from occupying colonialists. Douglas’s illustration, I, Gerald Ford am the 38th Puppet of the United States, shows the president being controlled by large corporations.
On Black Friday 2015, one of the biggest holiday shopping days of the year, Black Lives Matter protestors shut down the famous Magnificent Mile luxury retail area in downtown Chicago to protest the fact that it took over a year to properly investigate Laquan McDonald’s killing in October of 2014. McDonald was shot 16 times by the first Chicago police officer charged with murder in 35 years. The notorious Chicago police mostly stood by as protestors blocked store entrances. Decades earlier, through their audacious publication–in editorial pages, news stories, and in illustrations–and organized actions, including boycotts, the Black Panthers drew a direct line from corporate interests to politicians to police.
Protests like those in Chicago and outside a police precinct in Minneapolis are denounced when they begin to occupy white physical and conceptual spaces. As long as the protests are kept to “black spaces” they are largely ignored outside of directly affected communities. A common complaint is that protests like die-ins in malls or shutting down traffic on heavily traveled roads during rush hours should not “disrupt everyday life.” As Emory Douglas’s Black Panther illustrations so eloquently pointed out, black people’s lives are disrupted every day by systemic and relentless oppression.
What is often lost in the impulse to resent protestors is that the act of protesting implies hope.