Photos of the Black Panther Party Stir Memories at the Norton

Photos of the Black Panther Party Stir Memories at the Norton

1968 was a tumultuous time for America: the Vietnam War ground on; cold war tensions rose; Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

"The Summer of '68: Photographing the Black Panthers"

On display through October 30 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Museum admission is $12 for adults, $5 for students; children 12 and under are admitted free. Call 561-832-5196, or visit norton.org.

Also that year: The Black Panther Party, a nationalist organization that sought to empower African-Americans, was 2 years old and on the rise. The group encouraged blacks to seize political and economic power by organizing, exercising their right to carry firearms, harnessing the media, and taking care of their own through social programs like free breakfasts for inner-city children.

Issues of race have dominated headlines so far in 2015, bringing an unexpected cultural resonance to the Norton Museum of Art's exhibit "The Summer of '68: Photographing the Black Panthers." This selection of about 20 powerful photographs provides a fascinating look back at a key but underexplored piece of history. The images hint at conundrums of race, power, identity, and violence relevant still to Americans today.

In the early '50s as World War II ended, many African-Americans were left in anguish as they returned home from fighting an enemy abroad only to be greeted by the racism in America. To escape the racist atmosphere of the South, many black families migrated to the western and northern corners of the country, into metropolitan areas. Much to their dismay, these urban areas simply displayed different kinds of marginalization. Jobs, proper education, and overall opportunities left with the "white flight" as many white Americans moved to the suburbs and left black people in concentrated urban areas and ghettos.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, both students at Merritt College in Oakland, California, during the mid-'60s, read and debated intensely while being members of the Afro-American Association. Unhappy with the complacent nature of the club, Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party. Using Malcolm X as inspiration to combat their condition as repressed minorities with a militant stance and Karl Marx's theories to address their economic situations, the party began selling communist literature and publishing its own newspaper. The proceeds allowed members to purchase weapons, which they carried openly as a public-relations stunt that frightened white America. Party members eventually came to lawfully follow police officers on armed patrols but were also involved in violent incidents.

On October, 28, 1967, Newton was involved in a traffic stop in which an officer named John Frey was shot and killed. Newton was arrested and charged with the death. Newton claimed he was falsely accused, and the Black Panther Party launched the "Free Huey" campaign.

Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, a married white couple, documented the Black Panther Party in Oakland as it began to take the national spotlight during the "Free Huey" campaign. The Norton's exhibit includes these original images, shot between July and October of 1968.

One iconic image shows supporters donning black leather jackets and berets as the sun beats down on them while they hold Black Panther flags in front of the Alameda County Courthouse. The Black Panthers on the steps of the courthouse were part of a rally protesting for the release of Newton after he was charged with voluntary manslaughter in Frey's death. The image is perfectly timed as the wind blows the flags so the recognizable Black Panther logo is in the foreground. A more intimate capture by Baruch is that of a black mother holding her child during the rally. The infant is intrigued by something outside of the frame as the mother gazes into the camera with a slightly distraught look. Jones' and Baruch's photographs are as beautifully composed as they are human. These moments frozen in time manage to present a diverse group of marginalized people who are angry, anxious, or hopeful, radiating these emotions through gelatin silver print.

Photos of the Black Panther Party Stir Memories at the Norton

The Black Panther Party faltered and crumbled in the 1970s after infighting and violence. Some, like leader Stokely Carmichael, argued that whites could not support the cause because they would never truly understand the black experience. Bobby Seale was also involved in a murder. The federal government investigated leaders with its Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, to gather information on, and subvert, party insiders.

Jones and Baruch became known for their photographs capturing ordinary people in typical, day-to-day routines and also for portraying the essence of desolate landscapes — both rural and urban — in black and white. While Jones, for years an assistant to Ansel Adams, was born in Louisiana and Baruch hailed from Berlin, the couple met while attending the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961). Both of their works have a knack for capturing intimate scenes that simultaneously present political commentary.

Baruch and Jones were members of the Peace and Freedom Party, which was aligned with the Black Panther Party. Baruch began to photograph Black Panther meetings and rallies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jones did not want Baruch to go alone and accompanied her during these shoots.

Tim Wride, curator of photography at the Norton, explains that eventually their photographs caught the eye of Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. Jones and Baruch "allowed the Cleavers to use all the images for the Black Panther publication, and so they become the de facto imagers of the Panthers." Baruch passed away in 1997 and Jones in 2009. About 60 of their works were gifted to the Norton by the Pirkle Jones Foundation.

Wride, who has written a book on Pirkle Jones titled Pirkle Jones: California Photographs, 1935-1982, hopes that those who attend the exhibit will not only enjoy these aesthetically impressive works of art but also attempt to catch a glimpse at what the historic Black Power Movement was about through these photographs.

"It was such a tumultuous time," says Wride. "I mean, I talk to kids now and they think of the Panthers, and all they think of is the militant Panthers, when in fact the Panthers were incredibly socially engaged in creating community — and that's kind of what Pirkle and Ruth-Marion were doing."

As is evident from news headlines — unarmed black men being shot, a white gunman killing blacks in a Charleston church, "transracial" Rachel Dolezal — America is still clearly coming to terms with its multicultural populace. Although no photo exhibit can alleviate these grand problems, it might give us better perspective.

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