A young, bereted Panther stares authoritatively from a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other; behind him, a Zulu shield looks on sightlessly. The image has been emblazoned across t-shirts and TV screens, posters, magazines, and newspapers. And, says Jane Rhodes, dean of the study of Race and Ethnicity at Macalester College, it reflects as much about media as it does about the Black Panther Party. Her Framing the Black Panthers examines the turbulent and complex relationship between the Panthers and American media.
The Black Panther Party, founded by Oakland's Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, organized initially to end racially motivated police brutality in the Bay area. The Panthers voiced a complex philosophy of resistance that advocated, among other things, for the exemption of African-Americans from the Vietnam draft.
The party's rise was meteoric, said Rhodes at a Feb. 8 reading at Elliott Bay Book Co. Within a year of its founding, the Black Panther Party became the face of the Civil Rights movement in the wake of Martin Luther King's death. By ingeniously manipulating the media, the Panthers went from a small band of Oakland hoods to a nationwide phenomenon with Newton and Seale at its charged core.
In addition to providing prodigious exposure, the media may have also acted as a shield. Rhodes cites one Panther who felt that the media "saved" her life and the lives of her fellow Panthers: with so much public attention, the Oakland police were hesitant to "neutralize" the organization (as Chicago authorities did Fred Hampton).
But the mainstream media, anyway, was deliberate about what it told its public. When the California House of Representatives began to debate a gun-control bill, the Panthers stormed the legislature, protesting the bill would leave African-Americans at the mercy of a racist police force. The media response was uniformly hostile. One paternalistically glib Oakland Tribune editorial ("Playtime in Sacramento") likened the party to masquerading children.
"[The Tribune's editorial] signaled that the media would offer no support for the party's critique of the police," said Rhodes, "nor would the elite tolerate the theatricality of the protests." That story would prove to have set a tone. Talk of the Panthers became nothing but, as Rhodes puts it, "guns, guns, guns."
The media, says Rhodes, also worked to weaken the BPP by isolating it from the rest of the civil rights movement. When Stokely Carmichael joined the party, for example, a New York Times editorial decried a rift between the BPP and nonviolent organizations like SNCC.
It goes without saying that all that publicity got the attention of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. In one report, Hoover argued the need to "disrupt," "discredit," or "neutralize" the Black Panther Party; shortly thereafter the Bureau began a smear campaign to address what it called the "Black Menace."
In her latest opus, published last fall by the New Press, Dr. Rhodes examines how mainstream media both "contained and controlled" a social movement.
"The Black Panther Party was in a no-win situation," she says. "I express and extreme ambivalence toward mainstream media."