Stephen Shames had just turned 20 when he visited the Black Panther party headquarters in Oakland, California and showed some of his recent photographs to Bobby Seale, co-founder and chief spokesperson for the organization. Although Shames still found his calling as a photographer, Seale liked what he saw and decided to use some of the images from the Black Panther journal. So it was that a young white man from Cambridge, Massachusetts became the official chronicler of the Black Panthers from 1967 to 1973, closely documenting their community programs, demonstrations, rallies, arrests and funerals.
“The Panthers were never a black nationalist organization,” says Shames, now 74. “They formed alliances with many black writers and activists and their entire legal team was white. They weren’t there to attract white people, as the US government insisted. anyone they believed was sincerely trying to change the system to benefit the poor and create a more just society.
Since then, Shames has published two photobooks about this struggle – The black panthers (2006) and Power to the People: The World of Black Panthers (2016) – along with several other titles that testify to a lifetime of activism and deep engagement with his subjects. Next month, he will complete his trilogy on that era with a book that, as he says, is “long overdue.” Co-written with former Black Panther Ericka Huggins, who is now a writer and educator, Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party is a dynamic visual and oral testimony to the crucial role played by women in a revolutionary group whose leading figures, with few exceptions, were men.
In her preface to the book, activist and author Angela Davis points out that 66% of Black Panther members were women. She writes, “Because the media tended to focus on what could be easily sensationalized…There was a tendency to forget that the organizing work that really made the Black Panther Party relevant for a new era of struggle for liberation was largely carried out by women. .”
The book is a powerful account of an intense period of grassroots activism and political engagement, a counter-narrative propagated by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, who called the Panthers “the greatest security threat interior of the country”. Like the men of Black Panther, the female members tended to look both stylish and dramatic, often sporting afros and sometimes wearing the black leather jackets and berets that were the Panther uniform. “Most young people are photogenic,” says Shames, “but the Panthers were charismatic. It was something to do with the pride they inspired in their people. Rather than treating them as a problem like the government has done, they gave them a sense of faith and pride and I really think that comes through in the photographs.
Shames’ extraordinary access has allowed him to capture snapshots of young women at protest rallies, as well as organize various Black Panther community initiatives on the ground, including the Free Breakfast for Children program, the People’s Free Ambulance Service and People’s Free Medical Clinics, which offered medical care, including testing for sickle cell anemia. Although the series is punctuated with images of well-known female members – Kathleen Cleaver (law professor and former party communications secretary), Elaine Brown (prison activist, writer and former party president) and the late Afeni Shakur (militant politician and mother of rapper Tupac Shakur) – most of the testimonials come from ordinary black women whose youthful involvement with the Black Panthers remains the most empowering time of their lives.
Carol Henry, who joined the Oakland chapter of the Panthers, recalls: “I joined the BPP when I was 20. I lived in a part of town where the free school breakfast program was going. We got up at 3am; it was a real mission, but it was beautiful. We gave these children a full breakfast every day. Preparing this breakfast was the most memorable part because everyone got up so early and everyone worked together. Another woman, Barbara Easley-Cox, who was part of the Philadelphia chapter, recalls: “Love is what bound me to the party; it illustrated how I understood love. And that is: you have to love people, serve them. I was so loved. So blessed on this earth because of my sisters, all of us, who came to the party. It is missing today when I look at this landscape in America.
As co-author Ericka Huggins wrote the introductory essay and tracked down, as she puts it, “the women who were there whose individual testimonies we were able to use to talk about how great that time was. extraordinary for many of us”. Huggins’ moment of political awakening was seismic. The 18-year-old student at Lincoln University in Philadelphia picked up a copy of the radical leftist magazine Battlements and saw a photo of a young black man strapped to a hospital stretcher with a gunshot wound to his stomach. Next to him, a policeman stood, smiling at the camera. Reading the accompanying report, she discovered that the young man was Huey P Newton, a co-founder of the party, who had drafted the party’s 10-point manifesto with Seale in 1966. “I studied the photo for a while”, she recalled years later, “I had no tears for it, I was so appalled.”
The next day, she left a note for her friend and fellow student John Huggins that read, “I’m going to California if I have to walk. I’m going to find Huey Newton and work on his defense. Are you coming?”
The couple then crossed the country to Los Angeles, where they joined the local Black Panther chapter, which then consisted of about 20 members. They married soon after and initially worked at all the necessary tasks: answering the phone, selling newspapers, writing letters to politicians and talking to potential financial donors. Shortly after arriving in California, they attended the funeral of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, who was killed in controversial circumstances in a shootout between the Panthers and Oakland police. “The person standing in line next to me to pay his respects was Marlon Brando,” says Huggins. “He looked as sorry as I did.”
The murder was an omen. In January 1969, her husband, who had become leader of the Los Angeles Black Panthers, was assassinated on the UCLA campus by alleged members of a black nationalist group, the US Organization. Many members of the black community believed the murder was linked to the FBI’s clandestine and illegal Cointelpro program against the Black Panthers. In December of that year, Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed in an FBI-orchestrated raid on Hampton’s apartment.
A widow and mother of a three-week-old daughter, Huggins moved to her husband’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut and, alongside Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown, organized a branch of the Black Panther Party there. In 1969 she was arrested alongside Bobby Seale and charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy but, after a lengthy trial, the charges were dismissed in May 1971.
“The word ‘conspiracy’ was used a lot back then,” she says now, calmly. “We spent time in prison for a murder we did not commit or have nothing to do with. The system, then as now, was punitive. We were punished before we even entered the courtroom and their goal was to keep us in jail forever…”
Did her time in prison shake the sense of optimism and empowerment she felt when she joined the Black Panthers? “My optimism has been shaken by the death of my husband,” she replies, “and by the fact that I have only been able to see my daughter for one hour each Saturday. But I chose not to let it break my spirit. When I was lonely and grieving, I learned to meditate in a way that brought me to deeper focus, so that when I went to court, I could be truly present. This is a practice that I have kept until today.
Huggins insists her experience was not exceptional and that it “helped me to help the women I reached out to tell their story, because sometimes it’s hard to go back.” Alongside Shames’ powerful images of a moment of black activism that resonates through the decades to date, these stories evoke a time when young black women experienced life-changing personal empowerment and collective possibility.
“These aren’t war stories,” says Huggins, who spent 14 years as Black Panther, making her the oldest woman in their history. “These are stories of service to humanity. The reason why they are so striking, touching and inspiring is that you can feel how beautiful and alive women were at that time. Every function of government that could hurt us did, but we kept going out and stepping up, because we were giving to our communities what had never been given. I think all the women in the book realize that, because they remember how good they felt back then, what they learned, and what was indelibly imprinted on their minds and in their hearts. The book is our heritage.
Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party by Stephen Shames and Ericka Huggins will be published by ACC Art Books on October 9. There will also be a book signing and talk on October 9 at Marcus Books in Oakland with the co-authors and special guest Angela Davis, from 2-4 p.m.