Opening Friday, June 26, our provocative exhibition Art as Activism features 72 posters from the 1930s through 1970s. Despite their varying messages—some promote violence, others peace; some champion reform, others revolution—these works collectively showcase powerful political messages that went “viral” decades before the birth of the internet. The posters and broadsides focus on the American labor movement (centered around the Communist Party), as well as major mass movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, including the rise of the Black Panther Party. Among the posters on display is the perhaps the Panthers’ most iconic image: Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair.
Newton proudly poses on his rattan throne: spear in one hand, rifle in the other. His expression is stern and his gaze meets the eye. The photo at once mocks Western colonialist portraiture—the zebra rug, the unambiguously “tribal” props in the background, but this stops at Newton. And it is with him that this photo turns the genre’s stereotype on its head. Newton is not an object controlled by Western colonists: he is a crusader against it. Newton is ferocious. Newton is a warrior. In this portrait, he acknowledges the centuries-long history of colonialism and threatens to break down the system itself. The caption reads: “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of black people, or face the wrath of the armed people.”
To this day, the Panthers’ history remains greatly shrouded in mystery and notoriety. Their forthright rejection of reform struck fear into the hearts and minds of many Americans. While almost half of all young African Americans had a “great respect” for the Panthers, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover publicly condemned them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Like many other radical organizations of the 1960s and ‘70s, the Black Panthers was started by college students—Huey Newton and Bobby Seale—in Oakland, California, 1966. In the beginning, the Panthers functioned as a community organization and neighborhood watch—protecting black Oaklanders from police brutality. By 1969, they’d established free health clinics, a credited elementary school, and fed 10,000 hungry kids breakfast every day. During the following decade, they expanded their reach—joining the global fight against American imperialism. Armed with the art and messaging created by Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party), Panther leaders became international celebrities. Soon the organization allied itself with sworn enemies of the United States: North Vietnam, Cuba, and China. At home, they continued to be a community-based organization that spread to 68 American cities by 1972. They continued their efforts to end police brutality towards African Americans and pervasive racism that the Civil Rights Movement, for all its progress, failed to curb.
Decades later, the racial issues that the Pathers’ sought to solve remain hot topics of national debate. Undoubtedly, the digital age has transformed this discussion—camera phones and social media have revolutionized its nature. But back in the 1970s, before Twitter and Facebook, movements relied on posters and flyers to spread word of their political messages.