This year marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. Inspired by this milestone, we explored how access to rare historical video and print materials from the Black Panthers’ archive promotes deeper understanding of past – and current – events.
When Joshua Bloom started research for Black Against the Empire, the 2013 book he wrote with Waldo E. Martin about the history of the Black Panthers, they expected most of their information would come from formal interviews. They spoke with some of the movement’s surviving key figures, including Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and others who had lived through the history they were writing about.
However, Bloom and Martin soon discovered limitations in using contemporary conversations as a principle resource in their work.
“Retrospective accounts, decades after the fact – with memories shaped by intervening events, interests, and hearsay – are highly contradictory,” the authors noted in the introduction of their book.
Bloom, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, recently elaborated. “People have lots of different perspectives,” he explained, “especially in recalling events that might have been contentious. As a result, details related to facts can be hard to interpret.”
For deeper insight and accuracy, Bloom and Martin found themselves turning to “documentary or recorded evidence that was temporally proximate to the events.” These materials included historical video footage of speeches and rallies, interviews and newsreels, as well as printed resources such as periodicals and newspapers.
Among the most illuminating primary resources was the Black Panther Party’s own newspaper. Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale started The Black Panther in 1967, and by 1968 they had the No. 1 Black weekly newspaper in the country. Copies sold out regularly not only in San Francisco, where it was printed, but around the world.
In researching their book, Bloom and Martin launched a major archival project as they tracked down copies to compile the only near-complete collection of the paper. The Black Panther provided them with invaluable firsthand accounts of events as they happened, unique perspectives on national and international news, and documented statements of the Party’s political stances, programs and priorities.
Then the authors joined forces with Alexander Street, who – in collaboration with former Black Panther Chief of Staff, David Hilliard, and Frederika Newton, Huey Newton’s widow – digitized the entire run of The Black Panther newspaper, made the text searchable, and published the documents online as part of its Black Thought and Culture collection.
Will Whalen, Vice President of Licensing at Alexander Street, recalled being met with some cynicism by Hilliard and Newton when the idea was first floated to digitize the newspapers.
In the mid-90s, when Bloom and Martin were starting their research, most of The Black Panther archive was housed in boxes in Hilliard’s garage, along with other historical Party materials including “old cans of film – Mr. Hilliard didn’t even know what was on all of them,” Whalen remembered.
Of course, Whalen immediately recognized these resources offered researchers an unparalleled scope of awareness and understanding of what the Black Panther Party was about.
When the Party was formed in 1966, the core motivation was to challenge rampant police brutality against the Black community in Oakland, California. In a 1969 newsreel clip, now preserved in Alexander Street’s Black Studies in Video collection, Huey Newton explained the early activities of the organization and its evolution:
When we first started we had a police alert patrol. And we would patrol the community. If we saw the police brutalizing anyone we'd put an end to this. Usually the police wouldn't brutalize anyone if we were on hand because we were armed and if the police arrested an individual, we’d follow him to the jail and bail the individual out, whether it was a Panther or not. And we would gain many recruits like this. So therefore, the community started to say “well, these people are really concerned about our welfare.”
“The Black Panthers are often misunderstood. The media typically portrays them as violent radicals,” Whalen said, “but they are responsible for a number of social programs to benefit the community, such as the free breakfast for school children program and People’s Free Medical Centers in cities across the country.”
Additionally, the Black Panthers developed an international influence, linking the struggle of Black liberation in the U.S. with global opposition to American imperialism – one of the primary subjects of Bloom and Martin’s book. But knowledge of these activities and the power the Party helmed in foreign affairs was limited to mainstream depictions – when they were covered at all.
A greater breadth of information on these subjects just wasn’t readily available.
Mr. Hilliard and Frederika Newton shared Whalen’s passion for wanting to preserve the videos and newspapers, and to make the content accessible to a wider range of researchers. However, it took a long time for Whalen to build a trusting relationship with them that resulted in a licensing arrangement with Alexander Street.
But, in 2005, Whalen’s commitment to this cause culminated in the electronic publication of materials from the Black Panther archive. This includes more than 2,500 pages of oral histories and the entirety of The Black Panther newspaper in Alexander Street's Black Thought and Culture database, and never-before-seen Black Panthers footage in the Alexander Street’s Black Studies in Video collection.
Bloom spent nearly a decade researching and writing on the topic because the Black Panthers’ untold story “felt important,” he said, and “the history provides salient context for current events.”
Examples that immediately came to Bloom’s mind include activist groups like #Black Lives Matter who are challenging racism and police brutality via community organization and confrontational tactics, as well as Beyonce’s stirring and controversial Black Panther-inspired performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl in 2016.
“How do you fight white supremacy in the era of ‘color blindness’?” he and Martin ask in the updated 2016 edition of Black Against the Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. It’s a question that prompts readers to consider the parallel between the political and racial tensions that inspired the organization and rise of the Black Panther Party, and the political and racial climate we live in today.
In their book, Bloom and Martin respond to their own inquiry about fighting contemporary racism by suggesting:
Indeed, each generation must make its own history, under new conditions, in new ways. Rather than emulating the specifics, we believe that developing effective antiracist practices today requires emulating the general political dynamic common to both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party.
To access The Black Panther newspaper, archival Black Panther video footage, and to explore a variety of related resources, check out these resources:
> Black Thought and Culture
Landmark electronic collection of approximately 100,000 pages of non-fiction writings by major American Black leaders covering 250 years of history. The collections includes previously inaccessible material, including letters, speeches, prefatory essays, political leaflets, interviews, periodicals, and trial transcripts, as well as The Black Panther newspaper.
> Black Studies in Video
Featuring award-winning documentaries, newsreels, interviews and archival footage surveying the evolution of black culture in the United States. Includes films covering history, politics, art and culture, family structure, social and economic pressures, and gender relations, and rare video from the Black Panther archives unavailable anywhere else.
> Black Historical Newspapers
ProQuest Historical Newspapers-Black Newspapers offers primary source material essential to the study of American history and African-American culture, history, politics, and the arts. Examine major movements from the Harlem Renaissance to Civil Rights, and explore everyday life as written in the Chicago Defender, The Baltimore Afro-American, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, Atlanta Daily World, The Norfolk Journal and Guide, The Philadelphia Tribune, and Cleveland Call and Post.
> History Vault
One of the strengths of ProQuest History Vault is its coverage of the Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century. History Vault includes extensive coverage of the four major civil rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s: NAACP; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In addition, there is material in History Vault on the Black Panthers and the Black Power Movement. History Vault includes the Robert F. Williams Papers. Williams, who had been a member of the NAACP, also became an advocate of armed self-defense, and is viewed as an important influence on the Black Panther Party. Another important collection in History Vault is the Papers of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). In the fall of 1962, after discussions with several African American radicals, including the personal encouragement of Malcolm X, Ahmad formed the first RAM cadre. The RAM collection in History Vault reproduces the central writings and position statements of RAM and its leaders. It also covers organizations that evolved from or were influenced by RAM and persons that had close ties to RAM, including the Black Panther Party. Other Black Panther Party records in History Vault can be found in FBI Files on Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party. Finally, there is interesting coverage of the NAACP’s relationship with the Black Power Movement, including the Black Panther Party, in the NAACP Papers.
Martin, Waldo E., Jr., and Joshua Bloom. Black against Empire, edited by Waldo E., Jr. Martin, and Joshua Bloom, University of California Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Seale, Bobby, and Stephen Shames. Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, edited by Bobby Seale, and Stephen Shames, Abrams, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Katsiaficas, George, and Kathleen Cleaver. Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party, edited by George Katsiaficas, and Kathleen Cleaver, Taylor and Francis, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Be sure to register today for our ACRL webinar: How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements with special guest speakers, Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Sklar.
Learn more and sign up for free trials of these and additional resources to enhance research during Black History Month and all year.