On October 15, 1966, in Oakland California, an organization called The Black Panthers was formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panthers, originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, provided programs like The Free Breakfast program, which supplied school children with a free breakfast, free health clinics, food programs and a free ambulance program. Their goal was to create a more comprehensive community for African Americans during the civil rights movement. The Panthers were active until 1982 when a difference in ideas between the members caused the party to split up. Throughout the run of the party, J. Edgar Hoover, former head of the FBI classified the Panthers as a terrorist group and claimed them to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. Although many people thought the Panthers were dangerous, they received support world wide. As the 50th anniversary of the Panthers approached, the Oakland Museum of California put up an exhibit dedicated to the Panthers.
The exhibit highlighted important milestones in the party’s life through photos, artifacts and art pieces. Facing the entrance of the exhibit was the Peacock Chair pictured in the iconic photo of Newton holding a gun and a spear while sitting in the chair. Patrons were encouraged to sit in the chair and imagine themselves in the time of the Panthers. Photos by Steven Kasher and Stephen Shames decorated the walls. Clippings from the Panther Newspaper with photos of protests were shown on one side of the exhibit. One Corner was entirely dedicated to the Free Huey! protests that took place after the incarceration of Newtown in 1967. Throughout the exhibit patrons could watch videos of Panthers speak or they themselves could get up on a stage and speak their mind and behind them, a screen would react to the words they said. The exhibit encouraged viewers to put themselves in the time of the panthers, to feel the emotions the panthers felt.
The majority of the viewers were middle aged people. “I’m impressed so far” said Mefula Fairley, an educator for San Mateo county. She had come because she wanted to “uncover the truth about the Panthers”.
There was a group of Swiss high school students on a trip to California. Their teacher Thomas Stahli, took his students because he wanted to learn more about the panthers for himself. “I’m politically interested in [the Panthers]” says Stahli. Although he has no direct connection to the Panthers, their movement has caught his attention all the way from Switzerland.
Lyndon, an 18 year old, and his father Tristan Griffey Jones, had both came to “learn more about [their] people” and to “inform [Tristan’s] son about his history”. Their close family friend, Steve Long, had been a Panther. Lyndon thanks the Panthers for giving him “a free lunch at school and all these medical advances I can profit from.”
The exhibit’s celebration of the Panthers was made for all ages. Complete with paintings, song, photos and artifacts, the exhibition was a walk through history and a lesson in the power of community. “The way [the curators] put it together is very hands on and very impactful” says Jones, “I really enjoyed it”. Although the Panthers dissolved in the 1980’s, their legacy and stories live on in Oakland and around the world.