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DISMANTLING BARRIERS: The Transformative Role of Art in the Black Panther Party

Updated: Jan 30



Art has a unique and crucial place in every social movement. The ability to communicate with graphics, colors, pictures/photography, goes beyond written words.

When language, accessibility, and education limit one’s ability to read, art bridges the gap between those who have the privilege to read and those who do not. Artists are needed in any revolt against repressive systems and norms. This multi-part essay series will explore major social movements in the United States that utilize art to bridge the accessibility gap between the ideology and visions of social movement with the people they aim to serve.

First, let’s look at the art behind The Black Panther Party!

The Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party, famously known as one of the largest Black liberation movements, utilized distinct fonts, graphics, and even apparel. Their logo is one of the most recognized movement logos in the United States and has served more than just a logo– it continues to represent their ideology and methodology.

“We use the Black Panther as our symbol because the nature of a panther. The panther doesn't strike anyone, but when he's assailed upon, he'll back up first. But, if the aggressor continues, then he'll strike out.”

Huey P. Newton — Black Panther Party co-founder

Each party chapter used slightly different variations of the logo but the standing, stealth, slightly crouched black panther connected them. This image conveyed a larger message of resilience and self-defense, and helped the Black Panther Party reach the broad audience of Black community they hoped to engage. The origin of the logo helped illiterate voters distinguish Black political campaigns from others. Notably, in 1996 the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama—no official partnership with the Black Panther Party—was a political party for Black progressive campaigns.

An all-white Alabama Democratic Party used a white chicken as their logo and the graphics like the one above were used throughout the campaigns. A white symbol versus a black one is quite symbolic of the political campaigns they represented. This imagery made it simpler for those who could not read to understand the messages, political parties, and ballot a bit more. This accessibility was important because Alamba’s illiteracy rate in the 1960s was above the 2.4% national average at 4.2%.

Years later the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. One crucial part of their outreach came from a newspaper the party wrote and distributed to locals. Emory Douglas led Gayle "Assali" Dickson, Malik Edwards, Tarika Lewis, and others in the creation of the newspapers. This newspaper included international and local news that shared the party’s international allies, ideological beliefs, and recent encounters with the police.

One of the newspaper authors, Malik Edwards, shares that each paper had to include art to capture the attention of everyone—specifically those who could not read. A recurring column the paper included were pictures of pigs to represent police. The pigs wore police uniforms and the badge numbers were those that were “intimidating or violating people's rights in the community”, Douglas shares.

Whether it was through newspapers or a logo, art played a large role to convey the message behind the Black Panther Party. In this series, we will continue to explore social movements and the way art was used within the movement. Stay tuned for more!







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