In 1968, Billy X Jennings was sitting in class at Laney College, in Oakland, California, when he heard chanting from the courthouse across the street. Curious, he left class and joined the crowd of protestors. They were members of the Black Panther Party, demanding that charges be dropped against Party leader Huey P. Newton for the murder of an Oakland police officer. Soon after that, Jennings encountered the Panthers again: a group was selling The Black Panther, the Party’s newspaper, in his neighborhood, and they invited him to attend a political education class. He quickly became a Panther himself.
Jennings eventually rose through the organization to become an aide to Newton. In 1972 and 1973, he ran co-founder Bobby Seale’s East Oakland mayoral campaign office. But he got his start as one of about 5,000 members, many of them teens and young adults, who hawked the weekly paper on the sidewalks of Oakland.
The Black Panther acted as an economic support system for rank-and-file members: each issue was sold for 25 cents, of which sellers kept 10 cents. “For Black Panther Party members who were not working, who had been kicked out the house, who had no place to stay, if you sell 100 newspapers, you have $10 in your hand,” says Jennings.
The paper was also an effective method of recruitment. Panthers who sold the paper spread the Party’s message and encouraged new people, like Jennings, to join them. “Black Panthers selling papers on the corner made you think that there’s a bunch of people who believe in this other way,” says Stanley Nelson, director of a documentary film on the group, Vanguard of the Revolution. He remembers the Panthers selling papers in Harlem, where he grew up. “That’s really important for young people to see—that they’re not alone, that there are people who are already working strongly for change.”
Every Wednesday evening, Jennings recalled, he and dozens of Panthers and volunteers gathered in a converted storefront office in San Francisco’s Fillmore district to prepare the newspaper for distribution. They formed an assembly line, folding and bundling the papers, then loading the bundles onto trucks double-parked on Geary Boulevard. The pace of the work was demanding, but the atmosphere was festive. Those nights spent getting the paper out felt more like a party than a job: there was food, socializing, and performances by Party band The Lumpen, whose funk rhythms were laced with social commentary.
Today, Jennings is the de-facto historian and archivist of the Black Panther Party. He hosts an online collection of Black Panther newspapers and maintains an impeccably organized physical archive of newspapers and other media on the Panthers at his home in Sacramento. A lifelong collector of comics, stamps, records, and butterflies, Jennings started developing his Black Panther newspaper archive for a 30-year reunion of former Party members. After the gathering, members donated their own collections to Jennings, and he continued to find more papers by scouring garage sales, Craigslist, and eBay.
Jennings routinely speaks of the importance of publishing as a political action. “We feel that information is the raw material for new ideas,” he says. “We have been deprived of information, we have been deprived of our history… We sought to find solutions to problems instead of just reporting the news.” All Panthers were required to read the paper as an extension of the Party’s mandatory reading list. (Literacy was taken seriously; if Jennings’s chapter leader caught him without a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, one of the foundational texts for Panthers, he’d have to do fifty push-ups.)
The Black Panther was started in 1967, the first year of the Party, as a four-page, hand-typed newsletter. Within a year, its distribution was over 250,000, and it continued to publish through the ’70s. The paper served as the Party’s ideological mouthpiece, chronicling police brutality, championing liberation struggles around the world, and connecting 48 Party chapters in 30 major cities. At its peak, from 1968 to 1971, it was the country’s most-read Black newspaper.
With The Black Panther, the Party built on a long tradition of Black press dating back to 1827. Papers such as Frederick Douglass’s The North Star, the California Eagle, the Chicago Defender, and Jet, Ebony, and Emerge magazines were published, written, and edited by Black journalists. These publications documented the lives of Black people, highlighted the work of Black artists, and pushed political platforms that benefited Black communities. While mainstream newspapers, and then cable television networks, were often overtly racist, portraying Black men and women as criminal, uneducated, and impoverished, Black media ran stories about the Black middle and upper classes, about ordinary triumphs and daily persecutions.
During the civil rights movement, Black consumers and the papers they read became newly visible to advertisers, as Nelson, the documentary filmmaker, notes in The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. For many Black publications, the appeal of advertising dollars influenced coverage and prompted a more measured tone. The Black Panther, however, never depended on advertisers or attempted to diversify its readership, instead relying on issue sales, subscriptions, and cheap distribution. “The Black Panthers were very clear: some people are going to be very alienated by this, and some people won’t be and will buy its message—and that’s who they’re after,” says Nelson.
In this context, The Black Panther’s voice stood out: the paper regularly featured fiery rhetoric, called out racist organizations, and was unabashed in its disdain for the existing political system. Its first cover story reported on the police killing of Denzil Dowell, a 22-year-old Black man in Richmond, California. In all caps, the paper stated: “Brothers and sisters, these racist murders are happening every day; they could happen to any one of us.” And it became well known for its bold cover art: woodcut-style images of protestors, armed Panthers, and police depicted as bloodied pigs.
Their militancy was feared and vilified by the mainstream press, a relationship that they sometimes used to their advantage. In a series of local TV news interviews about The Black Panther, some Black Bay Area residents took issue with the paper’s slant. “They will, for example, say one thing and leave out just a little bit to make it look like society, or anyone in particular, is against them, whereas it may not necessarily be so,” said one man.
Early in its run, The Black Panther aggregated headline news from across the country, reworking stories about police brutality and social justice for a radical Black audience. As its staff grew, the paper ran original reporting and essays, editorials calling for the elimination of the presidency and an end to capitalism, speeches by Eldridge Cleaver, editorial cartoons and art by Emory Douglas, and contributions from Panthers and supporters from across the country. Each issue included the Party’s manifesto, called the 10 Point Program.
The paper reported on key events affecting the Party and the Black community, such as the eight-month trial of the Panther 21, a group of 21 members accused of conspiracy to attack a New York City police station and an education office; the raid and murder of Fred Hampton, a popular Panther leader in Chicago; and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. It also covered other resistance movements and activism in the Bay Area, most notably the case of Los Siete, a Chicano group framed for the murder of a San Francisco police officer.
Solidarity with other resistance movements was a major draw for readers. The paper’s international section reported on liberation struggles around the world; under editor in chief David DuBois (stepson of W.E.B. DuBois), the section deepened Party support for revolutionary efforts in South Africa and Cuba. Copies of the paper traveled abroad with students and activists, and were translated into Hebrew and Japanese. “It reflected that the idea of resistance to police oppression had spread like wildfire,” Judy Juanita, a former editor in chief, adds. “It showed that this pattern of oppression was systemic.”
The paper also reported internal news on the Party, including its problems with sexism. Juanita and Tarika Matilaba (now Joan Tarika Lewis), an illustrator and the first woman to join the Party, helped to put women at the forefront of what was sometimes incorrectly thought of as a men’s organization. (Two-thirds of Panthers were women; most worked as organizers.) The paper documented the experiences of female Panthers subjected to physical abuse, exploitation, and discrimination. “You can see the evolution of gender politics in the organization over time in the newspaper,” Mary Phillips, an Africana studies professor, said during a roundtable discussion for International Socialist Review.
As the Seventies progressed, the ideology of the Black Panther Party changed and its leadership fractured, and in 1980 the Party, and the paper, ceased operations. (This fracturing was due in part to counterintelligence efforts to disband the Party by the FBI; they also regularly sabotaged distribution of the newspaper.) But it didn’t stop publishing before directly inspiring other progressive newspapers, such as the Young Lords’ paper, Los Siete’s Basta Ya!, and the Intercommunal Survival Committee’s Unity, which published in Chicago between 1975 and 1980. In a program modeled after the Black Panther Party’s sickle cell anemia testing, which was advertised and reported on in the paper, ISC provided black lung testing to white former Appalachians who had previously worked as coal miners. “Everything the Black Panther Party had in the Black community, they were doing it in the white community,” says Jennings of ISC. “You talk about solidarity, boom!”
The Panther paper set the stage for contemporary Black media covering oppression. While today’s Black publications are less overtly radical, and street-corner sales have been replaced by social media shares, Colorlines, The North Star, Zora, The Root, and others continue the Panther’s mission of shining a light on injustice. Danielle Belton, editor in chief of The Root, says that the site works in the same tradition as The Black Panther: “We want to uphold that legacy of covering police brutality, Black liberation, and political prisoners.”
Judy Juanita tells me that The Black Panther also provided connections between the struggles of various marginalized groups, which continue today. “The issues of an oppressive society are now affecting all people of color. There’s so much going on, they can’t ignore all of the police killings, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland,” Juanita says, adding that today’s Black press is more specialized. “The radical thing is that they’re paying attention to oppression; they’re just not using the hard-armed derogatory terms that we used in the ‘60s.”
Nelson believes no publication today cuts through the noise like The Black Panther. “There’s no one out there slapping you in the face like the Black Panthers did by putting papers everywhere, by selling papers on street corners, by getting their papers distributed,” he says. “You didn’t have to go to a rally, you didn’t have to engage in any activities, but you saw the Panthers out there. I think that’s really important for movements.”
TOP IMAGE: Billy X Jennings. Photo by Jessica Lipsky.