The rise of the Black Panther Party in 1966 marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement that is still criticized for it's employment of violent measures. Yet the party represented so much more, focusing on not only self-defense, but also the general elevation of a race through public welfare programs designed and executed by panther members. One must wonder why no one seems to remember the soup kitchens and health clinics. While stories of protests and brutality tend to overshadow human interest stories in most media, something larger was at play. 1966 was host to the rise of the Black Panthers and also the dissent of mainstream press coverage. Integrity disintegrated. The press diverted its intent from proper representation of the Civil Rights Movement in order to cultivate a negative image of the radical Panthers. From 1968 to 1970 the press made the Panthers into monsters through highlighting contradictions with in the movement, belittling it's leaders and emphasizing only the militant characteristics of the party.
The mainstream press was devoted to the singular image of the Black Panther as a fighter, a killer and a ruthless beast. The Oakland Tribune called the rise of the party an “invasion” (13), setting the precedent for coverage focused on violence. During a protest of a gun bill at the California Assembly on May 2nd, 1967, armed men and women gathered in a silent crowd and though no violence occurred, a wire service story said the protestors “roamed” “barged” and “shouted” (6). The scene could have been just as easily described with the words, “marched”, “assembled” and “demanded” as other protests had been described in the past (13). But the real story wasn't in the protest at all, journalists were reporting on the threat that the Panthers represented to the status quo, and through their word choice it is clear they meant for this “threat” to be viewed negatively.
|Television focused on violence and conflict between races, especially in groups (10)|
Black leaders became synonymous with violence. In May1967, The New York Times ran an article entitled “A gun is power, Black Panther says,” an interview with Huey Newton, main leader of the Panthers. It went on for paragraphs describing him in a shroud of ammunition, describing his body guards holding their weapon menacingly and brandishing their power. A similar article in Time read “'thinking black' is Huey Newton and his rage—a rage so blinding he can look on white America comfortably only through the cross hairs of a gun”, clearly showing how the Panthers became animals, reduced to primal anger. While there is no denying the militancy of Newton, there is also no justification for such a one sided view of his character.
To a white readership, cut off for the most part from the alternative Black press, the effect was damaging. Bobby Seale, Panther leader, said whites were “at the mercy of the new media” (13)., which perpetuated an inaccurate view of the party “sure to spread a wave of panic in white suburbia” (13). It can be said that the violent image surrounding the Panthers can be attributed, at least partially, to their staging of pseudo events (6), which naturally diverted the press' attention. Nevertheless, the effect was a media unable to differentiate, “between what the Panthers meant to the nation symbolically and the real threat they posed” (6).
|Photo from http://web.mac.com/christiandavenport.|
|Picture of peace full protest (1)|
|Free Huey Rally, Oakland (1)|
|Panthers assembled in a park (1)|
|Still from CBS report, 1969 (3)|
During the late 60's a cloud of negativity surrounded the Black Panthers. The media enveloped the group in demeaning descriptions. The language of the press clearly illustrates their hegemonistic tendencies. When Stokely Carmichael told the press that the assassination of Marin Luther King Jr. would lead to increased violence, the New York Times called him “psychotic” (6). Carmichael's assertions were indeed bold, especially when he said that the assassination was akin to a declaration of war on the black population, yet he is far from insane. In fact, retrospectively he was correct. Even if his ideas were outlandish, how can a self-respecting publication use such strongly opinionated vocabulary? The New York Times had also covered the Panthers' strike at Yale, which they said, “plunged campus activism into new depths of irrationality” (2). However this story had run in the opinion section, justifying the stronger language.
Language was also used against the
Panthers in a different way. Often publications made a spectacle of
the course diction of the panthers and their rhetoric was connected
with an image of an uneducated ruffian. By putting phrases like “cop
dogs” and “pigs” (words commonly used by Panthers to describe
white oppressors) in quotations, journalists made the words jump off
the page, emphasizing their ridiculousness (13). This helped papers
define the panthers as a largely illiterate and unintelligent
movement. A 1970 Seattle Times article uses this quotation method and
then at the end of the article reinforces the stupidity of the
Panthers with the reminder that none of the Panthers are currently
enrolled in school (12). Media coverage loved to report the fact that
Huey Newton was an illiterate high school drop out as if it was
somehow indicative of the entire movement, though Newton proudly
admitted to the fact and later went on to earn a PhD (8).
headlines of some articles were employed to make the Panthers seem
Blacks Berate Solons In Eloquent Capitol Lecture” read one Seattle
Post-Intelegencer article, juxtaposing the words “eloquent” and “angry” to make the group seem ridiculous and volatile to
their pristine surroundings (14). Some papers went so far as to
emphasize irrelevant details just for the sake of dragging the party
down. An article reporting declined membership to the party said some
described the group as “bumbling” and included an unrelated
anecdote about how Panther demolition expert, “blew himself up
while trying to throw a bomb at his girl friend” (11). The amusing
detail provided color to the story, but was of no worth to the
article and no doubt was included to make a jab at the Panthers.
|Seattle Times article, 1970 (12)|
|Article printed in the Seattle Times, 1970 (11)|
|Seattle Post Intelegencer article, 1969 (14)|
Panthers were also ridiculed by the press when they were deemed not worthy of being quoted in stories about their own affairs. It was sort of journalist tradition at the time for African Americans to be under-represented in the news when the stories were not specifically about them (4), but to leave the Black Panthers out of a story about the Black Panthers was unprecedented. Especially when the Panthers were in legal trouble or when they were facing public criticism, interviews were rarely sought. The Oakland Tribune ran a side bar of the “Background of the Black Panthers” in which they informed the public that the police were in control of the group. Yet if the writers of this piece were to interview Panthers, they would have found a very different perspective, since the Panthers believed that they were keeping the police it line, not the other way around.
Perhaps the most alarming tactic used to de-legitimatize the Panthers was the frequent connections drawn between the party and the Klu Klux Klan. Many publications went as far as to say that the Panthers had become the bastions of hate and evil that they rebelled against so strongly(15). Televised news between 1968 and 1970 portrayed the Panthers as more violent and hateful than white racists and was more skeptical of their movement (6). An editorial in the Oakland Tribune entitled “Playtime in Sacramento” ridiculed the party essentially for playing dress up, putting on berets and guns and acting out a silly revolution complete with “a secret name” (13). The piece drew connections between the two groups, each in their own costume. As a result the media became unable to “distinguish between the donning of a white hood and the wearing of a black berets as symbolic practices” (13).
|Seattle Times article, 1968 (7)|
There is a hole in my research that I will not deny and that is if the coverage of the Black Panther Movement was not to some degree justified. The media focused on the violence of the movement, and indeed there was a considerable amount of turbulence surrounding the panthers. They highlighted the division of the black community on the use of violence, and indeed a dichotomy did exist. With in the frame of my research I have concluded that while news coverage of the time was factual, it was not an accurate or fair depiction of the heart of the issue. It ignored whole parts of the story, blatantly leaving out interviews Panther supporters and belittled the movement as objective news never should.
One must also keep in mind that the press may not have done this intentionally, after all, media tends to be simply a mirror to society. It shapes public opinion, yet it also reflects it. The casting of the panthers as monsters may have been the press's doing, or it may have been already decided on by the public. This is one area of further research that peaks my interest.
I also limited my study to only include mainstream papers, but during my research I was drawn to alternative press. How the values of these papers differ? Did black papers, like the one published by the Black Panthers themselves, highlight violence as the more widely distributed publications did?
With harsh language and selective anecdotes the Black Panthers became a group to be feared and hated by the American public. While their humanitarian efforts were ignored by the press, violence and crime associated with the group never eluded the eye of the media. Through an examination of newspapers, photography and television in the late sixty's one can see that the press turned against a faction of the Civil Rights Movement with their biased coverage and the Panthers became a beast.