“The Melodrama is Real”(12): The Panthers as a Joke

      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.

Seattle Times article, 1970 (12)
    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). 

Article printed in the Seattle Times,  1970 (11)
Seattle Post Intelegencer article, 1969 (14)
     Even the headlines of some articles were employed to make the Panthers seem dumb. “Angry 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.

      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).