Oakland's Black Panthers at 50 exhibit extended through Black History Month

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One of the first things you encounter when entering the Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) Black Panther exhibit, is a bronze replica of the iconic peacock chair that Huey Newton sat in.

The public is invited and welcome to sit in the chair.

“It’s a reference to a famous poster with Huey sitting in it. It’s a work of contemporary art,” says Rene de Guzman who curated the exhibit. He’s the director of exhibition strategy and senior curator of art at the OMCA.

All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 runs through February 26, fittingly extending into Black History Month by popular demand.

The anniversary year for 1966, when Newton along with Bobby Seale; the politicized radical revolutionaries they were, co-founded the Black Panther Party for self defense, was actually 2016.

“The Black Panthers is such a significant story in the African American experience,” says de Guzman. “People come away feeling emotionally moved and profoundly affected by this story.”

Admittedly there is something shocking about encountering a Ku Klux Klan robe, circa 1930, encased in glass. It’s a rare relic from Bay Area history and surprising that it’s not from the South.

The image of a mass march led by Klans-women in Richmond, Calif. from 1924 is equally jarring, but along with the robe, it contextualizes and chronicles pre-Panthers racism, using symbolism of something so hurtful to generations of blacks in America. It would almost be callous or detached for one not to react.

“We have a really strong collection of Oakland Tribune photography, so we did dig very deep in our collection for this show,” de Guzman says.

By contrast, another photograph shows a Panther, a young well-dressed black man, standing proud, but armed with a rifle in front of Oakland Police Department.

“I think their notoriety is often seen as having armed patrols of the police. But what they felt was their legacy, was the services they provided; probably the most famous being the free breakfast program for kids,” says de Guzman.

All Power to the People faces the Panthers’ controversies by delving into the complexity of their story. We’re told of the particularly violent police raid on the Party’s Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles in 1969 at a time when raids against them became more common. This crackdown coincided with disturbance from the federal government in the form of the FBI, which had made attempts to discredit, if not destroy the organization, which had grown to about 5,000 members and was described as the vanguard for revolution in America. 

Past members were consulted for the exhibit, which was three years in the making. Some of them admit mistakes were made, but the Panthers’ image as militants who are to be feared, still casts a negative shadow on their legacy as stated in the gallery.  

Much of the exhibit’s focus is on what the Panthers set out to do and accomplished during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“Another thing that’s really rare, is we have the first draft of the Ten Point Platform [handwritten] by Bobby Seale.” The curator explains that the Platform includes 10 political goals that created the Panther organization and was seen as the Party’s road-map to revolutionary change.

The original 1967 draft from the Stanford Archives includes basic demands like; freedom, jobs with guaranteed incomes, and housing, but many would argue those demands still have yet to be fully met.

Art aficionados will appreciate walls adorned with Panther memorabilia and how they cleverly co-opted the ‘Stars and Bars’ Confederate Flag in one of their recruitment posters. This along with clippings from their own newspaper publication, The Black Panther, are displayed on the walls, boasting iconic afros, hippie-era fonts and sartorial highlights of the day.

By 1970, the party was two-thirds women. A sign at the exhibit says women held equal roles to their male counterparts, including chapter leadership.

But a woman who traveled from El Paso, Texas who told us she was a former Black Panther who joined in the ‘60s, said women had to assert their rights “on the ground.”

Carol Johnson flew in just to see the exhibit. “It’s been an emotional day,” she says.

“When I first joined on the breakfast program, we were doing all the cooking and all the guys were doing the speeches and educating the children. We sort of had to have a little riot of our own and say, ‘You know, we’re equal too,’” Johnson says.

Interestingly enough, the exhibit includes an actual jail door, courtesy the Oakland Police Department, that once held Black Panthers. The placard next to it reads: “These bars symbolize the state’s power to imprison its citizens. In a democracy, that power ultimately comes from the people. There is a need to balance law enforcement with the people’s right to protest unjust laws. At times these interests directly conflict with one another.”

Speaking to the current political climate and drawing parallels, de Guzman says, “It really teaches us that democracy, justice and equity is an ongoing project. It’s never done. It should come as no surprise that there’s still work ahead of us. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw the show taking on another relevance.”

An African American visitor to the museum looks around and notices not everyone looks like him. “That’s significant,” says Nathaniel Parker. “Now we’re looking and saying, maybe this movement was significant and the fact that the museum is putting it on is really credible.”

And the numbers have been great. It’s one of the most visited shows in recent memory, according to de Guzman.

“A lot of what people appreciate is that this is a local story and that it’s had national and international impact,” de Guzman says. “There’s a lot of pride here.” 

All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 at Oakland Museum of California                                      Through February 26