The Black Panthers in Oakland
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale first met in October 1966 in a neighborhood in North Oakland, California. Soon after this first encounter, the two men, along with a number of other Black activists in the community, would found the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Over the following years, the Black Panthers would greatly expand their sphere of influence throughout the country, but their symbolic home would always remain in North Oakland. By extension, this suggests that Oakland was also a hotbed for the rise of the Black Power Movement throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. As we approach and pass the 50th anniversary of the start of the Black Power Movement, it is therefore important to examine how the Oakland community has celebrated and commemorated this period in both their local and national histories.
Commemorating a Movement: A Mostly Retrospective Affair
The majority of the monuments, exhibits, and events that have taken place in Oakland to commemorate the Black Power Movement over the past year have been retrospective in nature. Many art galleries and other venues have hosted exhibits showcasing artwork done by Panthers themselves or created in the likeness of the Panthers. That is to say, most of these galleries have compiled cultural artifacts from the period of the Black Power Movement itself–the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, the Joyce Gordon Gallery hosted an exhibit featuring works created by the original minister of culture for the Black Panthers, Emory Douglas. Similarly, the Oakland Museum of California hosted an exhibition featuring artifacts, documents, and interviews with Black Power activists that are originally from the 1960s as well.
Local universities also conducted their own commemorations, and many of these events were equally retrospective in nature. The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism hung a series of photos by Stephen Shames on its wall; Shames was one of the most trusted photographers of the Black Panther Party while her was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s.
Having said all of that, commemorating the past was clearly not the solitary goal of the Oakland community in hosting all of these 50th anniversary events. Instead, a combination of retrospective exhibits with events focused on the legacy of Black Power in the 21st century really dominated the atmosphere of the community as a whole. For example, the same exhibit at UC Berkeley featuring photos by Stephen Shames also included a roundtable discussion with Shames and Bobby Seale regarding their past work and how it can relate to state of race relations in 2017.
“[The UC Berkeley Exhibit] also offers a bracing backdrop to current national dialogue and tensions around race as seen in reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement, protests following fatal police shootings of black men and boys, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, and more.”-Kathleen Maclay, media relations editor for UC Berkeley’s official website.
Similar sorts of discussions and conversations were facilitated in other locations as well. SoleSpace, a boutique in Oakland, hosted a “youth-driven art show” that included live music and discussions about the legacy of the Black Power Movement among younger generations in Northern California. In a similar fashion, the African American Museum and Library at Oakland hosted a book signing and speaking event by Suzun Lucia Lamaina, an artist who spent years capturing the stories of former Black Panthers after the 1970s. These more current events seem to be an attempt to utilize the history and legacy of Black Power to critically examine the state of American society in the 21st century.
What Does It All Mean?
From the variety of events and commemorations, it is clear that the people of Oakland each have their individual ways of remembering the Black Power Movement that blossomed in their community in the late 1960s. Some exhibits have chosen to center on remembering the Movement and the Black Panther Party, memorializing their legacy and importance to American historical traditions. Others have taken a more practical approach, utilizing the memory of Black Power in order to draw attention to the current struggle for equity and recognition among Black communities in 21 century America. Either way, these commemorations serve as an important reminder of the usability of memory and of the lasting impacts that a social movement can have on shaping the landscape of the nation for future generations.