Black Panthers wore leather jacket and sunglasses, held rifles, and recited lines from Chairman Mao and Karl Marx. But, the members also provided free breakfasts for low income children, free ambulance service for inner city residents, and testing for sickle cell disease.
These are just a few of the party’s positive contributions author Pat Thomas hopes to highlight in his new book, Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975. Last week, Thomas held a book release party at Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books (also the book’s publisher), and he’s giving a 90-minute presentation about the movement at the Washington Hall on March 1.
Thomas began researching his book almost seven years ago, while living in Oakland. He admits to having a long-time fascination with 1960s counter-culture, and quickly became interested in the Black Power movement.
“I thought, ‘I’m living in the birthplace of the Black Panthers,’ so I started reading books about them,” Thomas said. He also reached out to some of the key figures of the movement still living in California.
“They welcomed me into their lives because I didn’t have an agenda,” he said. “I never went around sticking a microphone in people’s faces. I got to casually get to know them as people.”
In the past, media portrayals of Black Panthers regard them as aggressive, militant, and wielding weapons, but Thomas explains the movement was much more than that.
“The panthers had free breakfasts, ambulances, and a daycare. There were amazing community services,” he said. “It was easier for media to cover the bad guy stuff not the good guy stuff. There’s actually a warm and fuzzy side to the panthers.”
The book briefly touches on the politics surrounding the Black Panthers, but the main focus centers on the speeches, interviews, and music by noted activists Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and the Lumpen.
The book resurrects the forgotten history of Motown’s Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum, with a supplemental soundtrack album featuring politically-charged recordings by Stokley Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby and Ossie Davis. The album also includes songs by other popular artists including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. The album is available for purchase through Light in the Attic Records.
The main lesson Thomas takes away from this project is that young people are a forced to be reckoned with. The average age of a Black Panther was just 22.
“How many young people do you know are leading national movements,” he asked. “When people have been stripped of their pride or ostracized too much, they will eventually fight back.”