Emory Douglas and the art of The Black Panthers

As Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party, Emory Douglas was responsible for creating powerful and provocative political illustrations in the 1960s and 70s. In this film from New York production company Dress Code, he discusses overseeing the art direction of the party’s official newspaper, a job that earned him a place on an FBI watchlist…

Born in Michigan in 1943, Douglas was introduced to graphic design in the print shop of a California Youth Training Centre, which he describes as “the last stop before prison”. He went on to take art classes at San Francisco City College, where he was introduced to its founders Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton at a meeting in 1967.

Founded in Oakland, California in 1966 (a year after the assassination of Malcolm X), the Black Panther party was originally set up to protect African-American residents from police brutality, and had a 10-point programme calling for better education, employment, housing and justice for black communities.

The Panthers soon attracted controversy, however, for their support of armed resistance – unlike other non-violent protest groups, the party took a hardline approach to self-defence, advocating that communities protect themselves by “any means necessary”. J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, allegedly described it as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”.

The party’s militant approach is evident in Douglas’ artwork, which was often highly confrontational – many of his images depict police officers as ‘pigs’ – but it also helped raise awareness of and support for its community programmes, such as its free breakfasts and lunch for children, and educate communities about social injustices in areas where illiteracy was high.

The paper was produced from Eldridge Cleaver’s studio apartment (then the party’s Minister for Information) and made using low-cost methods: Douglas says he was able to use only one colour and would often mimic woodcut with marker pens. It proved incredibly popular, achieving a weekly print run of 400,000 at its peak. As Douglas explains in the film, it was a dangerous job – and one that earned some unwanted attention from the FBI (he was allegedly placed on the bureau’s Agitators Index).

It’s a fascinating insight into creating political artwork, and designing for the party during a period of intense social unrest. Douglas received an AIGA medal this year, and his work is featured in Rizzoli book Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, first published in 2007.