Emory Douglas sounds nothing like an angry radical these days; speaking to Digital Arts by phone as the first UK retrospective of his work opens in Manchester, he is courteous and genial, almost grandfatherly in his manner. But he says he has no regrets about his militant past.
“You have to understand that what I was saying was a reaction to violence,” he says. "It wasn’t necessarily that we were advocating violence – we were standing up in a defiant way against the authorities who had the green light to just murder and kill us.”
He also highlights the Panthers’ non-violent side: “We educated the poor, and the conversations that the politicians talk about today, we were talking about back then.”
Douglas continues: “It was about self-determination, willingness to stand up and struggle... we gave a visual interpretation of what was going on. It was a symbolism – it was inspiring and meant to be provocative in many ways; we tried to inspire and educate, to inform with the art.”
The Black Panthers
Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave black US citizens the right to vote, it didn’t end discrimination in housing, health and jobs, disproportionate poverty among the black community, or police brutality against black people.
Activist groups – including the Black Panthers – sprang up to combat the more insidious forms of racism.
Founded in California in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense eschewed Martin Luther King’s ethos of peaceful protest, arguing that institutional violence could only be answered with armed resistance.
They also ran breakfast programmes, rehab courses, and other social initiatives aimed at improving conditions for the black community.
Douglas’ work often made striking use of just two colours, as in these posters. The text on the top poster says: “Our people’s army should be built up into a revolutionary force equipped with indefatigable spirit of fighting through thick and thin for the party, and the people into an iron army, each member of which is a match for one hundred enemies...”
The Black Panther was a weekly tabloid; while Douglas did much of the posters, he worked at the head of a team in charge of the paper’s layout and other illustrations. “You could say I did about 85 per cent of the work overall,” he says. “But there’s another large volume of work that the other Panthers did themselves. Some of them were better artists than I was, but didn’t know how to put the political content of the paper together, so I would work with them to give them some insight into how that could be integrated into the art that they were doing.”
Douglas has been unimpressed by much recent political graphic design, including the 2008 election. “They could have done better, but that’s how they play the game,” he says. “Those who have been inspired by Barack Obama, some of them have put out some good posters.”