"How to Stage a Revolution"

The Black Panther Party immediately captured the attention of the national media when they marched on the California State capitol on May 2nd, 1967. Though the party’s appearance at the legislature in the ostensible purpose of protesting the Mulford Bill actually influenced many assemblymen to vote in favor of the bill, [4] the greater issue at stake this day was publicity. While the Panthers had gained significant press in the Bay Area as a result of their armed patrols, [5] Bobby Seale remembered the march on the capitol as Huey Newton's first deliberate effort at reaching a national audience:

So Huey says, “We’re going to the Capitol. Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps. We’re going to take the best Panthers we got and we’re going to the Capitol steps with our guns and forces, loaded down to the gills. And we’re going to read a message to the world, because the press is always up there. They’ll listen to the message, and they’ll probably blast it all across this country. I know, I know they’ll blast it all the way across California. We’ve got to get a message over to the people.” [6]

Two hours before their departure from Oakland early that morning, one member of the group had called ahead to announce their arrival. “Call the television stations and tell them we’re the Black Panthers,” Huey Newton had instructed. “We’re coming from Oakland, we’ve got our leather jackets on, we’ve got our rifles, and we’re going to walk into the legislature with guns. See what happens.” [7] What happened was exactly what Newton had predicted – the carefully orchestrated public display attracted incredible media attention on the local and national levels, capturing the fantasies of both black and white Americans amazed at the spectacle of black men with guns parading through the state capitol. However, it was not the actual headlines and photographs of the next day’s newspapers which held the most significance for the future of the party, but rather the interpretation and meaning given to the words and symbols by the various subjects and audiences of the media and publicity. For most whites, Sacramento had been “invaded” by “evil black desperadoes,” [8] while to the black community, the act was a remarkable and unprecedented demonstration of defiance.

In this case, the Panthers’ specific exhibition of unqualified boldness in their challenging of white authority represented drastically different things for various observers. The battle for control of such interpretations characterized the entire existence of the party, and the Panthers’ emergence as a popular topic of the mass media would dictate and direct the widespread perception of their activities for the next twenty years. This contest was especially characterized in the person and image of Huey P. Newton, the party’s co-founder and Minister of Defense. Newton’s imprisonment for manslaughter in the death of Officer John Frey facilitated, complicated, and reinforced the interactions of several conflicting agendas—including Newton’s own.

This project examines the images and rhetoric of Newton and the Black Panthers from the party's founding in 1966 to Newton's release from prison in 1970. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which Huey Newton posited himself as a martyr figure to increase the notoriety of the party from his position in jail, and how the transformation of his symbol and image defined and limited the influence of both Newton and the Black Panther Party. The representation of Huey Newton as martyr for and embodiment of the Panthers and the larger black community was reinforced through the constant use of certain photographs and contextual frames of meaning. These images will recur throughout the site: I urge that you pay special attention to instances in which one photograph is depicted and manipulated within another (like the one above), thus redefining and expanding the actual significance of the original image.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at I would appreciate any feedback about my work. I also would be glad to recommend further reading and resources, as this project is not intended to be a comprehensive study of the history of the Black Panther Party.

"Huey was just a man who got swept up by a historical moment. The Free Huey movement made him larger than life. Suddenly, he was forced to play the role of revolutionary hero."

-- Elaine Brown

"Huey Newton's death from gunshot wounds outside a crack house on the streets of Oakland was the classic demise of an American desperado... Newton was a cocky and violent man. His times were sufficiently rich with suffering to permit his admirers to make a myth of him... He was really much less than he seemed. He needed a bad boy legend."

-- Stanley Crouch, New Republic

"Huey represented the new nigger: brazen, confrontational, cocky... In many ways, Newton epitomizes the tragic hero. We did not understand the man and his complexity, nor did we understand why we believed in him so strongly."

--Roger Nieboer, author of Servant of the People

FORWARD: Publicity and Performance