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THE SOFTER SIDE OF THE BLACK PANTHERS

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By thisistwitchy  •  February 28, 2005 07:29 AM

A new exhibit at the Berkeley Public Library shows the positive side of the Black Panthers:

BERKELEY — Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called the Black Panthers the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

But a collection of black-and-white photographs on display at the Berkeley Public Library shows a softer and more philanthropic side of the militant organization that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

In tandem with Black History Month and next year’s 40th anniversary of the Black Panthers, “Serving the People: Body & Soul” will run through March 19 at the main library in downtown Berkeley.

“When people see these photographs, they say, ‘I didn’t know the Black Panther Party was doing these things in the community,’” said Billy X. Jennings, the party historian who set up the photo exhibition….

Jennings said the party did good for the community that was not widely publicized.

By the end of 1969, the group’s free breakfast program for schoolchildren was feeding thousands of youngsters nationwide before they went to class each day.

The group also registered thousands of people to vote, distributed free bags of groceries to thousands more and ran urban medical clinics, Jennings said.

The Berkeley Art Museum displayed a similar photo exhibit a few years ago:

“We are challenging the memory that Black Panthers were brutal, the memory that they were violent, and the memory that they were criminal,” said UC Berkeley professor Percy Hintzen at a lecture Sunday.

The challenge is in photographs — taken over a four-month period in 1968 — now on display at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Hintzen, chair of African American studies, called the exhibit “a project of ‘re-memory.’ ”

Former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver spoke at the lecture, praising the series of photographs for focusing on the group’s civic reform efforts in the 1960s, helping temper the violent reputation for which the Bay Area radical liberation group became infamous….

According to Cleaver, the Baruch and Jones photos tell a different story. She said they depict a very young, idealistic and organized group intent on making changes in a community that had long suffered the indignities of brutal oppression and little opportunity.

Many of the exhibit photos focus on the Black Panther ethics of education and community service. There are several classroom photos of professor George Murray, a Panther who taught at San Francisco State University, as well as reading programs that were offered to the rank and file Panthers.

So did U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Photography:

The first time that photographer Stephen Shames saw Black Panther Party co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, they were selling copies of “The Thoughts of Chairman Mao” at a San Francisco peace march in 1967.

“I remember seeing Bobby Seale and being impressed with the forcefulness of his personality,” said Shames, 53, who was a budding photographer and student at UC Berkeley at the time.

From that day on, Shames was hooked on taking photos of the Panthers at its rallies or at its first office in Berkeley.

The photographs that chronicle the group’s early days are now on display at the Center for Photography gallery at UC Berkeley’s North Gate Hall. The exhibit opened Thursday night and is the largest collection of Black Panther Party pictures ever assembled, Shames said. The display continues until Jan. 19.

Shames said a goal of the exhibit is to display images of the party and its activities that the public rarely sees. One picture shows a child in Oakland eating cereal at the free breakfasts hosted by the Black Panthers.

The free breakfasts, along with free medical and legal services, were part of the organization’s “survival” programs that assisted poor people in the mid-60’s.

No mention of Betty Van Patter, Alex Rackley, or more than a dozen others tortured and/or murdered during the Black Panther Party’s heyday.

How about an exhibit of their autopsy photos and trial transcripts at the Berkeley Public Library next month to balance out the poor-kid-eating-Cheerios propaganda?

(Hat tip: Cal Patriot via Res Ipsa Loquitur.)

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