The Black Panthers 1968
Photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones
March 26, 2003 - September 21, 2003
Watch a video of Kathleen Cleaver's illustrated lecture from her perspective as an activist during this turbulent period in Bay Area history in Audio & Videocasts online.
"We photographed the Black Panthers intensively from July into October of 1968, during the peak of a historic period and in the Bay Area, where the Black Panthers National Headquarters is located. We couldn't possibly photograph all the aspects of this virile, rapidly growing, and deep-rooted movement, but we can show you: this is what we saw, this is what we felt, these are the people."—Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, 1969
The Black Panther Party was one of many liberation movements taking shape in the 1960s. The creativity, imagination, and genius of young people around the world provided a moment of optimism, albeit in a time of war, that has not been matched since. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, students at Merritt College in Oakland, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. Kathleen Cleaver recently recalled the Panthers as "a mobilization of tremendously talented but very young Black people who had little financial and institutional resources, but we had unlimited imagination....We had to imagine how we could make a fundamental change in the United States that would make Black People's lives better." By 1968, however, optimism had taken some serious hits. FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover vilified the Black Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." Huey Newton was awaiting trial for allegedly killing an Oakland police officer.
The exhibition on view in the museum's Theater Gallery presents a series of photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones documenting the early days of the Black Panther Party and this significant moment in Bay Area history. Stemming from the artists' work with the Peace and Freedom Party, the photographic essay reflects a desire to capture in images a closer understanding of the Black Panthers and their organization. The work of Baruch and Jones stands in radical contrast to mass media images of the time depicting the Panthers as thugs, criminals, or dangerous subversives. Their pictures reflect the dignity and humanity that animated the young revolutionaries, and also suggest universal themes of family, commitment, and hope for the future.
The idea to photograph the Panthers was originally Baruch's. She proposed the project to Jack McGregor, then director of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. She wanted to create an exhibition to present "the feeling of the people," and McGregor agreed to show it. In early summer 1968 Baruch attended a talk by Kathleen Cleaver, the Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party, and admired her eloquence, honesty, and beauty. At the conclusion of the talk the two women met and made arrangements for Baruch to meet Eldridge Cleaver, the party's Minister of Information. No photographs were taken at that first meeting, but Eldridge Cleaver invited Baruch to take pictures at a Free Huey rally at DeFremery Park in Oakland. Jones accompanied her to the rally, and the two collaborated on the project over the next several months.
On December 7, 1968, A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers opened at the de Young Museum to record crowds. The show traveled to the Studio Museum in Harlem; Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; and UC Santa Cruz. The exhibition at BAM/PFA will feature forty-five vintage gelatin silver prints from the original project.
Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones met as photography students and were married in 1949 at the Yosemite home of Ansel Adams. They were together until Baruch's death in 1997. Their work has been exhibited in museums around the country including the Art Institute of Chicago; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, and the Smithsonian Institution.