Reclaiming the legacy of the British Black Panthers
An illuminating photographic archive was opened up to viewers recently at two locations in Brixton, London. ‘Lost Legacies of the British Black Panthers’ exhibited images by Neil Kenlock, who became the Panthers’ ‘official’ photographer after offering his skills at a meeting. He went on to document a number of their protests, rallies and projects.
The British Black Panther Party (BPP) formed officially in 1968 and burgeoned during the 1970s and 1980s. Forged in the context of the assassinations of key black political figures like Martin Luther King and standing shoulder to shoulder with Huey P Newton and the Black Panther Party founded in Oakland, California, the British Black Panthers adopted an understanding that the emergence of a black radical party was not only politically possible, but the only radical response to purposeful disenfranchisement. The BPP held self-determination at the core of their mission as revolutionaries. Their movement provided a response to the rivers of blood prophesied by Enoch Powell and challenged the oppression of black people at the hands of the state and the police.
Little is known officially of the well-organized nature of their movement in the UK and the multi-pronged approach they took to securing black liberation. Such erasure is purposeful and has much to do with archiving practices and the lack of funding directed towards organizations who could properly preserve this history.
Among Kenlock’s photographs are images of children who participated in supplementary schools established by members of the Party and the Black Supplementary School Movement in Haringey, which also had a presence in Bradford, Leeds and Manchester. These were mostly volunteer-led schools which challenged the whiteness of existing education and forms of knowledge, and exposed children to the intellectual and theoretical contributions of those from the African continent, including the tenets of Pan-Africanism. Such projects demonstrate the community-based nature of the Panthers’ approach; they were invested in transforming the world through consciousness-raising and socialist restructuring in their local communities. Panthers across London fought for better housing provisions, legal aid, and resisted the introduction of harsher immigration policies in the wake of the Windrush generation.
They understood the power of youth movements and operated on the assumption that these were the most formative years of one’s political development. Members were required to learn basic self-defence and to demonstrate their understanding of the principles that were foundational to the BPP’s politics. Their vision was underpinned by an understanding that oppressive conditions could only be fought after a thorough analysis of them, which would provide the basis for a response.
Groups across the country met weekly to read, discuss and organize around local issues. Thus emerged a fierce critique of capitalism as well as an understanding that white leftist projects that refused to recognize race as a key pillar of their analysis were doomed.
Their easily recognizable aesthetics and signature protest styles attracted new members and marked them out for state surveillance and police harassment. In 1970, The Mangrove 9, members of the BPP who frequented the restaurant and community hub on All Saints Road, London were falsely indicted on charges of inciting riots. They challenged the legitimacy of the judicial system and exposed the targeted racism of the police forces. The trial lasted 55 days and ended in their being acquitted of the most serious charges.
The transnational nature of the Party’s organizing was another key strength; members travelled across continents to share strategy, meet others engaged in struggle and then found time and space to document their experiences. The idea of solidarity between peoples was core to their success; they thought beyond borders, rejecting nationalism in favour of connecting black liberation struggles across the world.
There are also points of contention, some of which have emerged with hindsight, such as the use of blackness as a political signifier and the tensions between black and non-black members of the party. While these divisions are not new, they foreshadowed the complex challenges felt by contemporary liberation movements and those working to extend the legacy of the British Black Panthers.
The hero-worship of male figures that underpinned much of the Black Liberation movement is also an under-discussed phenomenon. The tendency to elevate charismatic male leaders left little room for internal critique and reflection on the party’s direction, methods of recruitment and organizational style. But these issues are also characteristic of many other radical movements and recur across generations.
What began as a secretive movement, where members were asked to swear allegiance to principles and ideas, soon became a defining political achievement. The Panthers’ legacy is not ‘lost’ so much as it has been deliberately obscured and the exhibition of Kenlock’s photographs brings it to life for a new generation. Contemporary movements have much to learn from the BPP’s uncompromising investment in the people and places in which they lived and their refusal to be subsumed by the machinery of the state. Ultimately, the time and energy poured into movement-building highlighted members’ deeply held beliefs in the necessity of exposing the violence of oppressive conditions and organizing to eradicate them in ways that would spell freedom for black people in Britain and across the diaspora.
‘Lost legacies of the British Black Panthers’ runs until 30 August 2019 at Photofusion and 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, London.
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