The True and Untold Stories of The Black Panthers

B Kwaku Duren © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Charlotte O’Neal © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

In 1981, one year before the dissolution of the Black Panther Party, co-founder Bobby Seale told a full college auditorium, “Today we don’t need guns; we need computers.” On the 50th anniversary of the party’s founding, photojournalist Bryan Shih sees that prediction coming to life in the Black Lives Matter movement: once more, young people are making their voices heard, against a backdrop of our country’s police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racism.

Shih spent four-plus years getting to know former Black Panthers and recording their stories. He teamed up with historian Yohuru R. Williams to make The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution, a book composed of photographs, archival materials, scholarly essays, and perhaps most importantly, testimony from the individuals themselves.

Shih and Williams weren’t as interested in the big names like Seale, his co-founder Huey P. Newton, or spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver as they were in the rank-and-file members who worked tirelessly day in and day out in their local communities.

These are the people who published and distributed the newspaper, taught schoolchildren, and arranged for buses to transport loved ones to those incarcerated in prison. They organized the People’s Free Medical Centers and Free Breakfast for School Children Program.

The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution is unique not only for its focus on the Party’s rank-and-file members but also for its inclusion of the women who have time and again been excluded from the historical narrative. We hear about women who stood their ground even when they were pregnant, widowed, and imprisoned without access to basic sanitary items.

There was misogyny within the Party as well as without, but many women found a home with the Black Panthers. Looking back decades later, former Panther Ericka Huggins once said, “I would say that the women who were drawn to the Black Panther Party were all feminists.”

At one point, the Party was 60% female. “We didn’t have much time to be little girls,” one former member told Shih, “We went straight to womanhood.”

Over the past half-century, the Panthers have been by turns glorified and vilified, and as a photojournalist, Shih did face challenges in earning the former members’ trust, but with time, he was welcomed.

The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution is a complex document. It speaks to both the successes and failures of the Party, as well as its members pride and ambivalence about how it is remembered.

The book had to be made at this point in time because it’s relevant now more than ever, but it also could not have been made even just a few years later. Some of the people included in the book passed away before they could see it published— at least two died as political prisoners.

The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru R. Williams is published by Nation Books. Find it here.

Abdullah Majid © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Ajamu Strivers © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Claudia Chesson-Williams © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Elaine Brown © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Mike Tagawa © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Ericka Huggins © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

Marion Brown © Bryan Shih, from the book ‘The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution’

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