For the 120th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, author Jane Rhodes discusses her book, Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.
Jane Rhodes is professor and department head of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also is the author of Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century.
Jane Rhodes: Students were already primed to engage in protest and resistance and dissent, and so it was sort of a natural outcome for the Black Panthers to take this direction.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
Black power surfaced as a regular news item in the spring of 1966 and, soon after, the Black Panthers pioneered a sophisticated version of mass media activism that continues to power contemporary Black protest. In today’s episode, we examine the book Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon. It’s a study of the “novel and provocative ways that a group of Black activists motivated by frustration with mainstream Black politics and the glacial pace of societal change forged a defiant and uncompromising brand of Black resistance and used media and culture to disseminate their message.”
Our guest today is author Jane Rhodes of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jane, welcome to the show. We’re gonna be talking about the Black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s today. But before we delve into this further, let’s step back a little bit to add some historical context of the press and civil rights in the decades prior.
The narrative is often that the mainstream press did this great service to civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s with its coverage of Rosa Parks, the Emmett Till murder, the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, the police dog attacks, etc. Yet you note that the image of the civil rights movement that was produced and the one sustained in popular memory was one dimensional. So, tell us more about this and what you mean.
Jane Rhodes: Well, thanks, Teri, and I’m delighted to talk with you about that. There are a couple of ways to think about this. Um, certainly the mainstream press the major newspapers and television outlets in the 50s and 60s did an important job in covering the civil rights movement, but there are two things that are missing from that. One, that really the front lines for coverage of the civil rights movement, the struggles, the violence, the demonstrations was the Black press.
And almost no one ever talks about the role of local Black reporters, of local Black newspapers across the South and the North as well. Um, they were really the first face of the reporting, and then the mainstream press tended to pick up what the Black press was covering. So, I think that’s a really important aspect to keep in mind. The other part of this is that, you know, the press swooped into communities that they didn’t really know.
You know, reporters from the New York Times, for example, would show up in a small town in Mississippi or Alabama to cover an event, and they didn’t have much understanding or context of what was going on, what the sort of racial and political dynamics of that area was. And so, the coverage is quite superficial. It’s focused on action. It’s focused the events of, of that day, of that time.
Um, and it certainly unveiled to a national and global audience the crisis in race relations across the U.S. But it didn’t really tell much about the story of who the folks were who were living through this, who the organizers were, who the groups were, what were all of the different views and tactics. And there was great diversity among civil rights activists. There were many women who were rendered invisible, but actually played a significant role. So, I think we can give some credit to the mainstream press, but really, we have to take a much broader perspective in how we think about news coverage of that era.
Teri Finneman: So, moving into the mid-1960s, you see the development of the Black Panthers, which had formative ties to college campuses as well as urban communities.
We have a lot of students who listen to the podcast. So, provide the background of why this movement formed, what it was about, and the role of college students in it.
Jane Rhodes: Well, the Black Panthers were very much embedded in both the civil rights movement and the Black power movements. And as you suggest, it was very much a young people’s movement. It was a student-centered movement. They really were influenced by sort of two threads.
One was the Nation of Islam and their quest for Black autonomy and self-sufficiency and their uncompromising political and social stances. And a figure that many of you have heard of, Malcolm X, who was their sort of charismatic spokesperson in the early 1960s. So, he was a powerful influence. Another powerful influence was what was happening on the ground in the Southern civil rights movement, particularly organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
And there were a number of young people who were working in that movement to register Black people to vote, to empower, empower Black people to change the conditions of the South. But that was all happening in the South, and the Black Panthers were really a northern phenomenon. Uh, the two founders of the group, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were college students in Oakland, California.
They were going to community college, Merritt College. Um, they met each other when they were both part of the Black student organization on campus. And they were profoundly influenced by everything that was going on around them, and they wanted to start a group that wasn’t just going to sit on campus and debate the issues. They wanted a group that was gonna go out into the streets, into the community and take on some of the most challenging issues of the time.
And so, the founders were influenced very much by their experiences as students. Huey Newton was taking a number of law classes, and so he used that knowledge of the law in coming up with many of their strategies and their activities. And they really sort of targeted young people, college students, also young people who were not in college, who were unemployed, young people who were coming back from the Vietnam War.
It was very much an organization. One of the early founders of Black Panthers was a high school student, a young woman, for example, who knew some of the Black Panthers in Oakland. So yes, so students were on the front lines. Students were already primed to engage in protest and resistance and dissent, and so it was sort of a natural outcome for the Black Panthers to take this direction.
Teri Finneman: You note that early newspaper coverage of the Black Panthers framed them as hate-filled anti-white terrorists. Tell us more about some of this initial coverage.
Jane Rhodes: Well, you know, the mainstream news media of this period was very homogeneous. It was fairly elite, and your average newspaper reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper or television broadcast was white, was male, was young, was educated in a handful of schools. So, there was a tremendous amount of homogeneity, but also sort of a lack of a broad understanding in the ways in which society worked and who was in American society.
And so, it’s not surprising then that when a particularly militant political group comes along like the Black Panthers, that they’re going to sort of register the kinds of anxieties of middle class elite white America.
Uh, white Americans were frightened by Black activists like Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers. They saw them as a threat to society, as a threat to the national order, and that really emerges in the news media coverage as well. The early reportage of the Panthers really sort of cast them as uncivilized and dangerous and outside of the norm of mainstream behavior. And so you really get this very alarmist kinds of coverage. What, after the Panther stage, one of their first protests for example, there was an editorial in the New York Times. The editorial essentially compared the Panthers and said they were just like white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan that they were, you know, saber rattling and threatening violence.
And it, it was just such an absurd argument to make because here was a group that was arguing against racial discrimination, but because they were Black, because they were angry, and because they didn’t always use the sort of codes of behavior that mainstream America expected, they were often reported on by the media as a threat and as dangerous.
Teri Finneman: You mentioned the Kerner Commission, which created a report in 1968 criticizing the news media’s poor performance in attending to the needs of America with the report noting “the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States, and as a related matter to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism.” How did the media of the time attempt to address this criticism, or did they at all?
Jane Rhodes: Well, I think it’s most significant that the Kerner Commission focused on the media.
You know, there had been dozens of commissions throughout the 20th century that studied the race problem in America. This was one of the first times that the news media became a central focus. Um, and there was a lot of attention to the fact that the media often exacerbated, rather than aided, in the kinds of racial crises that were gripping America.
So, the Kerner Commission was – the formal name of it was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and it was summoned by President Lyndon Johnson because America was being taken over by what were called race riots of the time, what we might call uprisings today, but across the country in large cities and in small, there were disturbances from Los Angeles to Newark, to New York City, to Charlotte, North Carolina, anywhere. Um, there were these huge conflagrations. People died.
Um, businesses and homes were burned down, and a lot of it was a reflection of profound anger and frustration that had bubbled up in Black communities and spilled over. And so, the Kerner Commission wanted to figure out sort of why that was happening and what role different segments of society played in this. And when they looked at the news media, they saw that the media had actually done a lot to fan the flames of these crises.
The press would talk about, you know, essentially Black criminals going in and burning down their communities. They talked about sort of the threat to sort of average citizens. They used very sensationalist language. One of the things that the Kerner Commission found and, and criticized was the practice of only talking to official sources.
So, it wasn’t uncommon for a newspaper reporter in any city or community when an event like this happened, they would go to the police department, they would talk to the police chief or the public relations officer from the police and they would basically write their story based on that. Um, maybe they would talk to the fire chief, or they would talk to some other official on duty.
But no one was talking to the actual people in these communities. No one was talking to the people who were both victims of the violence but perhaps were participants in the protests. Um, and so one of the things that the Kerner Commission found was that the news media discounted Black communities, Black community leaders members of residents of those communities.
And instead just cast these as more evidence that people in the ghetto and, and people of color were sort of uncivilized and violent and threatening. So the fact that the Kerner Commission sort of documented this and had an important critique about the coverage, I think was really significant. Um, and what it did was to promote, to push news media organizations to engage in a certain amount of soul searching, to sort of talk about their practices, their reporting practices, the things that they had taken for granted, the things that they’d never thought about or cared about. It also helped to shape the curriculum of journalism schools so that journalism schools very slowly, very gradually began to sort of change the way that they taught journalists, young journalists how to report.
Um, and probably the other thing that the Kerner Commission did well, the other thing that the Kerner Commission said was that part of the problem is that the news media was essentially lily white. There was very little diversity in the news media and that that needed to change, that the media was not gonna do a good job of covering communities if there weren’t people from those communities actually as a part of reporting.
And so there were recommendations for diversifying the newsroom. There was a real push that news media organizations take this seriously. There was also a push for the creation of training programs through colleges and universities to train more Black and other minority journalists. So, you know, it’s interesting ‘cause we still think about the issue of diversity in the news media today, but the Kerner Commission launched an important salvo into this discussion back in 1968.
Teri Finneman: You also write about how the Black press covered the Black Panthers. So, tell us a little bit more about that.
Jane Rhodes: Well, I looked at the reportage in California, the Black newspapers primarily in the Bay Area and, and in Los Angeles. Um, and one of the things that was really clear was that the Black press didn’t always totally embrace the Black Panthers, but they provided a much more sort of nuanced and I would say understanding view of groups like the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers came out of their communities. These Black newspapers might be the parents, the uncles, the teachers of many of these young activists.
And, you know, one of the things that the Black press really did was much more, I thought nuanced, thoughtful interrogation of why young people were angry, why young people were taking to the streets, what were the sort of broad societal and economic issues that were prompting this protest. And often the Black newspapers might say, “Well, you know, we’re not sure that we always endorse their tactics, but we’re very much in solidarity with their cause.”
And so, I think that was a really interesting and, and distinct approach to reporting on them, and it sort of demonstrated the critique of the Kerner Commission. Um, the Kerner Commission said that part of the problem of race relations in America was that the news media had no understanding or context for what was going on in the communities that they were supposed to cover, and the Black press was representative, at least to some extent, of those communities.
And you could see in their coverage much greater attention to many of the grievances that the Black Panthers raised. The Black Panthers were not only protesting, but they were raising issues about housing inequality and mass incarceration and hunger and problems in local schools. And so, these were things that also the Black press took up to investigate and to address. So yeah, the Black press I think played, you know, a significantly different role in coverage of that period.
Teri Finneman: I also wanna talk about the strategic communication choices of the Panthers. Their look continues to be incorporated into pop culture today. They held almost daily press conferences. They had their own newspaper. You refer to them as a well-oiled publicity machine. So, talk a little bit more about what their strategies were.
Jane Rhodes: Well, you know, I think the Panthers were incredibly media savvy from the day that they organized back in 1966. They were very cognizant of the fact that they were gonna get bad press coverage. They anticipated the kind of imagery that actually emerged in the press. And so, I think two key reasons for their sort of media strategies was one was outreach. In an age before social media, print media really became the sort of default.
And this was true not only for groups like the Black Panthers, but really most of the protest movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. You had a newspaper, you had a flyer, you had bulletins, you had posters. You use photography and now, I mean, it was a very visual, very sort of tactile media landscape.
And so, you know, the Panthers realized that if they were gonna get people to come to their meetings and come to their demonstrations and support them, donate money for their cause, they needed to be able to communicate with multiple publics. And so that was a key strategy. So, they produced the newspaper, and they developed a national distribution.
So, it started in Oakland and within six months, they were distributing the paper not only across the U.S. but internationally. And that played a powerful role in disseminating who the Panthers were, who the individuals were, what their program was, what their experiences were. But they also wanted to speak directly to the media, so they had regular press conferences, they would have rallies in which the sort of the centerpiece of the rally were speeches that would be covered by local media.
And a lot of what the Panthers’ media strategy was, we know the mainstream media is gonna distort who we are. They’re gonna distort our message, but we’re still gonna get out there. And you know, you see this time in and time out. Now, when I looked at lots of the footage of television coverage, for example, and there would be a speech by one of the Panthers, Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton or Kathleen Cleaver, or any number of other Panther leaders, they would often record several minutes of a speech and broadcast it.
And so, one of the things they, the Panthers, managed to get was an audience, often a national, again, sometimes a global audience for their message simply by creating a media event that the press would cover, and they would record and disseminate. So, they were very strategic in recognizing, well, we don’t have a television station of our own, we don’t have a radio station of our own, but we can still get our message out by sort of piggybacking on the fact that the media is gonna cover us.
And so I think they were always, you know, very, very knowledgeable about the media. Uh, one of the key figures in the Black Panthers was the wife of Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, and Kathleen had worked on public relations in the civil rights movement. She had worked for SNCC and other organizations in the South before moving North. There were a number of other members of the Black Panthers: Eldridge Cleaver, her husband had been a writer for Ramparts magazine. So, these are not people who were sort of neophytes to the business of promotion and public communication. And very often they were deliberately sort of provocative and incendiary.
They would say things that you never thought you would hear on the news precisely because they knew that that would make it to the top of the news cycle, right? You know, that they knew that a provocative headline or a provocative speech or tagline would get them more attention, and they believed that the more attention they got for their platform and for their ideas, the more people they would recruit to the organization and the more that they would ultimately be able to push for social change, and they were exactly right on that first point because the organization grew dramatically in its first year. It went from a handful of members in a couple of cities in California to thousands of members across the U.S. There were something like 40 chapters within a year, and that only could have happened with very rapid communication.
So, they were incredibly sophisticated in that, and I’ll just add that they were quite different from many of the other sort of more radical Black activist organizations of the time. Many groups, and this was true of the anti-war movement and other organizations, tended to stay under the radar. They didn’t want to be covered. They wanted actually to not get media attention so that they could engage in clandestine activity. So, the Panthers were all also sort of taking a very, very different approach to this.
Teri Finneman: The Black Panther Party officially ended in 1982, but you write that “like the Black Panthers, today’s 20- and 30-something activists are motivated not by optimism, but by a grinding frustration as they witness worsening economic inequality and racial violence during their lifetime.” Talk about other ways that you see the influence of the Black Panthers still alive today, both in media and broader culture.
Jane Rhodes: Well, all you have to do is think of the fact that we have a new Black Panther movie that’s out and that’s sure to be a blockbuster. It’s no mistake that Ryan Coogler, the director, chose Black Panther as a sort of a subject matter and an image precisely because of the sort of lasting influence of the Black Panther Party on the national imagination, and particularly on Black people, on young Black people. They’re seen as heroic. They’re seen as unflinching. They’re seen as a group who didn’t care about sort of respectability, that they were in your face.
And that I think remains a very sort of tantalizing, exciting prospect for young people who are frustrated with the status quo. And so you know, we see it everywhere, you know, the Black Panther movies are just the sort of most obvious feature, and that’s based on a Marvel Comics character that was first produced not long after the Black Panther party started. So there have long been Black Panthers in comics.
There have been Black Panther figures across lots of different films and television programs. It’s quite hard actually to miss it. One of the manifestations that I talk about in the new edition of my book is Beyonce, not only the famous Super Bowl performance in which her group is singing “Formation” and they are sort of wearing Black Panther garb and marching to the sort of style of the Black Panthers.
But that continues. If you continue to watch Beyonce’s films and videos, she persists in that imagery and it’s quite deliberate. She wants Black people to feel empowered. She wants them to see her as, as generating not just a popular message, but a kind of militant message. And so, what better ways that than to sort of appropriate some of the imagery of the Black Panther Party?
Um, so, you know, I think the Black Panthers resonate in hip hop, they resonate in virtually every popular genre, and they also pop up in politics because if you want to denigrate someone as being too militant or too Black, then you know, brand them a member of the Black Panthers or say that they’re like the Black Panthers. So, it becomes an epithet as well.
So, I think the Black Panthers’ strategic communication strategies have left a really indelible imprint on American culture.
Teri Finneman: What would you say is the one major takeaway that you hope journalists and historians can learn from your book?
Jane Rhodes: Well, I think a key one is that the coverage of complex activist movements like the Black Panther Party requires time, attention, sensitivity, and depth, that if you do a superficial, quick job and you know, dust your hands off and you’re done, you’re not gonna get at the heart of the story. You’re very likely going to just end up creating stereotypes and representations that are inaccurate and, and perhaps damaging.
And you’re never gonna understand why a group like this exists, what their aims are, who they are, who they represent. So, you know, I think knowledge about Black communities, Black history Black grievances are central to that and that’s why history is so important for all journalists to master.
Teri Finneman: And then the final question that we ask all of our guests is, why does journalism history matter?
Jane Rhodes: Well, journalism history is I think absolutely essential for understanding the world around us. You know, journalism history is not just about the nuts and bolts of reportage, although I think that’s really important, but it’s about the institutions that dominate our society. Um, it’s about broadcasting. It’s about today digital media. And we have to understand where that came from, how it developed, and how it shapes our society. Every aspect of the media has a profound impact on our political system, on our economics, on our health.
You know, just take a look at the COVID crisis and, and you can tick off all of the reasons why media was central both to the crisis and to its transformation. So, you know, I think journalism history is, is history. It’s global history, it’s American history, it’s Black history. It’s all of the kinds of histories that are centrally important to our lives.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, your book was wonderful. I know that I learned so much from it. So, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jane Rhodes: I’m delighted. Thank you so much.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.