The Life and Times of Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture in the Black Panther Party (1/3)
The first part of Marc Steiner’s discussion with former Black Panther Emory Douglas
MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: Hello. I’m Marc Steiner. And welcome to The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA 88.9 FM, The Voice of the Community, and on The Real News Network. And it’s our pleasure today to talk with Emory Douglas, who was the minister of culture in the Black Panther Party, one of the world’s noted artists and graphic designers, who joins us here in the studios in Baltimore. He’s made another trip through town.
Good to have you with us, Emory. Welcome.
EMORY DOUGLAS, FMR. MINISTER OF CULTURE, BLACK PANTHER PARTY: Good to be here.
STEINER: How are you?
DOUGLAS: I’m doing fine.
STEINER: You’re looking good. Good to have you here.
So I want to take a step backwards, because the–a couple of assumptions that I want to make. One assumption is that people even know who you are or who I am, so let’s not make that assumption.
STEINER: So I want to go backwards a bit. I mean, you were born in Michigan.
STEINER: Way before the Panther–before you joined the Black Panther Party.
DOUGLAS: Oh, absolutely.
STEINER: So give us a little rundown of your life, ’cause he moved to the Bay Area with your family when you were just–.
DOUGLAS: In 1951.
STEINER: When you were a kid.
DOUGLAS: Yes, when I was a kid. And I moved to San Francisco because I had asthma as a child, and the doctor thought the weather would be better in California, and my mother had a sister who lived in San Francisco. And so that’s why we came to California.
And when I grew up in San Francisco, particularly all over [incompr.] areas of San Francisco, I went to school there, high school, somewhat high school, but was incarcerated as a youngster.
STEINER: You went to juvenile prison, right?
DOUGLAS: Yeah, but I always say that and other activity that I was involved in was because it was illegitimate activity that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. Okay?
So how old were you when you went to prison as a kid?
DOUGLAS: First when I was about 13, 14 years old, gambling with the older guys.
STEINER: Just, like, shooting dice or something on the corner.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, shooting dice, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
STEINER: And they busted you and put you in jail for that.
DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
STEINER: But then something happened. I mean, you were in prison for a while, and then a transition happened somehow in your life, where you went to college and started studying graphics and–.
STEINER: What was that bridge like?
DOUGLAS: Well, in the process of being in the detention centers, youth detention centers, I used to like to draw. And I used to do a lot of abstract drawing, nothing that relevant to any type of figures or social issues per se. But when I decided to go to college, my mother, who was legally blind, ran the concession stand that was at the juvenile center, because these were concession stands that were run by the state, and they–for people who were handicapped. And so she used to run that particular concession stand.
STEINER: Your mom.
STEINER: While you are inside.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes. Yes. And so that’s why I knew everybody who was ever in there, ’cause she knew everybody who’d come to visit folks and stuff.
And so what happened is that the counselor realized that I was going to college, and he told my mother. She made the suggestion I would take up art. When I went to take the–talk to the counselor at San Francisco City College, the counselor told me to take up commercial art, as opposed to fine arts or something like that. And when you take up commercial arts, you learn the figure drawing, you learn lettering, you know, all the prepress operations, design, all those elements that go into–filmmaking, all that; you get a basic understanding in all those things at that time.
And so it was–San Francisco City College was considered one of the best junior colleges for the arts. And they were always comparing their work to what was being done on a professional level and always competing with the four-year colleges, the art institutes, and what have you in relationship to the quality of work that was being done.
STEINER: So that’s where you got involved in politics first? Is that what–.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yeah. Well, first I got there, because when I went there, this was beginning of the black conscience movement, the black power movement, and you have young black African Americans all across the country beginning to find themselves–Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, SNCC–and [beginning] to change the names of the negro students associations to the black–
STEINER: That’s what you called it then.
DOUGLAS: –yeah–to the black students associations. And so that was one of the first things that happened when I went to City College. I was involved with that there. And you were called a communist, everything else, simply because you wanted to define yourself and your organizational name and what have you.
STEINER: But you weren’t a Russian revolutionary yet.
DOUGLAS: No, no. I was becoming more aware and more conscious, yes.
STEINER: Right. So was it around that time that you also met–is that when you met Huey Newton and the rest of the team?
DOUGLAS: Well, at first I got involved going up to San Francisco State, because it was about 15 minutes away and they used to have–all the black arts and cultural activity used to go on there, because they were the second black student union in the United States that was formed at that time.
STEINER: At San Francisco State.
DOUGLAS: At San Francisco State, yeah. And they used to have Amiri Baraka, Stokely; Sonia Sanchez was out there, Ed Bullins, all the playwrights and stuff were out there. And so I used to go out there for the cultural activity. And when they bought Amiri Baraka out there (then known as LeRoi Jones), I asked to do his props for the backdrops, simple backdrops.
STEINER: Design them.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, design them, yeah. And so he agreed. And so I was doing that in the black arts movement. And in the process of doing that, there was activists who were also out of state who knew of the artwork I was doing for the black arts movement–flyers and things of that nature. So they call this meeting and wanted me to come to the meeting in regards to bringing Malcolm X’s widow to the Bay Area to honor her. And they wanted me to do the poster for that event.
And so, when I went there, they were talking about some brothers coming from–possibly to do security to the next meeting.
STEINER: And what year was this we’re talking?
DOUGLAS: This was January 1967. This is about three months after the Black Panther Party has started, October 1966. And so that week when they came–next week they came over, that was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and Little Bobby Hutton. And they came over and had agreed to do the security. It was after that meeting that I knew all along that’s what I wanted to be a part of.
STEINER: What was it that pulled you into [crosstalk]
DOUGLAS: Well, because of the high levels of frustrations, the police abuse rampant across the country, young black African-American men being murdered and brutalized. You had over 307 rebellions by that time across the country in the United States. So all this and the bigotry that you’re confronted with and the whole bit was going on. So, therefore, respecting–had this amazing respect for Dr. King, but as young people, we always felt that they we want to do otherwise.
STEINER: Push a little harder, be a little bit more militant, and–.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes.
So I’m curious. This is a little digression. How did you not end up in Vietnam?
DOUGLAS: Well, I never wanted to go to Vietnam, really.
STEINER: I didn’t either.
DOUGLAS: And I never wanted to go to war. I used to listen to my uncles and I used to [incompr.] all of them talk how when they were in Germany and all the stuff that they had to go through while they were in the service. And so I never had wanted to really go into the service. I remember when I was–I was so bad as a youngster, prior to turning adult, that my mom [always said (?)] [incompr.] go in the service, get you some training. And I used to go to take the test, but I used to always fail it.
STEINER: On purpose.
DOUGLAS: On purpose. Then one time I went and I tried to fail it and I passed it, but I got a hardship because I told them I had a bad toe and the whole bit.
STEINER: They believed you?
DOUGLAS: Well. Yeah.
STEINER: So here we are in 1967, and you’re starting to align yourself with the Panthers and kind of enamored of their work. And this is very early in the beginning of the Panthers. It was a small group who were starting out. So what was your introduction that? ‘Cause–again let me step back for a minute, ’cause I think a lot of people heard the name Black Panther. And, like, I don’t want to make any assumptions here as well. They hear about the Black Panther Party. They may have heard Huey P. Newton’s name, and they associate it with all kinds of things. But most people don’t really understand what the Black Panther Party was, what the heart of it was, what drew the Emory Douglases of the world to the party, and what it meant at that moment in time, in ’67 and ’68.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Well, there was one because of–mentioned it previously–was regards to the police abuse. There was–young people were confronted with it across the country. It was one of the driving forces of a lot of people who were wanting to do something. And here you’re seeing this organization of young people like yourself who are out there beginning to put together an organization that began to–people, seeing just on the superficial level of just the visual of them, became attracted to that organization and wanted to be a part of. That with myself was one of my guiding reasons for wanting to join, ’cause they believed in self-defense, which is a constitutional right–the Second Amendment of the Constitution gave me the right to bear arms. And they carried that out in a organized manner, a very disciplined and very organized manner. And that was the first phase of the Black Panther Party. But there’s also the phase of dealing with the social programs, the political solidarity, the political aspect of the things that we were in, and international politics as well.
STEINER: But the Panthers were–I mean, people see the Panthers as a revolutionary organization, not just kind of a civil rights pushing for change group. It was a revolutionary organization.
DOUGLAS: Yes. It was basically [incompr.] human rights internationally.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Uh-huh.
STEINER: And talk a bit about the insides. I know that everybody inside when they joined was not a Marxist, but Marxism played a role–
DOUGLAS: Oh, absolutely.
STEINER: –in what–the definition of that party and the people in it, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and the rest.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Well, they were able to communicate in a way that–like, not speaking in a dogma way, but speaking in a way that even a child can understand it. So therefore it transcended better, because by leading by example, putting into practice what they were talking about, having the political education classes, and breaking it down to the cadres in the party made it [that] therefore people were able to communicate in a way that was relevant to the environment in which they came out of.
STEINER: So, I mean, being in that, in the Black Panther Party at that moment–again, I just want to get a sense [of] the kind of the visceral, emotional kind of feel of the moment, because I think people don’t realize what was going on, the sense of a revolution and why people felt solidarity here and across the globe, and especially inside the Black Panther Party, which was targeted. And many of your brothers and sisters were killed, I mean, not so much jailed, but murdered and mowed down by the police.
STEINER: So that’s what you’re in the middle of.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes. As we evolved, again, around ’68, ’69, yes. Lil’ Bobby Hutton was the first Panther who was murdered, two days after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. You had the murder of John Huggins and Alprentice Carter on the UCLA campus, January 1969. Then you go on to December, where on December 4 you had the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. Four days later, you have the 16-hour standoff and the five-hour shootout in L.A. So there was a concerted effort to destroy and discredit the Black Panther Party in its very infant stages of the organization, because it seemed the impact that it was beginning to have on young people across the country, African Americans–but it was transcending that. You had others who were beginning to become inspired by what we were about. You had Red Guard, which were Asian Americans, the I Wor Kuen, which were Asian American. You had the Young Lords, Puerto Ricans. And you had Young Patriots, who were in–
STEINER: In Chicago.
DOUGLAS: –in Chicago, yeah.
STEINER: Right. Appalachian white kids.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes. And [incompr.] solidarity [incompr.] SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, opposed to the war in Vietnam. So here we are making these alliances and beginning to become a force. Even though we maybe be a speck of dust in the context of everything, we were a force in that context.
STEINER: Emory Douglas, it has been a huge honor to see you once again in Baltimore.
DOUGLAS: It’s my pleasure to be here. I’m glad to be here.
STEINER: And coming to The Real News studios here to do this for Real News and for The Marc Steiner Show. And we’ll be linking to all the places they can see your artwork and even more.
Former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party from the beginnings, almost, until the end of the party and has never stopped his work.
Thank you so much, Emory Douglas, for coming by our studios.
DOUGLAS: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here.
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