Photojournalist Pirkle Jones passed away on March 15, 2009 at the age of 95 in Mill Valley, California. The New York Times calls Jones “one of the most admired photographers of his generation.” One of the highlights of his career is a series of photographs that he and his wife took of Bay Area Black Panthers in 1968. Several of those images are available in a photo gallery on the POV website.
In the late 1960s, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Pirkle Jones‘s wife and collaborator, decided she wanted to create a photo essay about the Black Panthers in the Bay Area. She pitched the idea to Jack McGregor, the director of San Francisco’s de Young Museum at the time. According to the Berkeley Art Museum, Baruch wanted to present “the feeling of the people,” and McGregor agreed to show the exhibit at the museum. The couple spent the summer of 1968 attending Black Panther speeches, marches and rallies, photographing notable Panthers such as Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Kathleen Cleaver, among others.
The Black Panther exhibit opened in December 1968 and caused such a furor that museum officials supposedly almost canceled the show in response to the outrage. After local artists and activists spoke out in support of the exhibit, the show went on and over 10,000 people visited the de Young to see the images. The photographs captured the passion, power and youthful bravado of the revolutionaries — and may even have played a part in Panther recruitment. According to former Panther, Kathleen Cleaver, “There was an attitude, a boldness, a bravado, that attracted young people from all over the country. I wanna be a Black Panther. We didn’t ever have to ‘organize’ the Black Panther Party — people organized it themselves. They saw the pictures. They saw the images and they said, I’m coming to the Bay Area. I wanna be one of those.”
A few years ago, POV broadcast a film entitled A Panther in Africa (POV 2004) by Aaron Matthews. The film told the story of Pete O’Neal, one of the last exiles from the time of Black Power. Facing gun charges in Kansas City in 1970, O’Neal fled to Algeria, where he joined other Panther exiles. Unlike the others who found their way back to America, O’Neal did not. He moved on to Tanzania, where for over 30 years he has struggled to continue his life of social activism — and to hold on to his identity as an African American.
In our planning for the companion POV website, we came across a photo exhibit that was going on at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in conjunction with the 2002 publication of The Black Panthers 1968: Photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones. The exhibition featured 45 gelatin prints from the original project. We asked if we might feature some of the photos that Baruch and Jones took on our site to illustrate what it was like to be a member of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s.
Jones granted us permission and Kathleen Cleaver allowed us to include audio excerpts from a lecture she delivered in April of 2004 in which she spoke about what it was like to be part of the Black Panther movement and what she personally remembered about some of Baruch and Jones’s photographs.
The images are amazing records of these compelling young rebels who advocated black pride, unity, community service and sometimes, violence. I really can’t describe them any better than Baruch and Jones did in the quote that opens their book:
“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 Panther National Headquarters is located. We couldn’t possibly photograph all the aspects of this virile, rapid 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
Visit the POV photo gallery of Pirkle Jones’ work.
Inset image credit: Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch at Point Lobos by F.W. Quandt, 1948.