Power struggle: A new exhibition looks back at the rise of the British Black Panthers

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The British Black Panthers brought about a sea-change in attitudes to race in this country. On the eve of a new exhibition charting the rise of the movement, Holly Williams speaks to the old guard – and finds them ready and willing to give a new generation a further education in the struggle for equality

Everyone knows about the Black Panthers ‑ the militant wing of the American civil-rights movement, whose political activism still provokes strong emotions to this day.

They made headlines only last week, with the news that 71-year-old Herman Wallace, one of the "Angola Three", who had been in solitary confinement for 41 years after being convicted of killing a guard in a Louisiana prison, died just three days after being released.

A judge ruled his conviction had been unconstitutional; he had always maintained his innocence. An active member of the Black Panthers, he'd organised protests for improved rights and better protection from violent abuse for black prisoners prior to his conviction.

All these years later, Wallace's death was still reported as a Black Panther story, and the party is still in the public consciousness. But what is less well known is that here in Britain, we had our own big cats. The British Black Panther movement (always deliberately a movement, not a political party) was not affiliated to the American organisation, but fought for many of the same rights.

Farrukh Dhondy holds up a newspaper detailing the fire-bombing of his home (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) Farrukh Dhondy holds up a newspaper detailing the fire-bombing of his home (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)  

It flourished, briefly but brightly, in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were several branches, but Brixton was the centre – 38 Shakespeare Road its headquarters – so it is apt that this autumn an exhibition revisiting the British Black Panther legacy is to be hosted by Brixton's Photofusion Gallery.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the gallery wanted to look at the face of black power in the UK. They took as their initial inspiration a series of evocative black-and-white shots taken by Neil Kenlock, the official photographer of the movement, capturing protests, debates, parties and portraits of key members and the local community.

In response to these photographs, a group of young people, aged 13 to 25, carried out an oral history and photography project this summer. Calling themselves Organised Youth, they met and spoke to those at the heart of the movement to record their memories of the struggle, and photographed them afresh.

Movement members at the Black Panther headquarters on Shakespeare Road (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) Movement members at the Black Panther headquarters on Shakespeare Road (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)
As with many left-wing, self-organising groups, there is much haziness and debate around the exact dates the British Black Panthers were active, the numbers of people involved, and even the ideological objectives. But essentially, the movement was part of the struggle against racism and for improved rights for all ethnic minorities in the UK. "The Black Panther movement put out this list: we wanted better housing; we wanted better education; we wanted the end to police brutality," explains Althea Jones-LeCointe – considered by many to have been a leader of the movement – in an interview for the project.

Although many members were inspired by hearing American activists talk in London – including Angela Davis, who addressed a crowd to thank her British peers for their support while she was in jail – there were notable differences between Black Power groups in Britain and the US. "Over there, they were a party; they were seeking political power," explains Kenlock. "The American Constitution allows people to carry guns, so they were policing the police. There was segregation in America at that time – the system in America was far behind Britain. What we were about was seeking better education and jobs, and making sure the police treated us fairly. It was just the name and the culture that was adopted."

The name was a quick way to attract attention and get young people excited; some of the style was taken on, too. "The berets, black trousers, black T-shirt and guns," is how Darcus Howe, a member of the British Panther inner circle k and later editor of Race Today, describes the iconography. " But we didn't get to the [real] gun bit over here."

Neil Kenlock, self-portrait, 1970 (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) Neil Kenlock, self-portrait, 1970 (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)  

Howe got involved in the movement after meeting Panthers at the Mangrove Trial in 1971. The Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, was repeatedly raided by police; a subsequent protest march saw nine people – including Panthers such as Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese – arrested. Their trial became a turning point for racial justice in Britain: they were acquitted, and the institutional racism of the police was publicly acknowledged.

But while the British movement was largely founded on political protest, it was also culturally significant and socially rich. Linton Kwesi Johnson describes, in an interview for the exhibition, how his interest in poetry was ignited by exploring the library at the movement's headquarters: "Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature."

While the movement had its own literary sub-groups, it was primarily concerned with fostering understanding of black history and radical political thought. For many, it was a Marxist struggle, an adjunct to the labour movement.

The British Black Panthers' founders were often highly educated immigrants, scholarship kids who came to the UK from the colonies in order to gain a university degree; from wealthy backgrounds, they had never before encountered racism and were incensed at the violence and prejudice of Britain in the 1960s. They made it their mission to educate and radicalise the black immigrant working-class, too, uniting against racism across class divides (and, of course, across different ethnicities – members might have Caribbean, African or Indian heritage).

Black Panther Olive Morris who co-founded a vibrant Black Women's Group in Brixton (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) Black Panther Olive Morris who co-founded a vibrant Black Women's Group in Brixton (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)  

Kenlock says there was little tension in the class gap: "I see myself as working-class, born in Brixton. [The students] came along to educate the community, about history, slavery. It was basically socialism, and they invited us working-class people to help with the campaign. It was about trying to change society, and letting the black community know they really need to do things to get a better life in this country."

Educating the next generation was a huge part of their work – members including Beverley Bryan, Farrukh Dhondy and Johnson helped run a Saturday school on Shakespeare Road, giving local kids extra lessons in English, maths and black history. The Panthers also campaigned against discrimination within the education system. But it wasn't all serious and worthy: they knew how to throw a party. Bryan remembers having "a lot of nice dances and going to a lot of parties, and I think that's important if you're involved with young people".

The movement disintegrated by the early 1970s; exact dates and reasons vary depending on who you talk to. There was certainly ideological in-fighting, but there was a more positive story, too: for many, the Panthers had simply achieved much of what it set out to do. "People realised there was no chance of revolution, but there was change in attitude and anti- discrimination laws and better education for our children," says Kenlock.

Black Panthers activists take part in a protest march (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) Black Panthers activists take part in a protest march (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)  

The movement had many offshoots, too: there was a vibrant Black Women's Group in Brixton (co-founded by Black Panther Olive Morris) and Howe was joined by Johnson and Dhondy in being involved in the highly influential Race Today. "I seriously believe that the methods we learnt, the ideology we imbibed and then the campaigns that we participated in gave rise to the legislation which outlawed discrimination in housing and employment," Dhondy tells me. "We couldn't make a Marxist-Leninist revolution. But we did establish the right of blacks to become proper citizens of Britain."

On the one hand, the Panthers' struggle for equal rights was successful, as seen in the day-to-day lives of those involved with Organised Youth – "Looking at them and the freedom of spirit in which they work, their generation has certainly benefited from the kind of nonsense we did in our time," says Dhondy warmly.

Yet at the same time there is a worry among those interviewed for the exhibition that young people today are woefully apolitical. Barbara Beese challenged her young interviewers: "I do wonder, given what's happening in our schools, I do wonder, given the experiences of everyday people [who have] a government that's committed to social inequality rather than equality, that we haven't had people out on the streets in different ways. I think the riots of a couple of years ago were probably flashed by that sense of injustice."

For Kenlock, however, looking back at his work with these young people has left him hopeful. "It's useful for younger people to see what their parents did so they can enjoy what they enjoy now. [The movement] was left-leaning, socialist, and I hope our young people will [also] give more to the community, educate themselves better, and take advantage of what is available in life. It was great to sit down and show them what we did to contribute to society."

The British Black Panthers is at Photofusion Gallery, London SW9 (photofusion.org), from Wednesday to 26 October

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