by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, SF Bay View editor in chief
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) is a major part of the history and pride of the Bay Area’s Black communities. We respect the Panthers’ intelligence and problem solving skills. We respect their courage and boldness in confronting the government and their first line of defense, the police, in an armed manner. We respect their international revolutionary perspective on the question of human rights. We respect their knowledge base and intellectual prowess when it comes to debating in defense of the people. We respect their ability to organize around neighborhood barriers, coastal barriers, class barriers, ethnic barriers, cultural barriers, religious barriers as well as gender barriers.
The Black Panther Party was started on Oct. 15, 1966, in North Oakland, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was based on the 10 Point Program, which was designed to unite our community against the shared police and governmental terror that we all suffer under because we are working class or below working class Black people.
Lil Bobby Hutton was 15 years old when he joined the organization as its first member and treasurer. He was the first member of the Black Panther Party to be assassinated, on April 6, 1968, two days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was killed. Since 1998, the It’s About Time Committee, other members of the Black Panther Party and members of the Black community have celebrated Lil Bobby Hutton Day at Lil Bobby Hutton Park or at the West Oakland Library almost every April to salute and praise the youth that have dedicated their art or their community work to the human rights and self determination movement.
Jeffrey Blankfort is a well known veteran activist who has worked in solidarity with Black and other causes in the Bay Area for decades. He worked as a photographer for the very famous Ramparts Magazine, a left-leaning magazine based in the Bay Area in the ‘60s that Eldridge Cleaver was associated with.
While there, he hung with the leadership of the Black Panther Party and had the opportunity to take some of the most iconic photos of the Black Power and Black Panther era. We talked to Jeffrey Blankfort about photographing the funeral of Lil Bobby Hutton, who was murdered in the streets of West Oakland by the Oakland Police Department. We are also showing a lot of his photos from the era. Check him out as he talks about local and national history.
You can hear Jeffrey Blankfort speak at Bobby Hutton Day on April 8, from 1-4 p.m., at the West Oakland Library, 1801 Adeline St., Oakland. Admission is free.
JR Valrey: What got you interested in photographing the Black Panther Party?
Jeffrey Blankfort: It was, in retrospect, inevitable. Born in New York in 1934, I had been raised in Los Angeles by two parents who were engaged in fighting for racial justice before it became a movement, and they educated me and my older sister about the legacy of anti-Black racism in America and the necessity of fighting it.
At the time and for all the period I lived there, Los Angeles, like most other U.S cities, I would suspect, was as segregated as South Africa. I recall that at a very young age I learned that Glendale, a suburb of LA not only had “restricted covenants” that barred landlords from selling or renting to Black Americans and other people of color, but it was also a “sundown city” in which any Black person found in the town after sundown would be arrested.
In an important sense, my sister and I were privileged, not economically, but socially, because my parents had a number of close Black friends who along with others, most of them in the arts and entertainment business, were regular visitors to our home in a West Hollywood lily white neighborhood. No greater example of that privilege could we have had than when Paul Robeson sang my sister and me to sleep when he came to dinner one night.
I first heard of the Black Panthers in 1967 after being out of the country for six months, sharpening my photographic skills after quitting my day job. But, frankly, my political interest in the BPP came from when I first learned about the protest of armed party members at the state capitol in Sacramento, which preceded my thoughts about photographing them.
My first contact with the BPP was at a rally for Huey Newton in front of the Alameda County Courthouse in early 1968, where he was on trial for the murder of an Oakland policeman. A photo I had taken of that event appeared on the front page of the People’s World and attracted the attention of Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge, the party’s minister of information.
She called and asked me to come by the apartment where they were staying in the Lower Haight. We hit it off and she asked me to make prints of a number of negatives of party figures and party activities, which would be used in the BPP newspaper which she edited. I assured her I would do so and that led to a close friendship that still exists more than a half century later.
JR Valrey: How did you relate to the politics of the Black Panther Party?
Jeffrey Blankfort: What impressed me most about the Party was that the politics and the program were from the generation that had been and continues to be the most directly affected by America’s racist political and social system. Their relative youth, while influenced by the experience and writings of others, was not dictated to or directed by outsiders.
What also impressed me was how many people outside of Oakland similarly affected by our racist system could relate to the party’s 10 Point Program and how, it seemed, the mere fact of its existence changed the atmosphere on the streets and provided new role models for the youth in Fillmore and Bayview Hunters Point.
JR Valrey: When did you hear about the police killing of Lil Bobby Hutton? How did it affect you? Why?
Jeffrey Blankfort: Quite early, the very next morning, I received a phone call from one of the Panthers’ lawyers, the late Alex Hoffman, telling me what had happened the previous night and that I needed to get over to the 28th Street Oakland house where Lil Bobby had been murdered and take photos where the shoot-out with the Oakland PD had taken place.
I didn’t know Lil Bobby but could imagine the circumstances. Oakland, frankly, was scarcely different from the Old South and, as I recall, that’s where a number of the Oakland cops came from in those days. Walking with residents of the neighborhood through the house still reeking of tear gas from the night before, I was as stunned as they appeared to be and the photos I took of them reflect it.
JR Valrey: What was it like being a non Black photographer who shot photos regularly of the Black Panther Party?
Jeffrey Blankfort: The murder of Lil Bobby occurred two days after Dr. King had been gunned down in Memphis, and the people who lived on 28th Street in the heart of West Oakland’s ghetto were righteously angry and on edge, and seeing a light skinned photographer in their midst, the only one, apparently, seemed more of a problem for them than my being there was for me.
Bobby Seale, who, when I arrived, was addressing the gathering of folks from the street and the neighborhood, with a number of Panthers standing militantly at his back, quickly sensed their unease at my presence, and, indicating me, told them not to worry: “He’s cool,” and that was it.
In addition to my childhood memories of my parents’ and indeed my relations with their Black friends, a good part of my own social life as I grew older was in LA’s Black community, so being slightly off white was never a problem. Moreover, in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I must have been stopped a dozen times by cops in the Bay Area and Southern California who thought I was Mexican until they heard my accent, less English. I was put up against a wall once in North Hollywood – but not a single ticket.
JR Valrey: Can you tell the story of how you almost photographed the police officer who killed Bobby Hutton?
Jeffrey Blankfort: It began with Ramparts magazine wanting to do a story on the Panthers after the murder of Lil Bobby, and they approached Kathleen Cleaver for help. She told the magazine’s editors that she would cooperate on one condition, that I be the photographer for the story which was going to be headlined, “Wanted for Murder: The Cop who Killed Bobby Hutton,” with a photo of the killer cop on the cover.
That was heavy duty and likely to be a problem. I had the name of the main suspect and so, in a three piece gray flannel suit, looking more like a businessman than a photographer, I headed down to the headquarters of the Oakland PD. But first I stopped to check in with Kathleen and Bobby Seale at the Oakland apartment where he was staying, and left with them every piece of ID and personal information in my wallet except my driver’s license.
The Oakland PD headquarters was on the north side of Seventh Street in Oakland, but the entrance, a small building with little more than a stairwell down, was across the wide street on the south side. On the wall, as you walked through the door, were working schedules for those on the force, and as I was going through them to find if the cop I was looking for was working that day, a short, rotund, very un-cop looking cop entered the building and asked what or who I was looking for.
I gave this sergeant, determining his rank from his badge, my prepared story: The magazine I work for, I told him – whether I mentioned Ramparts, I can’t recall – is planning to do a story on US cities that can be expected to have a long hot summer following Dr. King’s murder and that Oakland was one of them and I was to get a photo of a policeman from every one of the cities, and I was looking for a particular one that day, mentioning the chief suspect’s name. Strangely, without questioning my choice, the sergeant invited me in a friendly manner to cross under the street with him into the bowels of the Oakland PD.
Upon entering a large, long room – him with me and my camera bag over my shoulder – we were approached by what was clearly a high ranking officer who asked what I was doing there and what I wanted. I gave him my prepared explanation, with the sergeant helpfully adding, “He’s looking for” naming the cop, which again I don’t recall, to which the high ranking officer replied, with enthusiasm and a smile, “He’s my top gun!” Bingo, I thought as the sergeant then led me into a small room, with windows open to the much larger space, followed by a number of other cops including the department’s “top gun,” who seemed to have nothing else to do and were friendly.
I gave him and the others in the room my thus far successful reason for taking his portrait, promising him a color portrait that Christmas. Moving slowly, trying to appear as relaxed as possible, I was just about to snap the first photo when another officer poked his head into the room and shouted, “What’s going on here?”
When I gave him my thus far successful explanation, he replied, “Don’t give me that crap. You’re here to photograph the cop who killed Bobby Hutton!” My response that I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about fell on deaf ears.
My story hadn’t worked on him, but the identity of the killer cop had been verified. At that moment though, I was clearly scared. As the mood of all the cops in the room suddenly changed, the officer who had shredded my cover, which had been a long shot at best, advised me to take my cameras and get out of there and I was only too glad to be able to do so. I suspected that the hapless sergeant who had been my guide had been reduced to a corporal before he went home that night. I didn’t return to Oakland for many months.
I had no problem getting a portrait in his office of the Oakland police chief, Charles Gain, who, I learned later, was viewed with contempt by members of the police force he was supposed to command. That issue of Ramparts would carry my portraits of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, taken in prison, and one of Kathleen whose “natural” made it into the storefront window of Black hair stylists across the country. One black and white photo of Huey, taken in prison earlier, holding up his hand and giving a “V” sign ended up being published all over the world.
JR Valrey: What was the funeral of Bobby Hutton like? And who did you photograph there?
Jeffrey Blankfort: The funeral was a tremendous event illustrating the strong connections between the Black community of Oakland and the Panthers. Every seat of the large church was filled while two rows of Panthers, standing erect and strong, lined both of its side walls. But the body of Lil Bobby, lying peacefully in his casket in the front, was clearly, as was intended and appropriate, the center of attention, and I believe the photographs I took from the rear of the church made that clear.
I assume from the second part of that question you are referring to Marlon Brando who flew up from Hollywood to demonstrate his solidarity with the Panthers and the family of Bobby Hutton but who in no way sought to steal the spotlight, letting his presence there alone send a message of his support to the world.
JR Valrey: When you were shooting these photos of the Black Panther Party, did you know then that they would be such a big part of history?
Jeffrey Blankfort: I wasn’t thinking at first in those terms, but I soon came to see how compelling a story they made in challenging racist America and the false image it presents to the world. In 1968, I assisted an Italian film crew that made a feature film, “Seize the Time,” and beside my photo of Huey behind bars giving the V sign, several pages of my photos of the party were published in magazines in Italy and Portugal, as well as in a British publication, Student, then edited by a young Richard Branson who went on to become one of the world’s richest men.
JR Valrey: What was it like working for the progressive Ramparts magazine? Can you describe the contents of the magazine for people who have never seen it?
Jeffrey Blankfort: The magazine was one of a kind and fit well into the counterculture of the ‘60s. Initially a progressive Catholic publication, its founder, Ed Keating, had been impressed by Eldridge Cleaver’s writings from prison and after helping him get paroled, made him the magazine’s senior editor before Eldridge moved on and joined the Panthers as its minister of information. By then, Ramparts had become a very un-Left looking glossy magazine that mirrored at first glance mainstream publications but contained articles on subjects the mainstream wouldn’t touch or in ways the mainstream wouldn’t touch, like the war in Vietnam and racism in America.
Besides the Panthers, I photographed the protests and police riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968 and, shortly afterward, the Olympic Games in Mexico City where Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists on the victory stand to the rousing cheers of ‘most every one of the 82,000 fans packed in the Mexican capitol’s Olympic stadium.
Since Ramparts had been promoting the call for a strong Black protest at the ‘68 games, the US Olympic Committee not only refused to give me a press pass but, privately, I learned afterward, blamed me for getting Smith and Carlos to raise their gloved fists. I did know that they were going to do something on the victory stand but not what. I was sitting with their wives when they approached the stand and ran out on the field to capture the scene. But the notion that Smith and Carlos could not do what they did independently simply re-enforced a time honored principle of white supremacist America.
I was back the next day when Carlos, now, like Smith, banned from the team, returned to the stadium where his height made him instantly identifiable. Almost immediately the crowd began shouting and repeating his last name to the point it became so loud that the games on the field came to a complete halt as the athletes looked up to the stands to see what was happening. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, that incident has never been included in books and articles about the protest by well-intentioned journalists who weren’t there to witness it.
I had managed to get press credentials just before the start of the games by arranging a meeting, literally at 2:00 in the morning, with the head of the Mexican Olympic Games. He had a very busy schedule and said that was the only time he could fit me in.
When we met I managed to convince him that I was being denied a credential by the American officials because, as he must know as a Mexican, the US was a racist country and didn’t like Ramparts exposing it. “OK,” he told me, “you get a telegram here tomorrow from your editor” – in this case, it was journalist and current host of ScheerPost online Robert Scheer – “and you’ll get your credential.” And so I did get mine and became apparently the only photographer at the 1968 Olympics with a credential but without a country. I’m still looking for one.
The magazine had a downside which would lead to its demise. It’s editorial triumvirate lived too well, being unable to resist using the magazine’s credit cards to take their daily lunches at the finest restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach while making those who provided the magazine’s content wait and wait to be paid, and then hope, when they did receive their check, there was money in the bank to cover it.
The situation became so ridiculous that at least one of the many San Francisco banks in which Ramparts opened then closed accounts required a recipient of a Ramparts check to meet with a bank official who would then place a call to the Ramparts accountant, whose name I’ll not sully since it wasn’t his fault, to make sure it wouldn’t bounce.
I took the very last check that the accountant signed to me to an obscure bank in the city’s financial district where Ramparts had been able to open an account and made sure to be the first person in the door when the bank opened. The check was good. As I turned to leave and approached the door, cash in hand, in came the accountant, apparently to stop the payment. “You’re too late, Bob,” I said, smiling, and walking past him into a chilly San Francisco morning.
JR Valrey: How can people see your work online?
Jeffrey Blankfort: I have a website, www.jeffblankfortphotography.com, which is currently in a slow process of being updated so that it can be viewed on a phone as well as a PC or Mac desktop, which it currently requires.
JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information, is the Editor in Chief of the SF Bay View. He is also the instructor for the San Francisco Bay View’s Community Journalism Class, which is funded by the California State Library.