The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution, edited by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Palisadian Bryan Shih, photographer and journalist, formerly of The Financial Times and NPR, photographed surviving Black Panthers, all rank-and-file members of the party, over four years, and interviewed them about their work and its impact on their lives. The resulting book, The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution, was published last year on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense in Oakland, California.

In his editor’s note, Shih eloquently describes the complicated story of the Black Panther Party, how their history has been defined in the public mind by government sanctioned infiltration, sabotage, assassinations, and imprisonment. The Panthers’ credo of armed revolution and their devolution into self-destructive infighting helped their enemies in this project. To help counteract the prevailing judgment against them, Shih provides the Panthers a venue in which they tell their own story, unfiltered and as they lived it.

The founders of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, remain larger than life figures in the struggle for justice in a world of racial inequality but the people on the ground who did the community organizing, manned children’s breakfast programs, established schools, operated and staffed free medical clinics, provided ambulances, bused families to visit relatives in prison, published and distributed educational materials and newsletters, raised money for their programs, and worked across cultural and racial lines, are less well known and get their due here.

After a long courtship in which Shih eventually won their trust, he was given permission to photograph each member and conduct the interviews that accompany the images. His work allows them a grace and intelligence missing from the public narrative. One comes away after reading his book with a deeper understanding and respect for a controversial organization under siege that in spite of its hardships made a real difference to the lives of the people it championed.