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Former Black Panther Party Newspaper Staffers Discuss Social and Racial Justice

Gayle Dickson and Malik Edwards share their stories on the fiftieth anniversary of the Panthers.

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A year after its founding, the second issue of the The Black Panther published the Party's now-famous ten-point plan. Volunteers — that's right, no one on the newspaper staff was paid — did everything from write and edit stories, and even distribute the paper in neighborhoods. And it was not just about offering Black communities a counter-narrative to the establishment media. It was also about sparking change in Oakland — and worldwide.

Malik Edwards, 70, and Rev. M. Gayle Dickson, 68, both worked on the Black Panther paper, doing everything from page layout, illustrations and, in Dickson's case, even driving copies to the airport for delivery to the other side of the country. "It was a job!" Edwards exclaimed of the tireless work putting it out in the late-Sixties and early-Seventies.

The Express wanted to celebrate the Panther paper on the Party's fiftieth, so we chatted with two former staffers last week.

'We weren't journalists'

An interview with Malik Edwards

Tell me about your role with the newspaper?

I was one of the artists on the paper, doing the layout work. It was Emory Douglas, myself, [and others]. Elaine Brown was the actual editor at the time. I was running the chapter in Washington, D.C., and they asked me to come out [to Oakland] because I was an artist and [Douglas] was on his way to China, and they needed somebody to lay out the paper. ... The first time I was there was 1970 ... and then I came back from '71-73.

How did you join the Black Panthers?

When I got out of the marine corps, I was disenchanted with the whole war thing, the Vietnam War, and how life was going in the military, the discrimination and racism in the military. I got out in March, and by June I was in the Black Panther Party. ... When I was in the marine corps, I was an illustrator. I was a grunt in Vietnam, and when I came back I did drawings for the military. .... And then I met Emory, of course, and that changed all of that.

Fascinating that you were doing military stuff, then Panthers work.

A lot of us were ex-military, a lot of Panthers were from the military. ... But it was so serious in those days, nobody bothered you about stuff like that. In fact, those experiences are what people sometimes counted on: if you had to help somebody, if you had to do some kind of security thing, the military guys were the first ones they called.

What was it like putting out a revolutionary newspaper on a shoestring budget?

Hard work. Because you'd stay up for days doing it. It was just work, man. You worked hard.

Were you on salary, or what did you get paid?

Compensated? What do you mean? Getting paid? No. Nobody got paid in the Party! That's some newspaper bull crap. None of us got paid.

That's some dedication.

Nobody was in it for the money.

How did it feel to be putting out a paper so contrary to the mainstream?

I understand your question, and the way you're asking it. But in those days, [you have to realize that] there was nothing else. We were it. You had the Communist Party newspaper, which rarely ever made it to the Black community. Nobody ever read that. We were it. ... There were other papers around at the time, but none had the impact of the Black Panther Party.

Describe the aesthetic and editorial vision of the paper.

We knew that people liked to read. But even if they read just our headlines, they got something. Or looked at the artwork on the back, it was a message. A lot of people cut those out and put them on their walls. The graphic part of it was to grab people's attention, so the stuff we did was like "I want this, I want to see what this was about." And the articles weren't as long, because we wanted people to "get it." If you just read the first paragraph, you got it. ...

At one point, if you look at the old papers, the type was smaller. And the papers after Huey [Newton] got out, the print got larger, because guys in jail didn't have glasses. ...

We weren't "journalists." People had that experience. Like, if we found an article we liked, but it was written in some esoteric or intellectual, jerk-off crap, we would just re-write it so our brothers on the street could understand it. ... A lot of how the way media works now is what we were doing.

How so?

Because it's simple. They're giving you a jacked-up message, but [today's media] is right to the point, it's in your face. And then you go out and buy what Kim Kardashian wants you to buy.

Hah! If you were putting out a newspaper today, what would the headline be?

Police getting away with murder. Police murdering Black people. Police brutality still continues.

What are your thoughts on Black Lives Matter?

You know, I think they're young people, and they're doing the best they can with what they understand.

Do you have advice for their leaders?

I hope they don't have leaders. I hope Black Lives Matter is an idea, because I think if they have leaders, they're going to have the same problem that everybody has with leaders: a personality cult is going to develop, and they will have the same problems every group has. You've got to be careful. You've got to follow an idea, not a person. ...

And keep it simple. Appeal to how people feel about things, because Americans, they operate from feelings. If you start getting them to intellectualize, you're going to lose them. Look at who is successful? Donald Trump. As jacked-up as he is, he keeps his message simple. "I'm an asshole, I know some of you are assholes, so we are going to run this country." He's appealing to that lowest-common denominator, and he keeps a simple message. ...

Americans are emotional people. That's why they show you little puppy dogs, and babies. And a lot of the left have a tendency to be intellectuals.

Will you be speaking at the fiftieth anniversary conference?

I'm going do to do one workshop, I'm only doing one, and that's on police brutality, with the mother of Mario Woods and a couple other people, on Friday [Editor's note: visit BBP50th.org for the schedule].

Are you retired?

I got to work every day. Seventy years old working every day at a high school, doing restorative practice work.

That's incredible!


Same News, Different Clothes

An interview with Rev. M. Gayle Dickson

Describe what it's like going back over the newspaper design and activist work that you did nearly a half-century ago?

Basically, it's like relearning myself again from that time. ...

The first thought that I had was I thought it was just amazing, the work that we did. We were just toddlers. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. And we were editing a newspaper. We were organizing. We were distributing a newspaper.

Did you see themes or ideas or news from those Black Panther newspapers that you see in today's news?

It's like all the images I'm doing, they are repeats. There's one in the back of the newspaper on exhibit at the [Oakland Museum of California] that says "War declared in the Middle East." Well, war is still being declared in the Middle East. It's not new. It's just wearing different clothes.

What are your observations or thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?

Unfortunately, I'm not a good person to ask that question to. I watch, but I'm not a close watcher right now. I'm glad that they are responding. I'm glad they're responding in whatever ways they can. ... I'm not an avid Facebook person, but I have a friend who is on Facebook, so I'll see what is posted on Facebook, and I see a lot of good stuff going on. ... I think that the young people today, they are picking up the torch, they are pushing our universe toward justice some more.

I love that you're not on Facebook.

I'm going to get there, I'm going to get there. You're not going to leave me behind.

If you were putting out a newspaper today, what would the headline say?

What kind of news headlines do you think the news media should be putting up, other than the Kardashians?

Hah! But seriously, I think an important role of the media is to give a microphone to those who don't have a voice.

And that's what the Black Panther Party did. As as an example, the first issue on Denzil Dowell, when he got killed, the family and the community in north Richmond ... asked the Black Panther Party to help them obtain evidence that he was murdered by police. ... They were trying to get his clothes, to verify the number of bullets that shot him. We were the voice of the community.

When did you join the Black Panther newsroom?

I started working on the newspaper 1972. We all worked very, very hard. And all I can say about all the hard work that we did is we were dedicated. We'd be up, I won't say 24-seven, but I'll say quite a bit hitting that deadline. ...

We took turns participating in getting that newspaper out. Sometime it would be my turn to ride to the airport and drop it off for distribution. We worked as a team. The editors were right next door to us, and they had their team, and we worked together. ... We'd sleep on the tables, or wrap up in sleeping bags on the floor. ...

I believed that we truly were able to make things change. ... Of course, I'm naive. I didn't know about all these forces that were going against us.

Are you working now, or are you retired, or?

Yay, I retired! I retired on August 2 this year. And then, of course, I'm involved in this [fiftieth anniversary celebration]. So, as soon as this is over with, I'm going to sit down and map out the rest of my life.

How will your experience as a Panther inform your retirement?

I was a very prolific artist back then. But life has gotten in the way — I still do a little bit of this, of that. ... So, I'm going to develop my art. I'm going to write, and I want to practice my art in the community some kind of way; that's still turning around in my head. I don't want to be in isolation, I want to practice it in the community. I believe there is a story out there that I would like to tell.

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