The walls of an independent bookstore in Long Beach serve as the physical counterpart to an online exhibit created by the CSUDH archives and special collections department. The exhibit traces the evolution of the Black Power movement, and reproductions of the front pages of the Black Panther newspaper are among the exhibit’s pieces. Photo by Anthony Garza.
By Anthony Garza, Staff Reporter
History is on display on the walls of Page Against the Machine, a Long Beach bookstore hosting a California State University, Dominguez Hills archives exhibit on the roots underlying the Black Power Movement.
But though the replicas of newspapers, flyers and other documents on those walls span the late 1950s to early 1970s, it is hard not to recognize that many of the issues that catalyzed the Black Power movement remain unresolved: police treatment of people of color, economic equity, voting rights, and the right of every U.S, Citizen to be treated as if their lives matter.
So, while “Black Power: Selections from the Gerth Archives at CSU Dominguez Hills,” which can also be viewed online on the university archive’s website, works as a history lesson, it is also a sobering reminder that many of the issues America is grappling with today had a chance to be resolved 50 years ago. And the country failed to do so.
This Alison Ransom-curated exhibit doesn’t overtly state that, but it’s hard to not draw the connection. The exhibit charts the development of Black Power, a radical movement of the turbulent 1960s that advocated self-determination for Black Americans. It called for Black Americans to defend themselves, if necessary, when unduly threatened by racists or law enforcement, as well as economic empowerment through Black-owned businesses, the creation of political and cultural organizations that had the best interests of Black Americans in mind, and the refusal to be identified or treated according to the dictates of the white power structure. A story by Thomas Philo written about the exhibit relays the message that, “The Black Power movement, which developed in the 1960s and 1970s, called for various goals to be met, including achieving self-determination for black people in the United States, militant self-defense against racist groups, black nationalism, black separatism, and the development of social services and businesses to be run by and for black people.”
Its break from the mainstream Civil Rights movement in terms of self-defense drew criticism from many, who felt the movement was too militant, or even separatist. Many of the key figures and organizations associated with the movement were also subjected to a massive covert misinformation campaign by the FBI and other law-environment agencies. By the early 1970s, it had fizzled out as a political movement. But its legacy is undeniable, manifesting in everything from Black is Beautiful and the creation of ethnic studies classes and programs, music and fashion, and “a legacy of structural analysis and community centered approaches to change,” such as Black Lives Matter.
The exhibit has been exhibited off-campus in the past, but it’s rare. But this one made sense because the subject matter of a revolutionary movement of the 1960s that could fit in 2021 America fits with the vibe of Page Against the Machine, or at least a good percentage of the books it sells, which tend to tilt to the left of the political spectrum.
But the mostly shut down campus also made it a good choice for those who would prefer to see it in person.
Much of the material in the exhibit is relatively new to the archives: replicas of a few of the approximately 5,700 newspapers, books, pamphlets and other political dissent writings of the 20th century given to the archives by a San Francisco museum in 2019.
Among those documents were those that dominate this exhibit: copies of the Black Panther newspaper, the communications organ of the Back Panther Party, whose co-founder Bobby Seale appeared in a virtual campus event in February.
The newspaper, according to a 2015 article in the Bay View Newspaper, began as a four-page newsletter but within a year had grown into a full-fledged newspaper that sold for 25 cents. It served as a revenue source, recruitment tool and a way to communicate to members of the party across the country. From 1968-1971, it was the largest Black newspaper in the country, with a circulation of 300,000.
That scope made it an alternative source of information to mainstream media outlets, and while it carried more than its fair share of pro-BPP propaganda and headlines and graphic elements that would make the New York Post blush (it particularly liked the word “pigs” to describe cops and portraying them as bipedal swine) , it also championed community health, food and housing programs and, according to the Columbia Journalism Review in August 2019, “set the stage for contemporary Black media covering oppression.”
The exhibit pieces are on the walls of a working book store that isn’t exactly Borders in terms of size. So there isn’t a great deal of space for exposition or explanatory notes. For that, you can visit the archives website. Or, since you’re in an independent bookstore that has an “activism and organizing” page on its website, buy a book if you want to take a deep dive, or strike up a conversation with owner Chris Giaco.
But it doesn’t take much additional reading or conversation to sense the urgency that fueled the Black Power movement; the documents on display are proof enough of the remarkable efforts by a people long marginalized and oppressed to raise their voices, to be heard, and to effect real change in America.
Sadly, with the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last May, and the recent shooting of Daunte Wright, it also doesn’t take much research to realize that while Black Power accomplished much and led to more, its main goals remain unrealized.
But maybe this time, as a new generation joins the struggle for equality and social justice, America will finally listen and heed those voices that have been rising for more than half a century.
Black Power: Selections from the Gerth Archives at CSU Dominguez Hills, available online at the CSUDH archive’s website and in-person through the end of May at Page Against the Machine, 2714 E. Fourth St, Long Beach. Hours: Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Mondays. www.patmbooks.com.