Lincoln Cushing | Essays

The Women Behind the Black Panther Party Logo

All graphics have a story to tell. Some logos of 20th century political movements have become recognized the world over—the peace symbol, designed by Gerald Holtom; the United Farm Workers logo, which depicts a black eagle on a red background and was created by organizer Cesar Chavez and his cousin Manuel; and the Black Panther Party (BPP) logo, designed by the lesser-known Dorothy Zellner.

The roots of the Black Panther Party logo go back to 1966, with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Alabama (also called the Black Panther Party), a progressive political party formed to increase black representation in public office. Alabama state electoral law required political parties to have a logo on their ballot to account for high illiteracy rates amongst voters, and so, a visual graphic to represent the newly-formed party had to be developed.

Detail, interior panel of brochure for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, circa October, 1966; image courtesy H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archive collection

But the graphic first used in that campaign bears little relationship to the streamlined, powerful graphic later associated with the Black Panther Party.  Zellner explained how it happened when I interviewed her in 2016: “I was working in the Atlanta office of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] when I was approached by [SNCC field organizer] Stokely Carmichael because he knew I’d gone to the High School of Music and Art. He’d gone to a sister school, Bronx High School of Science. He asked me to draw a panther for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization campaign. I said no, I wasn’t that capable an artist.”

According to Zellner, Carmichael asked her then-husband Bob, a minister’s son from Alabama, to go to the Atlanta zoo and photograph a panther as a resource. Bob and a fellow SNCC photographer got a few shots and developed the film in the office; Bob himself recalled that fellow SNCC member James Forman asked who in the office could draw and “Dottie produced the first rough drawing of the now famous Black Panther. Dottie drew it so it would reproduce well in black and white—a panther with curled tail, bared teeth, and pronounced whiskers, ears perked up.”

When Carmichael came back to Dorothy to ask her to make another attempt, he came prepared with a “rough line drawing of a panther.” This “rough drawing” was done by fellow SNCC member Ruth Howard, and was based on local HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) Clark College’s school mascot. “I cleaned it up, added better whiskers, and made it black, at his request,” said Dorothy of the drawing. “The next time I saw it, that image was on TV sometime in 1967—I was shocked!”

Poster for SDS "Black Power and its Challenges" conference at UC Berkeley, October 29, 1966, designed by Lisa Lyons; poster courtesy Lisbet Tellefsen collection, image by author.

Although there was no formal organizational relationship between that Black Panther Party and the subsequent Black Panther Party for Self Defense organized in Oakland, California, several figures, including Stokely Carmichael, would eventually serve as a bridge for these two key organizations in the Black power movement. And so too, the associated panther image migrated to the west coast: Community activist Mark Comfort brought the panther name and logo to the San Francisco Bay Area after he formed the Black Panther Project of the Oakland Direct Action Committee in 1965.

“The symbol became smoother and more stylized with age,” recalled Bob Zellner. “When I wrote about this… I commented on the irony that Dottie, a white northern woman, drew the first black panther.” The symbol would continue to morph. Movement graphic scholar Lisbet Tellefsen and I had noticed that several “official” panthers of the Black Panther Party were different, and began to track down the artist behind them.

LEFT: Poster for rally for Eldridge Cleaver for President, San Francisco, August 3, 1968; Docs Populi digital archive. RIGHT: Free Huey Newton rally, Oakland,  July 28. Poster courtesy Lisbet Tellefsen collection, image by author.

Her name was Lisa Lyons. And although, according to Lyons, she initially “chose the Lowndes County Freedom Organization panther for Black Power Day materials since it was already widely recognized nationally as a symbol of black power by the fall of 1966,” she adapted it in a variety of ways. As active members of the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) at University of California Berkeley, Liz and her partner Kit used the standard panther in multiple ISC and Panther publications throughout 1966 and 1967, including “a poster for an ISC/Black Panther Party rally in defense of the ghetto uprisings and a label used for cans for fundraising for the Panthers, and a variety of Panther-related buttons.” She made small modifications to the panther symbol, like changing the number of claws depending on the size of the publication, based on it’s ultimate use—for cartoons, buttons, etc.

In a speech delivered at the 1966 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)-sponsored "Black Power and its Challenges" conference at U.C. Berkeley, Carmichael said, “We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he's back so far into the wall, he's got nothing to do but spring out. Yeah. And when he springs he does not stop.” So too, the three women behind the symbol—Dorothy Zellner, Ruth Howard, and Lisa Lyons—who heretofore have had an untold role in creating one of the most powerful icons of community self-defense and empowerment of the 20th century.

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