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Treasures of the Archives: Black Panthers on the steps of the Legislative Building.

“Fishing for Salmon at the Kettle Falls,” 1910-1940, Kettle Falls History Center Photographs, Crossroads on the Columbia, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives.

“Fishing for Salmon at the Kettle Falls,” 1910-1940, Kettle Falls History Center Photographs, Crossroads on the Columbia, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov.

This striking photograph, “Black Panthers on steps of Legislative Building, Olympia” is a snapshot of a larger story. In February, 1969 the state legislature was reviewing a law that restricted individual’s right to carry unconcealed weapons. The Black Panther Party of Seattle informed the public of their intent to protest the law, and in response Governor Evans called out the National Guard. The Guard soldiers patrolled the capitol for almost a week but with little action were pulled out of Olympia. It turned out that the Panthers had eyes on the inside. Their leader, Captain Aaron Dixon had a brother, Michael Dixon, who worked at the statehouse and was passing information to the Panthers on the National Guard’s activities. After the National Guard was gone for good, Michael notified Aaron, and the Panthers made their way down to Olympia where Aaron read a statement to the Ways and Means Committee. The rest of the group staged a brief protest, captured in this photograph.

The Seattle Black Panthers were the first additional group formed outside of Oakland, California. Many of the young people who became involved in the BPP had previously been involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the University of Washington Black Student Union. The Party took advantage of the law and carried unconcealed weapons, usually unloaded, and occasionally shadowed the police. They also took the needs of the community very seriously and implemented multiple official and unofficial programs to ease burdens among the community, including running errands for the elderly, negotiating with landlords, giving away free groceries, instituting a free breakfast program, a summer school, a free legal clinic, and eventually a free health clinic. The BPP in Seattle had developed a relationship with Jimi Hendrix, providing security for at least one of his last local concerts. Hendrix even contributed to the group monetarily.

Displays like this are evocative of the Black Panther Party’s controversial strategies. Guns were phased out of the official symbolism utilized by the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party towards the end of 1969, but for the public, the symbolism remained. If you would like more information on the Black Panther Party in Seattle visit the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. You can see this image of the Black Panther Party Protesting in the State Governors' Negative Collection, 1949-1975 along with many other interesting photographs of events in and around the state capitol.