Emory Douglas was born in 1943 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a teenager, his criminal behavior landed him in the Youth Training School in Ontario, California. During his 15 months in the juvenile center he learned some valuable skills in the print shop. He later studied commercial art, taking graphic design classes at San Francisco City College. The classes he took gave him a basis for combining art and message.
In the late 1960s, college campuses in the Bay Area smoldered with political anger. Demands were made for freedom of speech, justice, self-determination and civil rights for African Americans.
The countercultural fervor made an impression on Douglas, who had grown up watching news footage of civil rights protests. At City College, Douglas admired the artworks of Charles White, Aaron Douglas, and Elizabeth Catlett and he became active in the Black Arts Movement.
Douglas offered his design skills to the Black Panthers. He realized the Black Panthers needed powerful images to cut through the high illiteracy rates in poor communities.
At his disposal were affordable graphic art technologies like mimeographs, photostats, prefabricated presstypes and screentones, along with offset printing for a newspaper. Embracing inexpensive and available means of commercial art production, Douglas turned his artwork into a powerful visual megaphone.
At its peak in 1970, the paper reached hundreds of thousands of readers across the United States, including those who saw it as a menace.
By the early 1980s, the Black Panthers would dissolve because of law enforcement crackdowns and turmoil within the party. Douglas is now retired, but often works as an independent
graphic artist lending his talent to social and political issues such as black-on-black crime and the prison-industrial complex. Asked what he wants to do next, Douglas replies, “To continue to inform and educate through my art works.
It’s an ongoing adventure.”