06 October 2020

Superheroes and civil rights: we're shining a spotlight on the history of black people


Richard Walker
Associate | UK

October is Black History Month in the UK and here at Withers we’re shining a spotlight on some key people throughout the month.

The US celebrated Black History Month in February and in solidarity with their observances I’d like to kick off UK Black History Month by raising awareness of the life and recent, and untimely death, of US actor Chadwick Boseman.

Black Panther and Black Lives Matter

Chadwick’s legacy (forgive the ‘succession lawyer’ plug) is special during this month.

Yes, he was black. He also played the title role in the Marvel box office smash ‘Black Panther’. The movie met with critical acclaim, won numerous awards and is the first superhero movie to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

Stan Lee and Josh Kirby created Black Panther, the character in 1966. He is the first mainstream black superhero. Although not necessarily a political reaction to it, the character was born against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the black power movement.

Movements railing against racial segregation, discrimination and police brutality, these issues, which still underlie ‘modern’ society, have again come to the fore with recent televised police brutality in the US. These events have led to various politically inspired organizations, but importantly one movement with one message: Black Lives Matter. For some, it is helpful to add the word ‘too’.

Superheroes can be black too

Black History Month means many things to many people, but one thing is clear, it’s supposed to be about the history of black people. There may still be lots to do before black history matters equally as much as the history we’ve been taught in our schools, but thanks to people like Chadwick Boseman, black children, indeed all children, know superheroes can be black too and not just sidekicks. They know a black nation can be technically advanced and free of colonialization: #WakandaForever. They will see that black actors can play the protagonist in movies with a predominantly black cast, black writers and directors even when the movie is not strictly about race issues. They (and movie studios) now know that these ingredients can still lead to major box office success.

And their parents and grandparents will know and can share with them that, significantly, Black Panther shares his identity with the black civil rights and black power movement most commonly associated with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but which owes much to many others like Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Carmichael’s 1965 political organization ‘Lowndes County Freedom Organization’, which sought black candidates and votes for black people, employed a black panther as its logo. Coincidentally perhaps, Carmichael delivered the black power speech at the University of California, Berkeley just after the Black Panther comic first came out and California college students Seale and Newton adopted the name ‘Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’ to challenge police brutality and racism around the same time.

Chadwick’s legacy lives on

The civil rights movement in the UK took off after events in the US and following speeches made at the Roundhouse in north London in 1967 by Carmichael – a speech one can imagine British civil rights activists like Darcus Howe attended. Howe was one of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ who in 1970 were charged with incitement to riot for protesting against the police targeting of patrons of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. They declined the services of white barristers and, appealing to the Magna Carta, requested an all-black jury who would have actually experienced police racism. Famously, for some, all nine were acquitted.

Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away on August 28 2020 at the age of 43. On his death many found out about his extremely private battle with cancer, and his diagnosis which remarkably preceded several of his movies. His legacy as a black man, an actor and as Black Panther is rich in black history and an inspiration to all.

Image taken by and copyrighted to Gage Skidmore.

Richard Walker Associate | London

Category: Article