Memoir

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The Black Panthers and Americana

During the 1960s, Feliks Topolski drew some of the key figures of the American civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and members of the Black Panthers. He contrasted these with other diverse aspects of American life and culture — Topolski enjoyed the juxtaposition of very different subjects and figures.

After Topolski’s visit to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, he travelled on to San Francisco where he met members of the Black Panther Party.This was founded in 1966 as a radical alternative to the more mainstream civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, and also promoted social programmes to improve conditions in poor urban neighbourhoods.

The popularity of the Black Panthers grew through the late 1960s, but as racial tension increased a number of Panthers were killed in confrontations with the police. Others were imprisoned, including Huey Newton, one of the movement’s founders. Topolski visited Newton in jail, and this is why he has included the Newgate Prison door in the Century. Newton is depicted twice, once in jail and below this, just his head is painted. Topolski met other leading Panthers including Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen. In the Century, Topolski has depicted Seale, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

In stark contrast, the next panels include Stars & Stripes flags, cheerleaders (described by Topolski as ‘majorettes’), President Lyndon B. Johnson and, at the top, a line of men in raincoats who could be either members of the Mafia or FBI agents. In the adjacent panels are poet Allen Ginsberg above and, at the bottom, a Harlem girl and a wealthy New York lady with her dog. Martin Luther King appears in between.
Martin Luther King was one of the principal figures in the American civil rights movement, advocating non- violent protest. It was his leadership that convinced many white Americans to support the cause of civil rights. In 1961 King was in London and spent the day at the Topolski family home, while Topolski drew portraits of him for BBC Television’s Face to Face series.

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