When Howard Bingham was commissioned by Life magazine in 1967 to photograph the Black Panthers, he was, at 28, already a veteran observer of what he calls “the 60s black radical scene”. He’d met and befriended Cassius Clay in 1962, and observed him metamorphose into Muhammad Ali, a world champion heavyweight who had shocked mainstream America by embracing the extreme politics of the separatist Black Muslim movement.
As a photographer for the LA Sentinel, Bingham had also met Malcolm X and Ron Karenga, a Black Power leader. Having travelled to Sweden with Ali in August 1966, Bingham had missed one of the biggest national news stories of the year, the Watts race riots in Los Angeles in August which, over six days, had left 34 people dead. Nevertheless, he had become Life‘s preferred photographer of urban unrest.
“I covered a mini-riot in Los Angeles in 1967 and, even though all their star photographers were shooting that night, it was my photographs they ended up using,” says Bingham, laughing. “I’m an easy-going guy but I have no fear. I wasn’t worried about getting hurt. After that, they put me on a riot retainer. Wherever riots broke out that summer, Howard Bingham went.”