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Leni Sinclair, Motor City Underground
Leni Sinclair, Detroit Youth Association, B&W photograph (undated)Courtesy of the Artist and MOCAD

Leni Sinclair’s photographs capture the radical White Panther Party

The photographer and activist lenses the beatniks, artists, and musicians who got together as an anti-racist group that supported the Black Panthers

In 1968, when the founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, was asked what white people could do to support them, he suggested that they could form a White Panther Party. A group of beatniks, artists, and musicians in Detroit took him at his word and formally assembled the White Panthers. Among them was Leni Sinclair, a photographer who chronicled this turbulent, fraught time in American history. At the forefront of Detroit’s progressive history, her archive of stunning images capturing the spirit of activism, rock ‘n’ roll, and revolution have been gathered together in a new book, Motor City Underground (published by MOCAD and Foggy Notion Books).

The group not only advocated for racial equality but also took on other vital social and political issues of the day. They promoted the anti-war movement and the decriminalisation of marijuana, they rejected capitalism and American Imperialism alongside more radical policies that included “the end of money”.  

As political tensions simmered close to the surface of everyday life, the White Panthers galvanised Detroit’s various counter-cultural factions, bringing together like-minded individuals from the arts and music scene, including the critically acclaimed rock band, MC5. The city was still smarting from the 1967 riots, when thousands of residents rose up to protest police treatment of Black citizens, resulting in 43 fatalities and several properties burned to the ground. 

Sinclair (born Magdalene Arndt) was born in East Germany in 1940, on the fault line between polarised political ideologies, when the nightmare of Nazi rule would soon give way to the hardships of life in the Soviet Union. The postwar years were tough for her family. She took solace in the sounds of Radio Luxembourg, transfixed by American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Emigrating to the US in 1959, she worked in low-paid jobs, trying to make ends meet but hoping to somehow become involved with the local arts scene. “On weekends I’d go hang out at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and there were lots of little bookstores and record shops between Wayne State University and downtown,” she recalled. “One day I picked up a copy of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, and carried it around so you could see the cover, hoping someone would stop me.” One day, someone did. She got chatting to a local beatnik and began to make like-minded friends, including her future husband and fellow activist, John Sinclair. And so began her longtime vocation as a photographer, activist, and witness for social justice.

Her photographs capture groups, communities, and individuals striving for change, including the White Panther Party in action, the Detroit Youth Association, and political activist Tom Hayden. Her archive even includes a portrait of Rosa Parks. Leni Sinclair’s photographs remain evocative and conscientious accounts of a city in revolt. 

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of Leni Sinclair’s evocative photographs from Motor City Underground. 

Leni Sinclair’s Motor City Underground is published by MOCAD and Foggy Notion Books