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Bobby Seale: “Our struggle was about getting to the future”

Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale speaks at Packard Auditorium.

At its height in the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party ran free breakfast programs for poor children, offered sickle cell anemia screening at free health clinics, organized voter registration drives, and ran candidates in grassroots political campaigns.

But the lingering image many have of the revolutionary organization is one of guns and violence. Bobby Seale, chairman and founder of the group that at its peak had 5,000 members in 49 states, came to Lehigh Monday in an effort to reclaim the party’s legacy as a progressive organization for social change.

In a freewheeling talk that ranged from the role of African-Americans in conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War to the history of the Black Panther Party, Seale said he wanted to correct “historical distortions” that have been perpetuated by the media, some politicians, and even “that dumb film Panther.”

“The Black Panther Party was a very dynamic organizational group that popped up because of the already ongoing civil rights movement,” Seale told an audience of more than 200 Lehigh students, faculty and staff members at Packard Auditorium. “There was already a nationwide protest movement for civil rights … and against the war in Vietnam that was going on.”

”A survivor … and inspirational voice”

Seale talks to political science students, as Professor Ted Morgan, right, looks on.

Earlier in the day, Seale met with a group of students who had studied Seale’s rise to power in Professor Ted Morgan’s political science class, “Movements and Legacies of the 1960s.” Morgan introduced Seale, who estimates that he’s spoken at roughly 500 colleges over the past two decades, as “clearly a survivor, and an instructive and inspirational voice.”

Seale opened both his lecture and his classroom appearance by challenging the media portrayal of him and his contributions to society.

“They never told you I was trained as an engineer, or that I was an organizer of free health clinics and free breakfast programs or free job training, or that I was a jazz musician or standup comedian or an accomplished barbecue cook,” he said. “But they did say I was a hoodlum and a thug.”

In both appearances on campus, Seale regaled his audiences with stories about the early days of the Black Panther movement, his experiences with police brutality, his unorthodox methods for resolving disputes among party members, his complex relationship with Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton (who died in 1989, gunned down on a West Oakland, Calif., street corner by a drug dealer), and his views on the success of the political movement he helped organize.

Founding the Panthers

Seale recounted how the Black Panther Party was formed.

Seale first met Newton at Merritt College in Oakland in 1962. Newton, a Merritt sociology graduate, was involved in an organization called the Afro-American Association.

“Huey was a pretty boy, you know what I mean? The little girls liked Huey,” Seale recalled fondly.

The two became friends, and kept in touch. Following the assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965, Seale first broached the idea of forming a new group.

“Huey, you and I need to start another organization,” Seale recalled. Newton responded: “It’s going to be tough to try to organize them. Black folks don’t know nothing about their history. It’s hard to organize people who don’t know their history.”

So Seale organized and worked with a group of about 15 students at Merritt to develop four different syllabuses for college courses in Black History and African Studies.

The recitation of an anti-war poem on an Oakland street corner provided the impetus for Seale to follow through on his idea of starting a new political organization. Seale, egged on by Newton, recited the poem, which contained profanity. An undercover police officer took exception, and attempted to arrest Seale.

The resulting brawl ended with Seale and Newton under arrest. They eventually received one year’s probation, but Seale realized it could have been much worse. “We could have been in jail for one to 10 years, all off a poem I recited,” he recalled.

So in October 1966, Seale and Newton sat down one night and wrote up a 10-point program for a new political organization. It included calls for, among other things, full employment, decent housing, free preventative health care, education that teaches the true history of African-Americans, juries of their peers drawn from the black community, and an exemption for all black males from military service. It also called for African-Americans to arm themselves for self-defense.

”We became a public enemy”

A crowd of more than 200 turned out to hear Seale discuss the Black Panther Party's history and legacy.

Seale said the call for self-defense was necessary in those turbulent and dangerous times. In the 1960s, he said, peaceful civil rights protestors who were doing no more than exercising their constitutional rights “were shot, killed, brutalized and murdered.”

He accused the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and political leaders such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of deliberately spreading lies about the Panthers to inflame the fears of the white community.

“We became a public enemy,” Seale said. “J. Edgar Hoover’s method was to stereotype us, to say we hated white folks. That the only reason we had guns was to kill white folks. That everything we were doing was a threat to the internal security of America.”

Seale still bristles at the government’s efforts to portray the Panthers as anti-white. “To show how this was an outright lie, we in the Black Panther Party, if you know anything about our history, always dealt in coalition politics,” Seale said. “So all our thousands of white left-radicals who were out there protesting for civil rights and protesting against the war in Vietnam were our coalition buddies. We were running up and down the street with all of our white left-radical friends. So why would we want to kill all white folks?”

Lasting change

Seale said the disinformation campaign set the stage for the FBI and law enforcement authorities to launch a series of raids on Black Panther headquarters throughout the country. The resulting well-publicized shootouts left 28 Panthers dead by the end of 1968, Seale said.

But there was far more to the Panthers than clashes with police, he said.

“That free breakfast children’s program was not just a children’s program. It was a political argument,” Seale said. “It was a critique of the government and what it was not doing.”

And it made a difference, he said. The California legislature approved a $5 million program to provide free meals to poor children as a result of the program started by the Panthers. “Twenty-eight state legislatures across the country in the next year-and-a-half followed suit and did some similar program for free breakfast or free lunch,” Seale said.

Seale said another lasting legacy of the Panthers’ political organizing is reflected in the rising numbers of African-Americans holding elective office. In the 1960s, there were only about 100 African-Americans in political office across America. And the number of women elected to office was equally small, he said.

But out of the estimated 500,000 elective offices in the U.S., the number of African-Americans has steadily increased, from about 7,000 by the end of the 1970s, to 10,000 by the end of the 1980s, to 12,000 by the end of the 1990s, to close to 15,000 today. And there are 50,000 to 60,000 women in elective office, he said.

Seale, who calls himself “a revolutionary humanist,” said the Black Panther Party set out to organize and effect real change.

“Our struggle was about getting to the future. I don’t live in the ‘60s. We don’t need guns now ... Our work is about a future world of cooperation and humanism. I don’t ask people to join an organization any more. I ask you to learn how to be good, independent human beings who can cooperate with other people.”

Seale’s talk was sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU), the Political Science department, Africana Studies, the Humanities Center, American Studies, the Progressive Student Alliance (PSU), Student Senate, Library and Technology Services, Joint Multicultural Programs, and the Visiting Lecturers Committee.

--Jack Croft
and
--Linda Harbrecht

Photos by Theo Anderson

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2005

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