Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers

Marlon Brando looks on during a Black Panther demonstration.

I saw this pic on another web site, and it was intruiging... It reminded me of one the first articles I wrote years ago when I started working as a newspaper reporter for the Ithaca Journal. I thought it'd be cool to post it here because there's nothing like feeling history directly from a person who was at the center of it. There's a lot of myth and mystification about the Black Panthers, and as time passes we seem to get further and further removed from that history. One of the things I enjoyed about meeting Bobby in person was his charisma... This article really only captures a fraction of what he said and what he was trying suggest about those early years with the Panthers. I just tried to bang out the story on deadline and select the words that I felt were most eloquent and cogent. Looking at these pics, it's also clear that these brothas and sistas were making a statement, and making it with style...


Black panther co-founder Bobby Seale hasn't lost his idealism or his interest in activism among college students.

In an intimate and lively discussion Wednesday with a group of about 80 students, mostly African American, Seal passionately described the climate of the 60s and his personal struggle to overcome racial oppression.

Seal co-founded the Black Panthers political party 21 years ago.

"It wasn't until 1963 that I learned I wasn't a nigger. It took Dick Gregory to do it," Seale said. He told the students of an incident where the comedian and several other activists staged a sit-in at a Southern restaurant known for its discrimination.

"A white proprietor said 'We don't serve niggers,' and he (Dick Gregory) said, "Well I don't eat those things anyway--give me a hamburger.' " Seale said the even "clicked" for him because he had been a stand-up comic.

Seal was 22 or 23 at the time and was just beginning to learn his ignorance of African history and culture.

"I read this book--Jomo Kenyatta's "Facing Mount Kenya"--and I discovered that Tarzan didn't run Africa." Seale said. "I discovered that the Mau Mau was an organization of brothers and sisters who tried to liberate themselves from colonial rule."

"In 1962 in anthropology class I researched a paper that proved that there wasn't any 'th,' 'er,' 'ar,' and rolling 'r' sounds in West African langauges," Seale explained. "The reason why brothers stand on the corner and and say 'Hey bro, gimme some mo a dat da wine ova da,' is because they dropped every 'th,' 'er,' 'ar,' and rolling 'r' sound."

In 1966, while working in an Oakland War on Poverty office, Seale and Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton thought of a 10-point platform that was to become the foundation for the party. The points included issues such as food, clothing, housing and shelter, health care, education, end of police brutality towards African Americans and fair treatment in courts.

"We were saying we would go out and rally and organize and capture the imagination of the people. We were saying we would use the political electoral method to get Black people to unify around social programs in the community," Seale said.

The organization become more visible, Seale said, after watching a group of idealistic African Americans trying to cope with the aftermather of the Watts riots. The "Community Alert Patrol" members, wearing arm bands to identify themselves and armed with law books and tape recorders, set out to observe police officers arresting Black people. They wanted to stop police brutality and avert more rioting.

A month later the group was stopped, Seale said, after police "took their law books and smashed them up, took their heads and beat them up and took them downtown and locked them up."

Newton, a law student at the time, found a California statute that said any citizen standing at a reasonable distance away had a right to observe a police officer carrying out his duty. Donning uniforms, carrying tape recorders and flyers of their 10-point platform, the Black Panthers imitated the Los Angeles group but with one addition--they carried loaded shotguns.

"The Community Alert Patrol had a democratic right by state law to walk out there, and yet they were getting beat up and locked up," Seale said, adding that the non-violent protests seemed to be failing. "So we started to draw a line between being a political revolutionary and whether or not we were going to take this crap."

Seale called it a "bold act of social responsibility."

"The point is it was good organization. We had the books and the law," he said.

Seale also described an array of Black Panther sponsored social activities such as "free breakfast for children," "free food and voter registration drives" and "preventative health" programs aimed at organizing the community.

"Before brothers and sisters could get groceries they had to register to vote and take the sickle-cell anemia test," Seale said. "We talked to the people about organizing to take over city council."

Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 but lost.

He said the party was not without its limitations.

"I'm not trying to create a myth about the Black Panther party. There were a lot of people who came and goofed the party up," Seale said. "But we had more people who were very good, dedicated brothers and sisters."

Seale, now an assistant to the dean of Temple University, teaches courses on social activism that "integrate theory and practice." He encouraged students to take a broad view of responsibility.

"Social responsibility is not what people say it is," Seale pointed out. "It's really about getting your heart and mind and soul in the right place, trying to understand where you're going in the future."

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