Bobby Seale:
proud Panther

A report by Tom Knapp,
February 1997

Bobby Seale, fast-talking but soft-spoken and visibly passionate about his causes, doesn't fit the image of the angry, shotgun-toting and uniformed Black Panther he's often made out to be. But Seale, who co-founded the Black Panther Party in California in 1966, said the public perception of his movement has been misunderstood and falsely portrayed by many people during the past 30 years.

Seale, now living in Philadelphia, gave his version of events during a mid-morning lecture at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. "People still believe we are what the FBI tried to paint us as: a black, militant hate group," he said. "Politicians called us a bunch of things, and the mass media followed their lead."

Books and movies like Panther have made matters worse, he said. "Ninety percent of what is portrayed on that screen never happened."

He painted a different picture: a handful of armed, black-suited Panthers standing quietly, watching the police at work. Nerves were taut and tempers sometimes flared, Seale said. At times, situations turned violent. But the Black Panthers were not an uneducated gang of thugs, he said.

Most of the original members had college degrees. A former Air Force mechanic, Seale served in the aerospace program and had a job in civil government. "We were a very political party," Seale insisted. "So why did we go to the streets with the guns? To capture the imagination of the people."

He and co-founder Huey Newton met at Merritt College, Oakland. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., they were moved to action by the killing of Malcolm X.

During an impassioned speech at Berkeley, Seale recited a poem urging blacks to refuse military service until they had equal rights. He was confronted by an undercover police officer for profanity and obstructing the sidewalk. But the officer never showed a badge, Seale said, and they argued. A struggle ensued, and a second fight began between Newton and another officer. Both men were arrested and charged with assault. Later, Seale and Newton began exploring issues of police brutality against minorities. At the time, he said, a beating like the one received by Rodney King would raise few eyebrows.

The law at the time permitted people to carry unconcealed firearms. So the pair devised the Black Panthers Party for Self-Defense, whose members carried shotguns and sidearms and became watchdogs in their communities. The Black Panther movement, which at its height had more than 5,000 members nationwide, also provided free breakfasts for children, health care and other community service programs, Seale said. "It was the power structure at the top that I was tired of," he explained. "All power to all the people. ... We've got to refine this democracy so that the people have greater community control."

The Black Panthers were seen as folk heroes by some, lawless troublemakers by others. Over the next eight years, several altercations with police became gun battles, and 29 Black Panthers and 14 police officers were killed. Some Panthers, he said, will never get out of jail. It was, Seale said, a tragedy on both sides.

Seale was also among "The Chicago Eight," a group of outspoken radicals arrested for disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Seale was bound and gagged during his trial, and eventually was tried separately to prevent disruptions. "Yeah, a lot of times we were arrogant in the '60s," he said. "But, damn it, we were right."

Wearing a trademark black beret, Seale said it was a revelation the first time he realized blacks had a rich cultural heritage. "I had been raised on these Tarzan movies," which portrayed native Africans as a backwards people, Seale said. "I knew nothing about my African-American people's history. ... I had been taught at Berkeley High School that the blacks loved slavery. They'd sit on the stoop and play the banjo, and they loved slavery."

Seale soon buried himself in historical studies. He encourages students to study black culture and learn about their contributions. He also supports Ebonics, which traces some of its roots to African speech patterns, as a tool to help African-American students learn standard English. He's hopeful that the races can reach a level of mutual understanding.

"I believe in a future world of decent human relationships," he said. "All power to the people."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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