“Dr. Martin Luther King came to speak at Oakland, California, the Oakland Auditorium, 7,000 seats, 7,000 people showed up,” Bobby Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966, recalled during his talk “Power to the People: An Evening Discussion with Bobby Seale” at Lesley University in Cambridge last night.

Seale said during King’s December 1962 speech, the civil rights leader criticized businesses for refusing to hire people of color, including the producers of Wonder Bread, and called for a boycott. “We’re going to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went,” Seale recalled King saying.

“Dr. King inspired me,” Seale said. “Dr. King kicked the notion and the feeling in me that I’ve got to go out there and do something about ending this racism, this institutional racism.”

Seale got into grassroots organizing, helping start a teen tutoring program. He watched the rise of the Black Power movement. “You guys aren’t going to get no power until you take over these political power seats,” Seale thought. He wanted to get African-Americans elected to public office, where they could change laws, start programs to help the community, fight racism, and reform police. “I found there were only 50 black people in duly elected office across America in the year of 1965.”

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)
Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)

In 1966, Seale organized a rally of 700 people at Merritt College, an Oakland community college he had been attending, “telling young black folks that we’re not going to let us be drafted to fight in Vietnam anymore because this country isn’t recognizing our civil rights.” At the rally, he recited a fiery anti-war poem he’d found called “Uncle Sammy Called Me Full of Lucifer.”

“Huey [Newton] came at the end of the poem,” Seale recalled. “And it blew his mind that I had organized 700 people. That’s the biggest rally that had been organized at Merritt College at that time.”

Soon after Newton and Seale were at the University of California, Berkeley. Newton urged him to recite the anti-war poem to passersby on the street. “The poem has a cuss word in it. I’m telling you that up front. I don’t want y’all to jump up,” Seale warned the Lesley audience as he recounted the anecdote. “I stood by the parking meter. All these people passed by.” He recited the poem. “I stood up on a chair and I could see the Berkeley police department coming into the intersection.”

Seale recited the end of the poem to the Lesley audience: “Uncle Sammy, fuck your mama fucking self! I will not serve!”

“That crowd said, ‘More! More! More!’ Huey said, ‘I told ya.’”

Then Seale recalled a man in a yellow T-shirt grabbed him, saying, “You’re using obscene language, you’re under arrest.”

“I didn’t know this guy was an undercover officer,” Seale said. So he yelled, “Get your hands off me.”

“Next thing I know, I’m tackled. He hits me in the stomach,” Seale says. “Two, three underdcovers are kicking my ass.” Huey was boxing the police officers. “Me, I was getting the hell beaten out of me. I thought I was being lynched at the University of California, Berkeley.”

“Long story short: We went to jail,” Seale said.

They were quickly bailed out and a judge ordered them to serve probation.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)
Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)

Seale said they shortly drew up their “10 Point Platform,” finishing it in October 1966. It called for freedom and “the power to determine the destiny of our black community.” It called for full employment for African-Americans, for housing education, for black men to be except from military service, and for “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.”

“It was later we came up with the name Black Panthers,” Seale said.

Another of the Panthers’ early attention-grabbing actions was “patrolling the police”—observing police actions in black neighborhoods while the observers themselves were armed with guns. “The idea for patrolling the police was to try to capture the imagination of the community so I could better organize them,” Seale said.

“By the time we decided to patrol the police, we knew every gun law,” Seale says, including that just pointing a loaded weapon at someone could get them arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. So using discipline Seale had learned during his service in the Air Force, they went out armed, but disciplined, he said.

Around January 1967, “We went out on 7th Street, a big nightlife place,” Seale said. “Fourteen of us, half of us with long guns, half of us with handguns holstered.”

“We did believe in the right of peaceful protest,” Seale said. “What we said was too many protesters, including our white radical brothers, were getting killed peacefully protesting. We have a right to peaceful protest … but if you pull guns on us, we will defend ourselves and we will shoot you.”

Seale recalled, “The cop got out of his car. ‘You’ve got no right to observe me.’” Newton told the officer the relevant laws that allowed them to do so. “We were citing the law to the cop.”

But the policeman tried to take Newton’s gun from him, Seale said. “Step back. You cannot take my weapon,” Newton said in Seale’s recollection. “Some tall black man over here says, ‘What kind of negro is this?’”

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)
Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale speaking at Lesley University, Feb. 27, 2017. (Greg Cook)

Soon California state legislators tried to pass a bill specifically aimed at making the Panther’s armed displays illegal. “He was trying to pass a bill to stop us from patrolling the community armed with guns and law books,” Seale said. “It was very important we knew the law.”

The Panthers went to the state capital in Sacramento to protest—again armed with rifles and shotguns. “They actually led me to the floor of the Assembly. I was looking for the spectator section,” Seale said. “They arrested my people, arrested us all.”

“Having led that armed delegation, they put me in jail for six months. That’s all they could give me at the time,” Seale said.

“With the Capital,” Seale said, the Black Panthers became an international sensation. “We went world wide.”

By the time Seale was released, Newton had gotten into a shootout with police that left Newton wounded, one officer dead, and Newton charged with murder. “We proved in court that Huey was shot first by Officer Frey,” Seale said. Seale recounted his apartment subsequently being raided by police in the early morning hours and he and his wife being arrested. He recounted confrontations with Neo-Nazis who challenged their office.

“When Dr. King was killed, young folks flooded my organization,” Seale said. “Seven months later Richard Nixon was elected to office.”

Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas speaking at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Jan. 20, 2017. (Greg Cook)
Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas speaking at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Jan. 20, 2017. (Greg Cook)

The Panthers offered free breakfast programs, free sickle cell anemia testing, free health clinics. They organized voter registration drives and supported Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for U.S. president. Other branches across the U.S. took up these programs and with encouragement from the Oakland headquarters launched their own—a free ambulance, a free pest control program, and so on.

“We related to the whole multicultural formula, which really boils down to a class struggle between the people and … the avaricious money class,” Seale said.

The Panther community programs “gave us character, that gave us unity in the community,” Seale said. They found great support in the black community, he said.

“The breakfast program really took off and really represented what we meant,” Seale said. It inspired the state of California to launch its own free meals program for school students. “In the next year, 28 state legislatures across the United States of America voted to do something similar. My point is that we were on the right road.”

But, Seale said, FBI Director “J. Edgar Hoover jumps on the national horn: ‘The Black Panther breakfast program is a threat to the internal security of America.’ How do you get that?” And President Richard Nixon pressed Hoover to oppose the Panthers.

“We told these brothers and sisters how to fortify their offices. And they came and attacked us,” Seale said. “By the end of ’69, I had 29 dead Black Panthers and 69 wounded.” Among them was 21-year-old Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, who was murdered by police in a midnight raid in December 1969 in which officers burst in shooting into a Chicago apartment in which several Panthers were sleeping. Over that year, Seale said, 12 police officers were also killed and 39 wounded in these confrontations.

“We’d take their arrests, they knew that,” Seale said. “But they didn’t come in saying, ‘You’re under arrest.’”

Categories: Activism