Feb. 23, 2007 — Bobby Seale regaled a standing-room-only crowd with tales and asides about his life and founding the Black Panther Party during a talk on Feb. 22 that was part of Black History Month celebrations at the University of Virginia.
Seale, 70, detailed his political awakening, his early encounters with party co-founder Huey P. Newton and FBI efforts to destroy the party. He punctuated his talk with amusing stories about the early days of the Panthers, including how the catalyst to launch the party was an impromptu, al fresco poetry reading in Berkeley in 1965.
While Seale said he and Newton had discussed forming a political organization, they had not acted until the Berkeley incident. Seale said they were walking down the street, discussing a Ronald Stone poem that Seale can still recite today. He said they were in front of a coffee house with outdoor tables when he started reciting the poem to Newton. People at the coffee house gathered around.
After his recitation, Seale said a man dressed in a T-shirt told him he was under arrest for reciting a poem containing an obscenity. Seale said he was unaware that the man was an undercover police officer, and they tussled.
Seale and Newton were arrested, but later, in court, were given one year of probation. As they walked from the courthouse, relieved to be spared jail time, they decided to create the movement.
They had drafted a 10-point program calling for employment, decent housing, an end to robbery, free health care, an end to police brutality, an end to wars of aggression, better education about black culture, blacks freed from jail, power to determine the destiny of the community and community control of modern technology.
The Black Panther Party was organized to elect blacks, but also to monitor the police and provide services within the black community. Seale said members were educated in firearms, law and politics. They patrolled the streets of the black community in their uniform of black berets, black jackets, creased trousers and unconcealed firearms.
Party membership remained sparse, until Seale led an armed delegation of Panthers to the California legislature. The media trumpeted the story around the world and soon there were more than 5,000 members in 49 cities in the United States. The party, he said, organized a free breakfast program and sickle cell anemia screenings, distributed groceries to poor people and established programs to educate black people about their culture.
But FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said the party was communist-inspired, and Seale said FBI agents worked with local police forces to attack party offices and a few shoot-outs followed. Several party members were killed and many were jailed, including Seale.
Seale said while Hoover portrayed them as thugs, the vast majority of Panthers were educated, talented and well-meaning people. Newton was a law student and Seale said he himself had been an architect and also an engineer on the Gemini Missile program.
Seale traced his own political awakening from 1962, and an African-American Association demonstration on his street, marking the first time he met Newton. He said speakers opened his mind to black leaders from the past, such as Marcus Garvey, and more contemporary ones, such as Jomo Kenyatta, considered the founding father of Kenya.
“I was raised on Tarzan movies,” Seale said. “I thought Tarzan ran Africa.”
As he was delving into African history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X drew Seale’s attention. He said he was inspired by a speech King gave while organizing a boycott of companies that would not hire blacks, including several bread companies. “‘We want to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went,’” Seale recounted King saying.
Seale quit his engineering job in 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Seale was interested in Malcolm X, who had been ousted from the Nation of Islam and had formed his own Organization of African-American Unity. But then Malcolm X was killed in 1965. Seale also protested the war in Vietnam and was part of the Chicago Seven, protestors put on trial after disruptions at the Democratic convention in that city in 1968. He said the judge had him shackled and gagged during the trial.
Seale, who is touring colleges for Black History Month, wanted to emphasize the “progressive” aspects of the Black Panther Party and its accomplishments. He said he broke with the “command-economy socialists,” opting to stress greater local community control. He cited elected police commissioners as an example of local control.
“When we started, there were fewer than 100 duly elected black politicians, in all the 500,000 local state and federal offices,” Seale said. “Now there are 12,000 ... I think America is moving, step by step, toward what it is supposed to be.”