Original Black Panthers reunite 40 years later
BERKELEY, Calif. — The Black Panther Party officially existed for just 16 years, but its reach has endured far longer.
Co-founder Bobby Seale never expected to be around to see that reach 40 years later.
“A lot of times I thought I would be dead,” he says.
Seale and other former members commemorated the party’s founding when they reunited in Oakland last weekend. They planned a mix of events, including workshops on topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to ethnic studies in higher education, as well as presentations on party history.
“Grass roots, community, programmatic organizing for the purpose of evolving political, electoral, community empowerment,” Seale says. “This was my kind of revolution. This was what I was after.”
The Panthers were born Oct. 22, 1966, the night Seale and Huey Newton completed the party’s 10-point program and platform. At the time, Newton was a law student and Seale was working for the Oakland Department of Human Resources as a community liaison.
When they were finished, they flipped a silver dollar to see who would be chairman. Seale called heads. Heads it was.
Later, when he saw Newton looking sharp in a black leather jacket, he decided that members should wear something similar as a kind of uniform. They added berets after watching a movie about the French resistance in World War II.
The Panthers’ most controversial accessories were the then-legal weapons they carried when they began monitoring police activity in predominantly black neighborhoods.
In 1967, as state legislators were considering gun restrictions that eventually passed, armed Panthers showed up at the state Capitol in protest, grabbing national attention.
The militant approach, which frightened many white Americans, set the Panthers apart from other activist groups.
“They filled a critical kind of void in the civil rights struggle,” says Charles E. Jones, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Georgia State University. “At a time when folks began to reassess the utility of nonviolence and turning the other cheek, the Black Panther Party offered an alternative.”
The Panthers are often remembered for gunfights with police that left casualties on both sides.
Still, former members point out that they were about more than guns. They ran breakfast programs for children, set up free health clinics and arranged security escorts for the elderly and testing for sickle cell anemia — along with holding their police conduct review boards.
At its high point, the party had about 5,000 members across the country, Seale says.
Looking back, he still thinks the guns were necessary. A year before the Panthers were founded, he says, another group called Community Alert Patrol tried monitoring police activity, armed with tape recorders, walkie-talkies and law books.
“After a month of them doing this, they in effect got their law books taken and torn up, their tape recorders and their walkie-talkies smashed up, with billy clubs their heads were cracked up and drug downtown and locked up,” he says.
A number of factors led to the Panthers’ demise, starting with government opposition, Jones says. In 1967, the FBI launched a counterintelligence program against what it termed “black hate groups” as well as other activists.
Internal disagreement on tactics and leadership weakened the party further and, “ultimately, people just got burned out. It’s hard being a full-time revolutionary in the United States,” Jones says.
Several Panthers were arrested on a variety of charges and some still remain in jail.
Seale and others were charged with conspiring to murder a party member who was believed to be a police informant, but those charges were later dropped. Seale, who turns 70 this month, moved back to Oakland in the 1990s and keeps busy with speaking engagements.
Newton was convicted of manslaughter in the 1967 death of an officer shot when police stopped a car Newton was driving. That verdict was overturned. Newton struggled with addiction and was shot to death by a drug dealer in Oakland in 1989.
Continued interest in the Panthers is “a fascinating phenomenon,” says Jones, editor of an anthology, “The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered).” For him it comes down to “a certain kind of boldness. It really stems from their community organizing, their commitment to serving not only black folks but all oppressed people.”