Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale says the real story of the BPP hasn’t been told
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Bobby Seale was an engineering design major at Merritt College in Oakland, California, working at Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics in the Gemini missile program, when he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1962. King encouraged the 7,000 folks in the Oakland Auditorium to boycott the Wonder Bread Co. because of its refusal to hire people of color. Seale, in his mid-20s, was inspired by King’s words. He quit his engineering job and set up a youth program in North Richmond, California. Afterward, he worked for the city government of Oakland as a community liaison for the North Oakland Neighborhood Service Center finding jobs for the unemployed. But Seale believed there could be more progress if more African-Americans were elected to political office.
In October 1966, Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a political organization with a slogan of “Power to the People.” But the public focused more on the members’ uniforms and gun-toting police patrols than its Ten-Point Platform and Program, which called for, among other things, jobs, decent housing, quality education and an end to police brutality.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who deemed the Black Panther Party a threat to American security, launched a not-so-subtle counterintelligence attack against the group, which included infiltrators and deadly raids. By the time the group was dismantled in the mid-1970s, 28 members had died, including Fred Hampton, Mark Clark and Bobby Hutton, who at 16, was one of the Panthers’ first recruits. Hutton was killed by Oakland police officers on April 6, 1968, two days after the death of King. Many more Black Panthers were imprisoned and some, like Eldridge Cleaver, fled the United States.
Seale ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland in 1973, but remained in community activism. Today at the age of 80, his focus is on an infrastructure climate change bill, which he believes would yield 3 million to 5 million jobs for the working poor. Seale is also working on a documentary he says would highlight the FBI’s efforts to destroy the Black Panther Party, including a never-before-heard conversation between Hoover and then-President Richard Nixon on getting rid of the organization.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, Seale recently released a new book with photographer Stephen Shames, titled Power to the People: The World of the Black Panther. The book highlights the group’s many community programs that are often overlooked in the pages of history. Here, he talks with Lottie Joiner about the Panthers’ lasting legacy and the social justice movement today.
Lottie Joiner: Why did you start the Black Panther Party 50 years ago?
Bobby Seale: When I created the Black Panther Party, I was just trying to get a political organization going so we could get more politicians. Black Power came out, that’s one thing to advocate black power, but I was telling the guys around, I said, ‘You know, you ain’t going to have any black power or power at all until we get more political seats — more city council seats, more county supervisorial seats, more sheriff’s seats.’ This is what our African-American people’s community have to have so we can deal with the legislative policies and allocation of monies and funds for programs, jobs, etc. That’s where the power is.
Joiner: What are the biggest misconceptions about the Black Panther Party?
Seale: The biggest misconception is the FBI said that the Black Panthers hated all white folks. How could we hate white folks when we protested along with thousands of our white left radical and white liberal friends? We worked in coalition with each other, in coalition with the Asian community organizations and coalition with Native American community organizations, in coalition with Hispanic, Puerto Ricans and brown [people]. I had coalitions with 39 different organizational groups crossing all racial and organizational lines. I had a coalition actually with SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], Dr. Martin Luther King’s SCLC, particularly centered around the Poor People’s March. They had a coalition with 100 different other organizations and we joined it. I saw to it as chairman of the Black Panther Party that we would work with Dr. King to do that.
Joiner: In some circles, the Black Panthers were considered militant and opposed to the nonviolent actions of Dr. King.
Seale: Not true. We exercised the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America that, by law, gives us the right, the civil right, to peacefully assemble and to peacefully redress our grievances. We had numerous peaceful rallies, etc. all across this country, just like Dr. King. The only thing we said was, ‘If these racists come in here and attack us, we will defend ourselves.’ That’s all we said. We will defend ourselves. If you come in here shooting at us, we will defend ourselves. We’re defending our constitutional, democratic civil human rights to have peaceful protest, to be able to register to vote, to be able to unify our people, to be able to win some of those political power seats and further move to change the laws and the racist city charters and supervisorial city charters and our county seats and stuff.
Joiner: Why did people want to be part of the Black Panther Party?
Seale: We were young. The power structure was murdering and killing civil rights workers. They [were] doing all of that crap and then they came and killed Dr. King. Do you realize what happened after that? I’m being flooded — ‘I want to join the Black Panthers.’ From the time that Dr. King was murdered, April 4, 1968, to the point where Nixon was duly elected to be president in November of that year, that’s seven months, I moved from 400 members up and down the West Coast to 5,000 members in 49 chapters and branches throughout the United States of America. They were angry. Do you realize 400 riots occurred all across America for two or three months? It’s like this, they kill Dr. King to stop him. If they stop him, they’ll stop the protest movement. All they did was cause my organization to grow like wildfire. That’s all they did. Then they came around and attacked us. Until the year of 1969, they attacked more than 20 Black Panther Party offices.
Joiner: Fifty years after the founding the Black Panther Party, what is the state of race relations today?
Seale: With this election, we’re in dire straits. Our human liberation struggle continues as it has continued from slavery, through Reconstruction, through 1920s and ’30s Depression eras, through the ’50s and back again through the ’60s protest movement, anti-war and civil human rights protest movement largely led by Dr. Martin Luther King and SCLC, along with the Urban League, CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. Then comes along an organization — the Black Panther Party for Self Defense — and we are talking about all ‘Power to the People.’ Yes, our black power is important, but our black power is connected with the need for Asian people’s power and Hispanic people’s power, and even poor white people who want to be progressive. Their power, working with us in coalition, that’s what they were afraid of.
Joiner: What are your thoughts on the police shootings today?
Seale: They are a symptom of the same oppression, occupation and oppression of the African-American community. We are the target of racist laws, such as ‘stand your ground,’ and so on. Open carry is a trick. You can carry your gun, but it amplifies to the right wing of white racist types who say, ‘Well, I’ve got my gun and if I see a black person, I’ll kill him.” That’s all that’s about. Those kind of laws in this proliferation of guns and giving [permission] for racists to be able to shoot black and other people of color. Or shoot or kill Muslim citizens here in the United States of America, etc. That’s all that’s about.
Joiner: What do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement?
Seale: I like it. It’s necessary. They need more localized committee leadership. We don’t want no mono leaders no more. We got to get away from just mono leaders only.
Joiner: How do you feel when people say All Lives Matter?
Seale: We know that, but what we’re saying here is that we got the information and the states. Black people are killed 20 times the rate of their white counterparts. Too many are innocent, unarmed, what have you. We’re saying that there’s too many police departments who function from a racist manner, in their relationships with black people and African-American communities. That’s the way they do it and they’ve been doing it too long. We need to have more and more community control of police, duly elected to the ballot. We need duly elected commissioners rather than police chiefs appointed. We’re going to have duly elected community police review boards that will have investigative powers with special prosecutors, and with special lawyers, and legal representation. We want it all duly elected by the people, not appointed by the mayor and consented by the city council. We don’t want that no more, because your police department winds up investigating itself with the local prosecutor and then they don’t even charge the cop when there’s questionable evidence that this person acted wrong. Even if it’s negligence or deliberate murder. Greater community control of police on the community level, this has got to happen. The Black Lives Matter movement has to learn, and I want to teach them that it’s about putting this stuff on the ballot and ballot measures piece by piece and doing this all across the country. This can be done.
Joiner: What is the lasting legacy of the Black Panther Party in your opinion?
Seale: Grassroots political electoral community organizing was the foundation of why we started and existed in the first place. Grassroots community organizing, political electoral community organizing, was the key. This is what it was. This is what I made it. They attacked us when it came to the shootouts. They attacked us in the streets. They attacked us in our houses, in our homes in the early a.m. They attacked us at colleges and universities and shot us and killed us and murdered us. By the end of 1969, I had 28 dead Black Panther Party members.
Joiner: What does Donald Trump’s election as president, in your opinion, say about our nation?
Seale: We still have that racial view. That racial divide is much clearer now. The masses of people are going to be broke, they’re going to be poor and low-income, and they’re going to be in that same cycle that’s going down now with the avaricious corporate money rich, that aspect of the avaricious, who does not want to pay their fair share in taxes with offshore bank accounts and billion-dollar bank accounts. When I look at this election here, I see a setback. What happened? Now, can I trust this guy? What is this guy going to do?