Black Panther Party’s co-founder shares front-line tales, underscores organization, political involvement in social justice fight.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
But Seale’s high-profile arrests and renowned public demonstrations have often obscured the way he sees himself and the way he practices the vocation of social justice action.
Amanda Wager and Bwann Gwann of the Diversity Council with Bobby Seale.
“I was a programmatic kind of person,” Seale said Monday night, telling a crowd of more than 300 people in Washburn Auditorium of his exploits before, during and after his co-founding of the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton a half-century ago.
While the world views the Black Panthers as a black militant organization, Seale explained that it was rooted in social service areas such as youth jobs programs, free lunch for children, education and free health clinics. And, of course, gaining power — political power via the important though unglamorous work of voter registration.
When Seale began his social justice work, after being inspired by an Oakland address and subsequent protest by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of Wonder Bread’s discriminatory hiring practices (“We’re going to make Wonder Bread wonder where their money went!” Seale recalled King intoning), he turned his sights to black economic and political advancement.
In 1965, he said, only 50 black people held elected office at all levels, from county to national, across the United States.
“You guys are never going to get any power until you take over some of these political power seats,” he had said to civil-rights activist Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael), author of 1967’s “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.” Seale and others identified 20 majority-black counties in the United States and mounted voter registration drives with the aim of gaining representation on county commissions and sheriffs.
Those seats are crucial, he pointed out, since they allocate money for schools and social programs and, in the case of the sheriff’s office, provided protection from the Ku Klux Klan and other enemies.
In heralding Seale’s arrival to the stage, Professor Danielle Legros Georges, Boston’s poet laureate, read from two poems that underscored the peril people of color faced historically and today.
“What shall I tell my children who are black? / Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin?” Georges began, reading from the Margaret Burroughs poem named after the first line. “What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb, / of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn / they are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.”
Georges also read her own “A Dominican Poem,” inspired by a 2013 court ruling that stripped the citizenship from many people (mainly of Haitian descent) born in the Dominican Republic.
President Jeff Weiss, in formally introducing Seale, said, “The aim was human liberation, to which he has dedicated his life.” Weiss added that Seale “continues to put political and social justice into the hands of the people.”
Bobby Seale speaks to a capacity crowd in Washburn Auditorium.
Seale spoke about his guiding principle of “power to the people” in terms of teaching people to educate themselves and take charge of their socioeconomic future while still helping one another. His ideals are socialist in nature, saying at one point, “If you could politically raise the consciousness of the lumpen proletariat, that’s what I was getting at.”
However, Seale had no tolerance for centralized, top-down Soviet-style socialism (which was embraced by other Black Panthers). “I put two thumbs down to that crap, way back,” he said, to considerable laughter from the audience.
“When I started the free breakfast for children program, I didn’t call it socialism, THEY called it socialism,” he said.
He also described his objection to a portrait of Stalin hanging in one community center, eventually purchasing a portrait of Huey Newton to festoon the wall instead. Seale valued the American work ethic, coming from a long line of carpenters, and the need for education. He excelled in school and in the U.S. Air Force. He worked on the Gemini Missile Program before eventually leaving to work for the city of Oakland.
“Real socialism has got to be power to the people,” Seale said and, to him, that meant the strenuous work of tutoring, job training and securing positions for black workers on the San Francisco waterfront.
“Longshoreman jobs for black people,” Seale recalled. “That, to me, was doing something in the community, rather than working on the Gemini Missile Program.”
Power to the people, he added, meant learning the law and understanding your constitutional rights.
“We knew every law before we went out there,” Seale said.
And sometimes it meant carrying a gun.
Many protesters were brutalized and killed by neo-Nazis and police, Seale said. “We have a right to defend ourselves.
“If you put guns on us to hurt us, we will shoot you,” Seale said, describing the atmosphere of the '60s. “Of course, these people got the message quick.”
Today, however, too little has changed in race relations and the interactions between police and people of color, Seale indicated. Still, he said black people and movements like Black Lives Matter need to guard against insularity.
“It’s about coalition politics,” Seale said. “We did not run around in some isolationist way … we related to the whole multicultural framework.”
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