Interviews: Black Panthers Today

Bobby Seale

POV: What inspired you to found the Black Panther Party

Photo: Bobby Seale todayBobby Seale: I was an engineer and design major at Merritt College in Oakland. After a year and a half of being interested in civil rights protest, I in effect quit my engineering job to work in the grassroots community. With that, I wound up getting into some antiwar march protests. Huey P. Newton and I were in this 10,000 member antiwar anti-draft march, when the march got stopped at the Oakland city limits and the police brutalized the protesters. Huey, who was in law school, argued that the First Amendment was violated by the police and the politicians who sent the police. I insisted to Huey that we needed to start another grassroots organization.

Photo: Bobby Seale with Stokely Carmichael, circa 1968-70Bobby Seale (center) with Stokely Carmichael, c. 1968-70.

We tried to get a campus organization going, but eventually Huey and I resigned and decided to create the Black Panther Party. I recited an antiwar poem in a crowded area around the Berkeley campus. The poem included a cuss word or two, and undercover police grabbed me and arrested me for obscenity. That caused a fight to break out, and later a uniformed police officer got into it. In that process, Huey wound up fighting a uniformed police officer and I wound up cutting one of the police officers in the hand with a pocketknife. With that we wound up in court, Huey and I, and the judge gave the both of us one year probation. That same night, we wrote the Ten Point Program. It took a week to figure out a name for the organization. We named it the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. We passed out thousands of copies of the Ten Point Program. Our goal was to observe the police who had been brutalizing our community.

I was interested in programmatic community organizing and political electoral work. Huey wasn't interested in a large organization, but I was interested in a very large and organized political party, so we could run political candidates. By the end of 1969 we had 5,000 members in 48 chapters and branches.

POV: Many people have a settled idea of what the BPP was about. What do you think is something that people don't appreciate, or misunderstand

Seale: The great misunderstanding was generated largely by COINTELPRO. If you get a chance, read the FBI documents dealing with the Black Panther Party. The FBI would send a press release out saying that Bobby Seale fornicates with 6 different females in the office, and they named the females. A lot of this is detailed in a book by Wesley Swearingen called FBI Secrets -- their counterintelligence program, their agent provocateur programs, sending press releases to press and politicians. Chicago's Mayor Daley held a press conference and announced that the Black Panther Party hates all white people. How could we? We had working coalitions with leftist white organizations. There was a political structure, from the national government on down, working to stereotype us into a corner. My point is that people think we started the shootouts. We didn't start the shootouts. The FBI would go into various cities and get the police to make arrangements for an attack on Black Panther Party offices. They had drawn out plans as to how they would go about attacking the central headquarters of the Party in Berkeley, CA. Some young white policeman who knew it was wrong stole the plans and gave the plans to our lawyers, and we put it all on the front pages. People misunderstand our focus on institutionalized racism. We worked to get people to vote in new kinds of representatives, we did grassroots organizing to change these laws.

Our goal was human liberation as a whole. Our slogan was "All power to all the people" -- whether you're black, white, red, yellow, blue or polka-dotted. All power to the people, and not power only to the one percent of the population that controls 90 percent of the wealth. This is what human liberation is about. It's not about destroying stuff. Revolution is not about a need for violence, never at all. If someone attacks me, I would move to defend myself, when it's called for, but other than that I want to live and work without having to confront violence. Revolution is about a need to re-evolve more economic and social power.

POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then

Seale: No, I still believe this stuff. You just have to find new kinds of programs. The older programs -- free breakfast, free food and free clothing -- were successful. We'd have programs in the park to register people to vote. But the cooperative housing program never got off the ground. What that told me was that I was going to have to run for mayor. We'd have to win some more seats to get the program off the ground. I would like to see groups work with me or on their own to put together new programs. In Philadelphia, in 1985, I put together an environmental renovation youth jobs project. We got the city to pay the salaries for 35 youth and professional supervisors. We were renovating housing -- small jobs, but relevant jobs. Youth job programs were part of my work way before the Party. We've got to get creative, make examples, publicize, tell people to come and see the relevance of what we're all about. When donors visited the Black Panther Party, they came and saw our real programs, a real clinic, with real doctors and medics, giving service to people. It's one thing for a politician to make promises, but grassroots organizations should attach themselves to those programs and show the people what they're doing.

POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we've made progress towards those goals

Seale: One of our points was full employment, and we still have unemployment. There's been some progress in education, such as learning our true history. We have the African American Studies Department at Temple University, where I worked from 1985 to 1995, that kind of institutionalized function. And there's also a women's studies department, an Asian studies department. This is important to me, when I look at an institution that needs to break down remaining institutionalized racism. You can't call yourself a university and exclude whole ethnic groups. On the other end, police brutality was point number seven in the Ten Point Program, and in the last ten years we've seen the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Amadou Diallo, the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. One difference now is that racists used to get away with murdering black people. Today, at least 90 percent of those went to trial. To go back and convict Medgar Evers, that's some kind of progress. So there's been some progress, but it's not over.

POV: Looking back at your time in the Black Panther Party, are there things you would do differently? Would some of your goals or methods change

Seale: One thing I wish we had done was something that Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted done. Dr. Ralph Abernathy called me up shortly before Dr. King's death, and he wanted to see if the Black Panther Party would be willing to participate in a broad roundtable with representatives from the different groups, to hammer out and identify the common goals we're working on, to hammer out the economic and other factors relating to the direction of the protest movement. I told him that we would love to work with Dr. King and others. A month and a half later Dr. King was murdered. We coordinated and did coalition work with all the white leftist radicals, the young Chicanos, Chinese and Japanese groups, the Young Lords. We did coalition work with Dr. Abernathy in the poor people's march, when we packed the Oakland Auditorium with 7,000 people. That's something that I wish I had followed through with. There was a time when we had the notoriety to pull those organizations together. Other than that I don't regret much of anything.

POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the Black Panther Party? What lessons could someone involved in community work today draw from your experience

Seale: We didn't take any crap -- I mean racist crap. We didn't take it. If you we're going to perpetuate some racism, if you we're going to attack us, we were going to defend ourselves. In a five-year period, 750 Black Panther Party members were arrested on more than 2,500 different charges, mostly felonies. It was an effort to try to identify Party members: the police would get their fingerprints and mug shots and then drop the charges. Less than ten percent of all those charges went to trial, and we won 95 percent of all those that went to trial. That's saying something: we had one of the best legal defense teams. We put that together early. It's also important to understand the relevance of coalition politics to all efforts at liberation. Assess the true progressive nature of an organization, regardless of who it is. That's important in coalition politics and grassroots community organizing.

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Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party with Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966. He performed a variety of functions in the Party, and was one of the eight activist-organizers charged with conspiracy in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He continues to be involved in community work in Oakland and Philadelphia. He is the author of Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, A Lonely Rage: the Autobiography of Bobby Seale, and Barbeque'n With Bobby.