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Black Panther Bobby Seale on the past, present and future of the struggle for justice

Kam Williams | 7/30/2008, 6:13 a.m.
Bobby Seale (right), chairman of the Black Panther Party, is one of three speakers at a sidewalk news...
Bobby Seale (right), chairman of the Black Panther Party, is one of three speakers at a sidewalk news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 21, 1968. The other speakers are Ben Stewart (left), head of the Black Students Organization at San Francisco State, and George Murray (center, dark glasses), suspended teacher at San Francisco State. AP /Ernest K. Bennett

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Bobby Seale (right), chairman of the Black Panther Party, is one of three speakers at a sidewalk news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 21, 1968. The other speakers are Ben Stewart (left), head of the Black Students Organization at San Francisco State, and George Murray (center, dark glasses), suspended teacher at San Francisco State.

Robert George Seale was born on Oct. 22, 1936 in Dallas, where his father raised him to be a carpenter, builder, hunter and fisherman. During World War II, his family migrated to northern California, where young Bobby graduated from Berkeley High School with plans of becoming an architect.

Those plans were put on hold when he enlisted in the Air Force, serving for nearly four years until being discharged for insubordination. He moved to Los Angeles to take a shot at showbiz, performing stand-up comedy and jazz, before returning to the Bay Area.

In 1962, while working full-time in the aerospace industry, Seale attended Merritt College, majoring in engineering design. During this time, he met Huey Newton and began to develop a passion for progressive politics. The two decided to create a grassroots community-based political organization.

On Oct. 15, 1966, they founded the Black Panther Party and outlined their organization’s 10-Point Platform. A coin flip determined the party’s leadership: Seale was chairman, and Newton minister of defense.

Membership rolls surged in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as many young African Americans began to question the wisdom of the late civil rights leader’s philosophy of civil disobedience and passive resistance. The U.S. government came down hard on the Panthers, using the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), along with local authorities, to discredit, imprison and otherwise neutralize its members and sympathizers. Seale himself spent over two years in jail on a variety of charges, and was ultimately vindicated in each case.

The most famous trial began after his arrest along with seven other activists, dubbed the “Chicago 8,” for conspiracy and inciting to riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the summer of 1968. The proceedings became a spectacle; Judge Julius Hoffman had Bobby bound, shackled and gagged in the courtroom for repeatedly demanding that he be allowed to represent himself.

Seale recently spoke to the Banner about “Chicago 10,” an animated film about the trial that will have its broadcast premiere this fall on the award-winning PBS series “Independent Lens,” and on his career as an advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised.

Why do you think Judge Hoffman had you bound and gagged, and had your trial separated? Do you think he got an order from above, from someone like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover?

He just couldn’t handle me. He kept trying to say that William Kunstler was my lawyer. I kept telling him that Kunstler was not my lawyer. He and I went around and around arguing about that.

Charles Garry was your attorney, right?

Yeah, but Charles Garry was in the hospital recovering from a gallbladder operation. So I had made a motion to defend myself at the beginning of the trial, before the jury had heard even one shred of evidence, since my lawyer wasn’t there. Every time anyone would mention my name in the courtroom, I would jump up out of my chair and yell, “I object! I object, because my lawyer, Charles R. Garry, is not present.” He’d order me, “Sit down, Mr. Seale.” And I’d respond, “No, I want the record to reflect that I am objecting, and I am going to continue to object because you denied me my right to defend myself.” So he chained, shackled and gagged me for three days, until finally the press went against him.