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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

I was 15 in 1968, and like the typical black teenager, the Panthers became my heroes after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Before King was killed, my friend Huey was in jail. To that point, I had only organized about 400 Black Panther Party members up and down the West Coast, between San Diego and Seattle. There were no other branches or chapters elsewhere in the country. …

Then, in April, 1968 King is murdered, and by late May, when schools start letting out, I begin getting a flood of people into the organization, folks flying from cities all over the nation into Oakland to talk to me and the central committee about setting up new chapters in their hometowns. Young black people were reacting to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed.

That tragedy enabled my organization to spread across the country. By November, I had 5,000 members and 49 branches. That’s 49 cities that we operated offices of the Black Panther Party in.

We had the Free Breakfast for Children Program, free sickle cell anemia testing and free preventative medical health care clinics in every last one of them. These programs organized and unified people on the grassroots level in the black communities where we operated. And it is a real threat to the power structure, when you can organize and unify people around something concrete. Do you see what I’m getting at?

Yeah.

So, here is the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI doing everything it can to distort and stereotype us. They don’t tell you that I was an engineer on the Gemini missile program, and an architect, and a stand-up comedian. All they said was that I was a hoodlum and a thug. They never said that Huey Newton had finished two years of law school by the time that we created the Black Panthers. They don’t say that I was actually employed by the City of Oakland when we created the Black Panther Party.

Do you think the Panther Ten-Point Program is as relevant today as it was then?

Yes, as profoundly relevant. In fact, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who worked with my organization for five years back then, says that the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program is just as relevant today as it was years ago. And we could add some points to this son of a gun.

Were you politicized while serving in the Air Force?

Oh, no. I didn’t know politics back then. They put me in the stockade twice. I had been an honor student. But I ran into racism in the military and didn’t know how to handle it. I’d knock a racist out. So they put me in the stockade.

So what would you say politicized you?

The first thing that began to politicize me was Jomo Kenyatta’s “Facing Mount Kenya.” I started reading that in the spring semester of 1962. From there, I went to hear Martin Luther King speak. In the early part of ’63, I was working on the freedom of Nelson Mandela and on ending apartheid. Next, I was listening to Malcolm X after he’d left the Nation of Islam. I was thinking about joining his new organization, the OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity), but that never happened, because he wound up getting assassinated before I had an opportunity. I was steeped in African American history and in and out of many different organizations in the Oakland area. I was a programmatic organizer. I quit my engineering job after three years to work at the grassroots level. I wasn’t married and had no kids, so I was able to do those things.