EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party

Bobby Seale loves to learn. He loves math – he used mathematical theories to teach Black Panther Chapters all over the country how to reach more of their communities. Bobby would tell them “Quantitative increase or quantitative decrease causes a qualitative leap or change.” He loves anthropology, studying the work of Dr. Lorenzo Turner, the first scholar to make serious study of the Gullah language. Bobby Seale studied mechanical engineering, the history of eugenics, African American history, and he used everything he learned to form and grow the original Black Panther Party. He loves to teach, too, and during our recent conversation, he taught me about the Black Panthers, about COINTELPRO, and he shared with me his thoughts on subjects ranging from racism to non-violent protest to the first time he heard Dr. Martin Luther King speak.

Several people submitted questions for this interview, including other writers, my father, and my son. Bobby answered each with grace and intelligence, sharing so much of his story. The first topic Bobby wanted to tackle was a query from myself and my editor, Manny Schewitz: What goes through his mind and heart when people – predominately white conservatives – compare the original Black Panther Party to the Ku Klux Klan. “It’s deliberate,” he said. “Hoover did it.” Hoover is J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI. Hoover said this in 1969 about the Black Panther’s breakfast program, a program many believe may have been the inspiration for the federal government’s National School Breakfast program:

The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the BPP (Black Panther Party) among naive individuals .. . And, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths.. . . Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for. 

Hoover also made numerous statements claiming the real reason the Black Panthers carried weapons was to go into white neighborhoods, and murder white people. He also called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

Bobby Seale laughs about comparisons between the Black Panther Party and the Klan, because he understands. Black Panthers weren’t “hiding behind hoods,” Bobby said. Klan members were terrorizing, killing, torturing, always keeping their identities secret. When police came to arrest Black Panther members, they “took the arrest,” choosing to use the courts to defend their right to protest and defend themselves. They never hid. The “right wing wants to have a whipping boy” he said, but behind the chuckle, you can hear the sadness. Because Bobby hears what the New Black Panthers believe, what they want, and he sees people compare his organization to a hate group. “They [The New Black Panthers] propagate so much racist rhetoric; they’re nothing like the original Black Panthers.” The New Black Panthers have more in common with the Klan than they do with the original BPP.

My son’s question was one he has asked many times over the past ten years: Why do people hate others based on their skin color? Bobby began his answer by telling me racism is based on “lies and distortion about another ethnic or religious group; also lies about gender.” He segued into his studies of the beginning of eugenics, most notably the creation of the word itself by a British man named Francis Galton, a Brit, and cousin to Charles Darwin.  He told of scientists who measured, by the centimeter, the insides of skulls belonging to blacks and other natives, and even white women. The eugenicists then compared those measurements to the skulls of white men, members of “the ruling class,” and determined that the white men were superior to blacks, other natives, and white women.

Anthropology proves eugenicists were racist, Bobby said, and pointed to “Myth of the Negro Past” by Melville Herskovits as proof. From PBS:

Herskovits was the first prominent white intellectual to declare that black culture in America was “not pathological,” but rather inherently African, and that it had to be viewed within that context. In positing this, he established himself among the anthropological vanguard in applying the principles of cultural relativism to ethnic cultures within the United States. He traced regional traditions in art, music, dance, and other expressions to a kind of persistent cultural memory in modern-day black Americans, most of whom are generations removed from Africa. His 1928 book The American Negro and the seminal 1941 tome The Myth of the Negro Past fundamentally challenged widely held assumptions about black people in America. In 1948, he founded the first interdisciplinary program at Northwestern University in African studies, and later formed the African Studies Association.

Bobby Seale shared with me that sometimes, people would approach him about joining The Black Panthers, telling him “The white man is the devil.” Bobby would reply “No,” and lay out a scientific case, based on his study of anthropology, proving they were wrong. He would remind them of the Black Panther motto, “All the power to all the people,” and speak about the whites who helped run the Underground Railroad. Bobby Seale believed then, and believes now, in all human liberation, whether you’re “black, white, purple, or blue.”

My friend Carol, a gifted writer, pointed out that the Black Panther Motto was adopted from Malcolm X-“Freedom By Any Means Necessary.” She then asked: Given the current political climate whereby the police force has become a private security force for the Ruling Class, does he believe that equality can ever be achieved for the Black Community solely through a strategy of non-violent means and civil disobedience? Bobby first stated that Malcolm X’s quote was only “one polemic” of his entire message.  What we need to remember is that Malcolm X preferred the ballot, Bobby told me, but “when you take away our [African Americans’] constitutional rights, now you’re ready to shoot, kill, and murder us,” the community has a right to “self-defense, much like the ‘Arab Spring.'” In fact, the Black Panthers exercised their Second Amendment rights so publicly, a California assemblyman decided to take those rights away. From Esquire Magazine:

Once upon a time in California, the police were knocking off black folks with an alarming regularity. In 1967, a black man named Denzil Dowell was blown away by a shotgun wielded by the police in North Richmond, an impoverished, largely black suburban community outside Oakland. According to the official police account, Dowell had been caught while breaking into a liquor store. He had then refused a command to stop and, therefore, was riddled by police who considered themselves threatened by him. Members of the community believed, with some justification, that Dowell had been killed while raising his hands to surrender. At the same time, the Black Panther Party in Oakland had been operating what it called Black Panther Police Patrols. The members of the patrol would listen to police scanners and then hustle to the scene of an arrest, where they would remind the suspect of his legal rights. They also showed up armed, because California then was an open-carry state because, of course, freedom.

This scared the bejesus out of white people, and the cops weren’t too enthusiastic about it, either. So along came a Republican state assemblyman named Don Mulford, and he proposed a bill that would ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public throughout California. The Panthers enlivened the debate by showing up at the state capitol in Sacramento while exercising their god-given right to bear arms, which again scared the bejesus out of people. (I think it was the shades and the berets myself.) Speaking in language that today would make Wayne LaPierre cry like a child — the NRA of the time was curiously supportive of the Act in question — Don Mulford said he was proposing his law to keep us safe from “nuts with guns,” especially the ones who lived in “urban environments.” (No, you don’t need the Enigma machine to decode that one.) The law passed. Governor Reagan signed it, and that’s how history was made.

Bobby Seale never advocated violence as a first response, only as self-defense, something protected under the Constitution. He wants to “free the people so they can get jobs, an education.” Bobby told me the best way to affect change is to elect more African American progressives, and progressives of every color, to local and state public office. “Change will come,” he told me, “with legislation and policy.”

When I told my dad I was interviewing Bobby Seale, I asked him if he had a question. He thought for a moment, then asked: Do you [Bobby Seale] ever look back and wonder if there was anything you could have done differently, re: the Black Panthers, to create a more sustainable movement? This question drew out a series of amazing stories about the history of the original Black Panthers, including a call Bobby received from Rev. Ralph Abernathy, friend and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A few months before Dr. King was murdered, Rev. Abernathy contacted Bobby, asking him “if the Black Panther Party would be interested in participating in round table discussions,” set up all over the country. King and Abernathy were putting together the Poor People’s Campaign, and were hoping to create “broader economic rights programs” for poor people in America. Bobby told Rev. Abernathy he would “love to” work with Dr. King, and others. Less than two months later, Dr. King was dead. Bobby described what happened to the Black Panthers in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The Black Panthers bloomed and spread all over the country. From April to October, I had 5,000 members, and 49 chapters. Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton flew to California from Chicago-they wanted to start a Chicago chapter.

Bobby Seale was part of the Chicago 8, a group that also included Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. His trial was separated from the rest, and they became the Chicago 7. Bobby spent three days bound, gagged, and tied to a metal chair while the jury looked on. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison on 16 counts of contempt of court. He has never wavered from his belief that the best way to change the system is through legislation and policy. Run for office, Bobby says, put yourself in a position to help. Get inspired, as Bobby was the first time he ever heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.

It was 1962, and Dr. King was scheduled to speak in Oakland, at a venue that housed 7,000 people. Bobby headed down, found a seat, and was mesmerized. “He talked about all the companies that wouldn’t hire people of color,” Bobby remembered. “He talked about Wonder Bread, and he said ‘Make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went.’ All 7,000 of us rose to our feet.” That speech propelled Bobby Seale into a life devoted to civil rights and activism. The Black Panthers built free clinics, including clinics that administered free tests for sickle cell anemia. They created a free ambulance program, and a free pharmacy, in Winston-Salem, a program Bobby called a “shining example” of the outreach promoted by the original Black Panther Party.

The last question submitted by Arik Bjorn gave me pause. Arik wanted to know where Bobby was when Malcolm X and Dr. King were killed, and what his reaction to those deaths was. What if these memories were too painful? They are painful, but Bobby shared them anyway. His reaction to the murder of Malcolm X was anger. He stormed out onto the sidewalk, and wound up near a closed business. Bobby kicked a window out of a door as tears rolled down his cheeks. He would end up renting that building for the Black Panthers, and telling the owner it was he who broke that window. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Bobby was in hiding. Eldridge Cleaver had put Bobby in an apartment, having heard that if Bobby showed up for a court date, he might be killed. Turning on the television, he learned of King’s death. He called his brother John, asking him to bring a suit, and a nice hat. Bobby changed, made his way to San Francisco, and called his lawyer. While in San Francisco, he learned of a riot in North Richmond, gathered up a group of Black Panther members, headed into North Richmond with a megaphone, and broke up the riot. The Black Panthers told people to “go home,” and they did.

We ended this talk, Bobby and me, on the profound differences between the original Black Panther Party, and the New Black Panthers. Rather than transcribe his words, let Bobby Seale’s own voice tell you what he thinks in this interview with CNN:

Thank you to Blaine Robinson for facilitating this interview. Thanks to Arik, Carol, Manny, my dad, and my wonderful son for their insightful questions. Finally, thank you to Bobby Seale for his time, his openness, his trust, and his generosity. You can follow Bobby Seale on Facebook, and visit his website here.

Erin Nanasi

Erin Nanasi is the creator of The Bachmann Diaries: Satirical Excerpts from Michele Bachmann's Fictional Diary. She hates writing about herself in the third person. Erin enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with family. And wombats. Come visit Erin on on Facebook. She also can be found on Twitter at @WriterENanasi.


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