On Thursday, the Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale spoke at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center. Seale–who founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 with Huey P. Newton–was brought to campus by the W.E.B. Du Bois Society and the Young Democratic Socialists.
Seale’s life brought him from modest beginnings to Oakland, where he became involved in radical politics, community organizing, and eventually formed the Black Panther Party. From there, he became an internationally known activist, served time in prison, was followed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and even released a barbecue cook book as a fundraiser for social justice.
The Black Panthers Revisited: Inspiration
Seale began by telling the audience that the Black Panther Party’s main slogan was “All Power to the People.” It was a class slogan designed to at once challenge the wealthy interests who controlled the country and also to say plainly what they wanted–control over their own communities.
The Black Panthers formed in 1966 in the middle of a protest movement that preexisting struggles for civil rights and against the United States war in Vietnam. Seale shared stories about how both he and Huey P. Newton were involved in that movement, including a story of their being involved in a major antiwar demonstration that was brutally attacked by Oakland Police. Seale and Newton realized that the brutality directed at the demonstration was mandated by the same system that directed brutality daily on communities of color.
In college, Seale and Newton studied African-American history and got involved in the politics of the day. They drew inspiration from the movement, but also from looking back at the triumphant history of African Americans and Africans. Seale told of learning of the role that black soldiers played in the Revolutionary War and Civil War and becoming inspired.
The Formation of the Party
Seale told the audience how he organized an anti-draft program at his community college that was well-attended and would help convince Newton that the two men could start a successful organization. He explained that after a full afternoon of speakers, he recited an anti-draft poem written by an African American poet that captured Newton’s attention. Several days later, Newton pressured Seale to recite the poem on Telegraph Avenue near the University of California campus in Berkley. Following the poem, several undercover police officers tried to arrest Seale and Newton. While the event led to their arrest and trial, it also convinced Newton that they could build a radical organization.
Later that night, the two wrote the Black Panther Party’s ten point platform. They sought to “capture the imagination of the community” by engaging in solid community organizing. One of their first projects was developing citizen patrols to monitor police conduct. They were not the first group to do so in the Bay Area, but previous groups were typically arrested while observing police conduct. To stop this, the Panthers’ patrols were armed with tape recorders, law books, and guns–and were highly disciplined. The Panthers would gain further notoriety when they brought an armed delegation to the California legislature to protest laws aimed at stopping them from carrying guns.
Continued interest in the Black Panther Party
Seale also discussed the continued interest in the Black Panther Party. He pointed to the release of new books on the Panthers (Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas and The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs as examples), as well as interest by Hollywood. There is currently a six-hour special being produced about the group for HBO, as well as a Hollywood film that might star Will Smith as Bobby Seale. He said that this continued interest has driven him to write a book–“The 8th Defendant”–on his experiences being tried for his role in the 1968 protests in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention (DNC).
Radical to this Day
Many of the same conditions that prompted the formation of the Black Party Panther continue to exist to this day. Seale said that 90% of wealth in world controlled by less than 1% of the population. He believes that this needs to change and that a way to pursue that change is via greater community control from the local level on up to the top. He also said that the ecological crisis needs to be addressed.
He said that a movement similar to that launched by the Black Panther Party could still happen to this day if people employ effective and disciplined grassroots organizing. He argued that the success of the Party was dependent on his commitment to grassroots organizing and his willingness to share with others how to do that organizing.