In 1966 civil rights activist Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party with fellow activist Huey Newton. By the late '60s, the Black Panther Party had achieved international attention for their progressive social agenda which included everything from free breakfast programs for impoverished children to armed neighborhood patrols monitoring incidents of police brutality.
I recently spoke with Bobby Seale in advance of his Sunday, Jan. 20 appearance at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. Seale will be the keynote speaker for the 44th annual IUPUI Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner. We discussed the legacy of Dr. King, the Black Panther Party - and the point where the two briefly intertwined.
NUVO: You're speaking at the IUPUI MLK dinner here in Indy. Tell me about your connection to Dr. King and your thoughts on the current state of his legacy?
Seale: I went to hear Dr. King speak for the first time as a young man in 1962 at Oakland Auditorium. I was an engineering and design major at college and I wasn't a part of any organization yet. The auditorium held 7,000 people and every seat was packed. He was speaking about boycotting the bread companies who were refusing to hire people of color. He talked about boycotting Wonder Bread and he said,"We're going to boycott them so consistently and so profoundly, we're going to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went." I got enthusiastically involved with the civil rights movement after that. This is the man who first inspired me to be involved.
A few years later, I worked with and gave the Black Panther Party support to Dr. King on his Poor People's March. Dr. Ralph Abernathy called me personally and said "Mr. Seale, Dr. King would like to know if you would be willing to participate in a broad roundtable of organizations across the country working together in the struggle to end institutionalized racism." I said, "Yes, the Black Panther Party will definitely work with you and Dr. King on anything you want to do." People don't know that we crossed those lines.
Dr. King's legacy is manifested in moving to evolve and get rid of institutionalized racism in America. From the moral standpoint to the practical community organizing standpoint. It was about nonviolence and rightfully so. It was about the first amendment of the constitution. The first amendment of the Constitution gives all of us the right to peacefully assemble and address our grievances. At that time the power structure began to attack, murder, shoot, kill and brutalize peaceful demonstrators. In other words violating their constitutional, democratic, civil and human rights to organize, unify and educate the people.
When I look at Dr. King's legacy and what we stood up for, the amount of people that were killed in the civil rights protests and later in my organization - I had 28 Black Panther Party members killed in attacks from the police who were trying terrorize us out of existence - when I look at that I have a very great affinity for Dr. King and everything he inspired me to be.
NUVO: I write about music, so I have to ask about the Black Panther's connection to music. Do you feel like music was a valuable tool in spreading the Panther's message?
Seale: Yes; I used to organize benefit concerts for the Black Panther Party. Over the years, I must have packed the Oakland Auditorium 10 or 12 times organizing benefits. One of the main things I'd do was get musicians, we had everybody from Santana to the Temptations. Whether it's rap, blues or whatever - music perpetuates the message, it opens people up and it allows for a greater folkloric communication. That's what the performing arts are about. I love to see it when music really, truly addresses the social and political issues of human liberation.
NUVO: There's a huge national debate going on concerning the second amendment. The Panther's armed police patrols were such a crucial part of the group's agenda early on. What are your thoughts on gun control?
Seale: They need to curtail the proliferation of those heavy assault weapons. I still believe in my right to bear arms. I still believe in the Second Amendment. Yes, we bore arms at one time to observe the police in our community. But we never just gave guns out to people - we trained them. I'm ex-military; several of us were and we trained brothers and sisters how to handle the weapons and we trained them on the legal grounds regarding the right to bear arms.
We carried guns because a group had attempted to monitor the police a year before us, they had no guns to protect themselves. They were out there with just tape recorders trying to observe the cops. The police didn't like that, so they beat them up and took their law books and tore them up, busted their heads and locked them up. This was in Los Angeles, it was the Community Alert Patrol. I'll never forget it; it was in 1965 a couple months after the Watts Riots.
Huey Newton was in law school up in San Francisco at that time. He said to me, "You know, they're violating their rights down there by beating them up and taking their stuff." So a year later when we got the Black Panther Party started we decided we were going to patrol the police too. We had law books, tape recorders and so on. Huey had a great knowledge of the law. We found out that in California law, citizens had a right to stand and observe a police officer carrying out their duty as long as they stood a reasonable distance away.
It was a method we used to capture the imagination of people all over the San Francisco Bay area. People were talking, "Bobby Seale and Huey Newton are patrolling the police with rifles, shotguns, law books and tape recorders." That was a profound piece of history.
We observed the police to bring our issues to the forefront and capture the imagination of the people. That got them into the meetings so we could begin to organize the political and electoral community. We were ultimately trying to organize votes in the community because we wanted to take over the majority of the seats in the city council and we wanted the mayor's seat too. If we got all that, then we could have changed the local racist laws in the city charter. That was the strategy in patrolling the police, It was a tactic to capture the imagination of the people and to get them to focus on this political organization in the community that was standing up for our civil and constitutional rights.
NUVO: What are your thoughts on the Dream Act and the struggle for immigrant rights?
Seale: I love the dream act, we have to have it. People have to understand what Arizona did in profiling Mexican-American people was a method by which they were actually removing people from the voting rolls. Because the population growth in the state had increased profoundly and voter registration had increased profoundly. Electoral community unity is very important. Especially when people can get on the right progressive road with political, social and economic issues. Even during the civil rights movement of the 1960's voting rights were interconnected and related to all the other issues. It comes down to whether the people have the right to vote for a politician or proposition that will change things from the negative to the humanistic positive.
NUVO: What do you think the biggest civil rights struggle is in America today?
Seale: It's voting rights. Look at what the Republicans are trying to do, they literally tried to suppress the vote in the last election all across the country. Not just black folks - any area that had a heavy concentration of democratic voters, black or white. That's what these fools did - The Tea Party and the Republican party, they could care less.
That issue is connected with economic rights and every other right - whether it's healthcare, employment or whatever. These are things I addressed in the Black Panther's ten point plan and these are the same rights that we are talking about today. The same things that we in the Black Panther Party were about, those issues are still relevant to this very day.
NUVO: Tell me about your current project; you're raising funds to produce a dramatic film based on your life?
Seale: Yes, I'm telling a real story about real people in real life situations - how I caused the Black Panther Party to come about in the first place. People don't know I was an engineer on the Gemini Missile program out here in California with one of the big aerospace companies before I got involved with civil rights. They don't know I worked with the city government of Oakland and ran youth jobs programs before the Black Panthers existed. This is not a documentary, it's a drama. There's action and adventure with human involvement. Other films have been made, but the producers and writers had nothing to do with the history of our organization. There was a film called Panther and ninety percent of it was cheap fiction. It had nothing to do with our real true human involvement in history. It's a dynamic, high style and high drama film told by me, who started the organization.