Strategy, in many ways, defined The Black Panther Party, as did discipline.
I immediately knew who the hefty, bespectacled man was when he walked past me late Friday afternoon and entered the unassuming North Philadelphia office building that houses the black talk radio station, 900am-WURD. The elderly gentlemen in the tan sports coat whose tie was draped around his neck was none other than Mr. Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, a late 1960s civil rights organization that, despite its mission, progressiveness and altruism, has garnered the reputation of being a radicalized group of troublemakers who would often take the law into their own hands.
Mr. Seale, now engaged in environmental justice work in California, was in town last week to speak at a Black History Showcase, where other iconic figures would also be lecturing, signing autographs, hawking books and shaking hands with their fans. While in Philadelphia, a City that he’s no stranger to, Mr. Seale agreed to a live radio interview conducted by Rev. Mark Tyler, the pastor of the historic Mother Bethel A.M.E Church, the oldest church property in America continuously owned by African-Americans. Though old age can somewhat be an impediment to memory, Mr. Seale at age 80 was a sharp as ever, vividly remembering and reciting facts and happenings from 50 years ago.
Mr. Seale—influenced and impressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Nelson Mandela and Mr. Malcolm X—was approaching age 30 and still employed by the City of Oakland when he started the Black Panther Party with Mr. Huey Newton, a law student who was seven years younger than him. In addition to organizing political power, Mr. Seale wanted to “capture the imagination” of the people in his North Oakland community and beyond. The rallying cry at that time, Mr. Seale said, was “black power,” though power in this context wasn’t as materialized as their blackness. Of the 500,000 political power seats that one could ascend to, black people had only 50 of them in the late 1960s, said Mr. Seale.
The circumstances, moreover the demands, of the late 1960s which prompted Mr. Seale’s activism with the Black Panther Party are similar to those heard today: an end to police brutality and the unjust murdering of black people. Having political power was, as Mr. Seale tells it, a way to not just control the direction of tax dollars and resources, but a necessity in order to both change the rules of the police department, and how the police responded to racist terror.
“We can duly elect a progressive brother who’s a Sheriff, and if the KKK act up, we can have the Sheriff deputize 100 brothers and sisters to deal with them,” Mr. Seale, who spent an hour at the radio station, recalled himself saying to his comrades.
Strategy, in many ways, defined the Black Panther Party, as did discipline. When the group decided they would, in response the lawlessness of law enforcement, patrol the police with guns, Mr. Seale told Mr. Newton “you have to research all the laws.” Mr. Seale, who learned how to handle guns as a pre-teen, taught his soldiers how to properly engage with firearms and, when time came to hit the streets, Mr. Newton only wanted one person to talk.
“If we have to go to court, I want to be able to have 14 people testifying to the same thing,” said Mr. Seale, remember Mr. Newton’s explanation.
On 7th Street in West Oakland California, the group’s training was tested when confronted by a cop who decried being patrolled by activists. That Friday night became, in Mr. Seale’s words, “Huey’s shining moment.” When the cop yelled “You have no right to observe me,” Mr. Newton responded with the law he memorized:
“California State Supreme Court ruling states that every citizen has a right to stand and observe a police officer carrying out their duty as long as they stand a reasonable distance away. A reasonable distance in that particular ruling was constituted as 8 to 10 feet. I’m standing approximately 20 feet from you and we will sit here and observe you whether you like it or not!”
Spectators of that incident, according to Mr. Seale, said they had never seen anything like it. One woman with a drink in her hand—impressed by Mr. Newton’s knowledge of the law—shouted, “Well, go ahead and tell it!”
“People think we just walked out with some guns, this was well researched; we knew what we were doing,” Mr. Seale said.
As the fight to protect and preserve black life continues in the 21st Century, the story of the Black Panther Party, moreover their emphasis on political power, strategy and discipline, should serve as a model and muse to the activists of today who embody a similar righteous indignation.
CLICK HERE to listen to ‘Why the Black Vote Matters,’ a podcast from The Dr. Vibe Show featuring a panel of black male thought-leaders, including the co-founder of the ‘Vote or Die’ movement.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™