He wears glasses now, and the jet Black mustache and goatee that defined his famous face have been shaved. With his dark gray blazer and collared shirt, he looks more like a college professor than one of the most famous political radicals in U.S. history.
But during the political turmoil of the late 1960’s, Bobby Seale’s intense, glowering face and rousing rhetoric seared their way into the American consciousness. His charismatic style and political acumen helped propel the Black Panther Party to a kind of national stardom that had never before been enjoyed by a Black American political organization. And his skills so frightened the US government that it organized a secret campaign to kill him and to eliminate the Panther party, which resulted in several bloody shootouts, including the killing of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.
Now, just days shy of his 80th birthday, former Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale is walking through Berkeley, California, just miles away from the Oakland streets where he and his friend Huey Newton founded the Panthers in 1966. Reminiscing about the glory days of the movement, when the Panthers grew to more than 5,000 members and spread from California to 70 cities, Seale still maintains a view of the current world that is grounded in an obvious realpolitik. He does not miss the irony that the issues highlighted by the Panthers 50 years ago bear a strong resemblance to ideas put on the table today by Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street
The Panthers gained instant notoriety when they began patrolling and observing police in their hometown of Oakland. Dismayed at the number of police shootings and patterns of excessive violence against people in their community, the Panthers set up teams of members who, perfectly legally, carried weapons and tailed police. This led to several tense confrontations, including one in which an angry police officer tried to reach into a car full of Panthers to seize a shotgun. As Seale recalls it, the officer was knocked to the ground and surrounded by armed Panthers, who sent him on his way.
In 1967, in an event that captured national media attention, Seale and the Panthers staged an armed march into the state capitol of Sacramento to oppose a piece of legislation. It was a daring piece of political theater that, despite the discomfort of California police and politicians, was protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The California legislature went ahead and passed the law repealing a previous law allowing open carry of loaded firearms. The NRA was silent.
But the real significance of the Panthers was far more than just as an armed radical group, in spite of the sensationalist portrait painted of them by the news media at the time. “The point of the Panthers was not to get in shootouts,” says Seale, “but to capture the imagination of the people. That’s how you organize a political party That’s what the Panthers were about.”
Setting up headquarters in an old house in West Oakland, the Panthers quickly built a reputation as a vital community service organization, escorting senior citizens to cash their pension checks, providing free breakfasts to children, offering shoes to the shoeless, and even certain types of free medical care. They even published a newspaper, of which the very first edition featured a cover story investigating the police killing of a North Richmond, California, Black man.
The Panthers were as skilled in political tactics as they were in street tactics. In 1966 they published a Ten Point Program that was concise and sharp, calling for, among other things, an end to police brutality, prison reform, full employment, decent housing, and improved education – all issues that continue to have resonance to Black political activists today.
Huey Newton, who was a law student in the early days of the Panthers, and Seale, a community college student, read widely. Seale recognized that the route to community change lay in political and electoral power – not, as the Panthers are often characterized, in armed revolution. “In 1966 Blacks held only 50 elected offices in the entire U.S.,” says Seale. “If you want real change you get people in the assemblies and legislatures. The Panthers ran a candidate for president in 1968, Eldridge Cleaver.” Seale himself ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland in 1973. “The point was to organize into a political and electoral machine,” he says.
Although the Panthers began to disintegrate in the 1970’s due to personal infighting, deaths and sabotage by the FBI, the organization still has a hold on the imagination of Black Americans and political progressives of many colors. Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Seale remain important historical figures and for a time, masterfully maneuvered a poorly-funded grassroots organization into national and international prominence as a political force. Of the top leadership, only Seale remains politically vital today. He still writes, speaks, and is hoping to create a film about the Panthers. Newton was killed in an apparent drug-related shooting in 1989. Cleaver died of illness in 1998.
The Panther style – the Black berets, disciplined behavior, and focus on political tactics – will likely keep them and their work vital for years to come. Recently they have come into the focus of documentary filmmakers such as Stanley Nelson’s excellent 2015 account, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Fifty years later, the issues the Panthers identified such as police brutality and incarceration remain unsolved, not only in Oakland but around the nation. In fact, these issues have arguably worsened. At the same time, progressive politics in the U.S. have been weakened by economic inequality, the erosion of union support, and political subterfuge.
The Panthers left a legacy of activism and resistance that, while not precisely reproduced or even imitated today, still informs much of the rhetoric in what remains of Black progressive movements in the U.S. It is a political and organizing model that young movement leaders could do worse than to study and emulate.
David Thigpen is a former Time Magazine correspondent who reported for the magazine from New York and Chicago. He has extensive experience covering the record industry, Wall Street and the Chicago political scene. David's work has also been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune Literary Review. He is also an accomplished public policy analyst and is affiliated with the Institute for the Future, a research think-tank in Palo Alto, California, where he conducts research on the future of American cities.