Black Panther Bobby Seale on the past, present and future of the struggle for justice
Robert George Seale was born on Oct. 22, 1936 in Dallas, where his father raised him to be a carpenter, builder, hunter and fisherman. During World War II, his family migrated to northern California, where young Bobby graduated from Berkeley High School with plans of becoming an architect.
Those plans were put on hold when he enlisted in the Air Force, serving for nearly four years until being discharged for insubordination. He moved to Los Angeles to take a shot at showbiz, performing stand-up comedy and jazz, before returning to the Bay Area.
In 1962, while working full-time in the aerospace industry, Seale attended Merritt College, majoring in engineering design. During this time, he met Huey Newton and began to develop a passion for progressive politics. The two decided to create a grassroots community-based political organization.
On Oct. 15, 1966, they founded the Black Panther Party and outlined their organization’s 10-Point Platform. A coin flip determined the party’s leadership: Seale was chairman, and Newton minister of defense.
Membership rolls surged in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as many young African Americans began to question the wisdom of the late civil rights leader’s philosophy of civil disobedience and passive resistance. The U.S. government came down hard on the Panthers, using the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), along with local authorities, to discredit, imprison and otherwise neutralize its members and sympathizers. Seale himself spent over two years in jail on a variety of charges, and was ultimately vindicated in each case.
The most famous trial began after his arrest along with seven other activists, dubbed the “Chicago 8,” for conspiracy and inciting to riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the summer of 1968. The proceedings became a spectacle; Judge Julius Hoffman had Bobby bound, shackled and gagged in the courtroom for repeatedly demanding that he be allowed to represent himself.
Seale recently spoke to the Banner about “Chicago 10,” an animated film about the trial that will have its broadcast premiere this fall on the award-winning PBS series “Independent Lens,” and on his career as an advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised.
Why do you think Judge Hoffman had you bound and gagged, and had your trial separated? Do you think he got an order from above, from someone like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover?
He just couldn’t handle me. He kept trying to say that William Kunstler was my lawyer. I kept telling him that Kunstler was not my lawyer. He and I went around and around arguing about that.
Charles Garry was your attorney, right?
Yeah, but Charles Garry was in the hospital recovering from a gallbladder operation. So I had made a motion to defend myself at the beginning of the trial, before the jury had heard even one shred of evidence, since my lawyer wasn’t there. Every time anyone would mention my name in the courtroom, I would jump up out of my chair and yell, “I object! I object, because my lawyer, Charles R. Garry, is not present.” He’d order me, “Sit down, Mr. Seale.” And I’d respond, “No, I want the record to reflect that I am objecting, and I am going to continue to object because you denied me my right to defend myself.” So he chained, shackled and gagged me for three days, until finally the press went against him.
I was 15 in 1968, and like the typical black teenager, the Panthers became my heroes after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Before King was killed, my friend Huey was in jail. To that point, I had only organized about 400 Black Panther Party members up and down the West Coast, between San Diego and Seattle. There were no other branches or chapters elsewhere in the country. …
Then, in April, 1968 King is murdered, and by late May, when schools start letting out, I begin getting a flood of people into the organization, folks flying from cities all over the nation into Oakland to talk to me and the central committee about setting up new chapters in their hometowns. Young black people were reacting to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed.
That tragedy enabled my organization to spread across the country. By November, I had 5,000 members and 49 branches. That’s 49 cities that we operated offices of the Black Panther Party in.
We had the Free Breakfast for Children Program, free sickle cell anemia testing and free preventative medical health care clinics in every last one of them. These programs organized and unified people on the grassroots level in the black communities where we operated. And it is a real threat to the power structure, when you can organize and unify people around something concrete. Do you see what I’m getting at?
So, here is the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI doing everything it can to distort and stereotype us. They don’t tell you that I was an engineer on the Gemini missile program, and an architect, and a stand-up comedian. All they said was that I was a hoodlum and a thug. They never said that Huey Newton had finished two years of law school by the time that we created the Black Panthers. They don’t say that I was actually employed by the City of Oakland when we created the Black Panther Party.
Do you think the Panther Ten-Point Program is as relevant today as it was then?
Yes, as profoundly relevant. In fact, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who worked with my organization for five years back then, says that the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program is just as relevant today as it was years ago. And we could add some points to this son of a gun.
Were you politicized while serving in the Air Force?
Oh, no. I didn’t know politics back then. They put me in the stockade twice. I had been an honor student. But I ran into racism in the military and didn’t know how to handle it. I’d knock a racist out. So they put me in the stockade.
So what would you say politicized you?
The first thing that began to politicize me was Jomo Kenyatta’s “Facing Mount Kenya.” I started reading that in the spring semester of 1962. From there, I went to hear Martin Luther King speak. In the early part of ’63, I was working on the freedom of Nelson Mandela and on ending apartheid. Next, I was listening to Malcolm X after he’d left the Nation of Islam. I was thinking about joining his new organization, the OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity), but that never happened, because he wound up getting assassinated before I had an opportunity. I was steeped in African American history and in and out of many different organizations in the Oakland area. I was a programmatic organizer. I quit my engineering job after three years to work at the grassroots level. I wasn’t married and had no kids, so I was able to do those things.
What was at the heart of your and Huey Newton’s creating the Panthers?
Patrolling the police, the breakfast and job programs were all political moves, but our overall objective was to organize a mass membership organization and to evolve a political, electoral, community unity in the black community. That was my objective.
How would you describe yourself politically today?
I am still a progressive, political revolutionary. I am a revolutionary humanist, like I was in the ’60s. Do you understand what I mean by revolution? Revolution is about the need to re-evolve political, economic and social justice and power back into the hands of the people, preferably through legislation and policies that make human sense. That’s what revolution is about. Revolution is not about shootouts.
Is there any question no reporter has ever asked you, that you wished one would?
Yeah: Where’s my eldest son?
Where is he?
In Iraq. He just got shipped there on June 19. He’s been in the Army Reserves from the age of 18 to 30. He was going to leave, but he agreed to reenlist if they would make him a military police officer, because that would help him get a higher paying job he wanted as a security guard with a biotech company. And right after that Bush started that damn, dumb-ass Iraq War. And my son just got shipped to Iraq for the first time.