Of all the revolutionary groups to emerge from the 1960s’ counterculture, one of the most compelling—and certainly the most badass—was the Black Panthers. With their shotguns, berets, raised fists, and angry anti-police rhetoric, this group of armed African Americans captured the imagination of both black and white disaffected youth, sparking a new racial consciousness and riling the FBI like never before. Two men started it all: former Air Force mechanic Bobby Seale and charismatic lawyer Huey P. Newton. Together, they created the largest Black Power organization America has ever seen.Born Robert George Seale in 1936 in Dallas, Texas, Bobby Seale was raised by his carpenter father and devout Christian mother. Seven years later, the family moved to Oakland, California. Bobby failed to graduate from high school, and instead enlisted in the Air Force. He was eventually discharged for refusing to accept military discipline. On returning to Oakland, he enrolled in Merritt Junior College, where he met Newton. The civil rights movement was starting to explode, and in 1966, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Angry at police brutality against Blacks in Oakland, Seale and Newton decided it was time to raise arms. They penned a manifesto, the Ten-Point Program. The seventh point demanded “an end to police brutality and murder of Black people.” Armed with guns (back then, it was legal for citizens to carry weapons for self-defense), law books, and tape recorders, they began patrolling the streets of Oakland, their sole purpose being to observe and document police interactions with Black people. It was the first time the community had stood up against institutionalized racism in this way. “If you read our Ten-Point Platform, you’ll see we weren’t that different from other civil rights organizations,” says Seale. “Except we had guns.”
The Panthers became icons among the many leftist, militant groups at the time due in part to their trademark uniform, born when Seale saw Newton wearing a black leather sport jacket, black slacks, a starched blue shirt, shined shoes and “pimp socks” – sheer black socks. “I said ‘Huey, that’s it, that’s it, man! That’s our uniform! Our people are black and blue after being oppressed and bullied. So our colors will be black and blue.’” They added berets, inspired by old movies Seale had watched about the black-capped members of the French underground resistance during World War II.
“We needed a uniform,” says Seale. “As I told Huey, the low-income African-American community will not accept hippies as the leaders of their community. We have to be neat and respectable and organized.”
The Panthers achieved national notoriety in 1967 after storming the California State Capitol in Sacramento with their shotguns while Governor Ronald Reagan was talking to children outside. The Panthers were protesting a bill that would ban people from carrying loaded guns in public places. They had planned on marching into the spectator section, but ended up taking a wrong turn—onto the floor of the California State Assembly. “Suddenly we look around and all these legislators are ducking under their seats,” says Seale. “I was raised to be polite, so I said, ‘Oh sir, I am sorry. We are in the wrong goddamn place!’” Seale was charged with disturbing the peace, and jailed for six months.
That October, Newton was involved in a shoot-out with police and charged with killing an officer. During the three years Newton was behind bars, Seale oversaw the expansion of the party from 400 to 5,000 members nationwide, with a surge following the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968.
As the Panthers expanded, the government became increasingly nervous, and instructed the FBI to “neutralize” the Panthers and other Black Power groups as part of the COINTELPRO program. More than 2,000 people were arrested in FBI raids on Panther offices. In one, New York Panther leader Fred Hampton was drugged, shot, and killed in a joint police operation with the FBI while other party members were dragged into the street, beaten, and then charged with assault. The FBI tried to destroy the party from within, breaking up relationships and planting agents provocateurs within the Panthers’ midst. “They used to come inside our organization and do dumb shit that had nothing to do with the policies of the Black Panthers,” says Seale. He believes one member, Bill Brent, who held up a gas station and drove away in a truck with the words “Black Panthers” on the side, was almost certainly a plant. “The letters spelling ‘Black Panthers’ were a foot and a half high on the truck. It sure was funny.”
Seale was himself jailed in the aftermath of violent anti-war protests at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was one of the Chicago Eight, charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot. During the trial, Seale was bound and gagged after calling Judge Julius Hoffman a “fascist dog” and a “pig.” He was sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court.
Meanwhile, cracks were starting to appear within the Panthers’ ranks. Where Newton and Seale preached power to all oppressed peoples, not just Blacks, some factions were clearly leaning towards extreme Black Nationalism. Information Minister Eldridge Cleaver, for instance, had gone so far as to condone the rape of white women, calling it “an insurrectionary act.” The ideological split, combined with continuing pressure from the authorities, led to the demise of the Black Panther Party in the early ‘70s. In the Panthers’ lifetime, 34 members were killed and 69 wounded, and 15 police officers were allegedly killed by Panthers. Nine Black Panthers remain in jail today, and Seale is the only surviving founding member.
After the Panthers disbanded, Seale continued to work as an activist and public lecturer. He has written three books: Seize the Time and A Lonely Rage, both memoirs of his life as a Black Panther, and Barbeque’N With Bobby, a collection of traditional Southern and Western barbeque recipes, with proceeds going toward education and employment programs for Black youth.
Today, Seale lives in Philadelphia, where he devotes much of his time to lecturing and R.E.A.C.H., an organization he founded to teach young people how to organize. He still receives hate mail from people saying the Black Panther Party was nothing more than “the Black man’s Ku Klux Klan.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Seale. “From day one, the establishment media called us a paramilitary organization that hated all white folks. But we didn’t. We had working coalitions with leftist white organizations. The media simply liked to project us as a menacing threat because we had guns, and because violence sells.”
Seale worries about the resurgence of extreme Black Nationalist groups in America, two of which use “Black Panthers” in their name. “It makes me mad,” he says. “They have hijacked an organization that I founded and created.” As far as he’s concerned, the Panthers were less about skin color and more about human liberation as a whole. “Remember: the Black Panthers stood for all power, to all the people.”