Black Panther no dinosaur

Bobby Seale, cofounder with Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and one of the Chicago Eight (defendants in a conspiracy trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago), is preaching to the people. In his trademark black beret and dapper mustache, he gesticulates animatedly to make a point; he curses, he recites an antigovernment poem, he jokes, he tells stories of police confrontations and vilifies conservatives. His gruff voice booms over the mike. The audience of perhaps 200 is rapt.

But this is not the handsome young brother in a turtleneck and black leather jacket who glares from photos taken during his Panther days in the ’60s. This is the middle-aged Bobby Seale, author of “Barbeque’n With Bobby,” who is community liaison for the African American Studies department at Temple University. And now Seale’s beret, with the legend “Seize the Time” emblazoned on it in blue letters, promotes not a radical political movement but his fledgling movie project about his life.

Besides attacking conservatives such as then-California Governor Ronald Reagan and former supporter and current right-wing Salon columnist David Horowitz, Seale disparaged Mario Van Peebles’ 1995 film, “Panther,” which, he felt, “totally misportrayed what we were about.”

In a rambling yet riveting presentation on March 29 in Meyerson Hall, Seale, one of the last surviving members of the Panthers’ inner circle, seemed concerned, above all, about legitimizing a movement which has been characterized as violent and racist.

He characterized himself and early Panther members as “intellectuals,” who were “methodical” and had a detailed understanding of the law (Newton was in law school when the Panthers were founded).

He and Newton met at Merritt College, in Oakland, Calif., a junior college where Seale was an engineering design major. There they advocated for what would become the college’s first courses in African American studies.

“Hoodlums and thugs don’t do this,” Seale said of the research he conducted for the bibliographies and syllabi for these courses.

It was not until the killing of Malcolm X, he said, that he and Newton decided to form a revolutionary, grass-roots organization.

“The day Malcolm was killed, I had a one-man riot,” he said.

He and Newton formed the Panthers in October 1966. The group had an early membership of about 75, which eventually grew to 5,000, with 45 chapters nationwide. The group founded free health clinics, served free breakfast to schoolchildren and organized massive voter-registration drives.

“We were not an isolationist black-power movement,” he said. “Our slogan was, All power to all the people.”


Originally published on April 6, 2000