Article - Office of College Advancement
Panthers' Seale: 'It was about a principle,' not being 'macho'
Group's co-founder, now 70, joins panel discussion at Ohlone College
By Todd R. Brown, Staff Writer.
Thursday, May 10, 2007—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area: The Argus.
Fremont—Forty years ago, a group of armed Black Panthers entered the state Assembly chamber to protest a gun control bill that Panther founder Bobby Seale said would keep blacks "disarmed and helpless."
It was a shocking move for the upstart activists, clearly signaling that the militant civil rights campaign of Malcolm X would not die with its recently murdered leader.
The Panthers inspired leagues of other rebels, including the White Panthers in Michigan and senior advocates dubbed Gray Panthers. The Black Panthers weren't posturing for posterity when they confronted their enemies in the establishment, Seale said. They were on a mission.
"It was organized. It was disciplined. We knew our history. It wasn't macho, it was about a principle," said Seale, who ignited the group with Huey Newton in 1966 in Oakland. "Power to the people."
Seale appeared Wednesday at Ohlone College for a panel discussion titled "Pioneers of the Civil Rights Era," moderated by Chicano studies professor Mark Salinas.
The half-dozen veterans of the Age of Aquarius told a packed house what it meant to them to take part in a collective grass-roots movement.
"We just thought we were going to change the world right away," said Maria Ramirez, an Ohlone counselor and founding member of the Chicano Student Union at Chabot College in Hayward.
As time went on, she said, the members of the1960s generation realized, or perhaps rationalized, they were part of a larger continuum.
"We're part of 500 years of resistance," she told the diverse students gathered in the Jackson Theatre. "You are living history."
Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who recounted the Panthers' 1967 confrontation in Sacramento in a May 3 article, noted that "the Panthers looked scary, but really weren't."
Certainly Seale cuts a more genteel image at 70 than he does in black-and-white photos showing a leather-jacketed, beret-clad, pistol-packing firebrand.
Wednesday, he wore a Berkeley YMCA cap, a tan button-down shirt, and khakis supported by suspenders and a belt, and carried a mirthful look on his face.
The Texas native, whose family moved to the West at the end of World War II, shared his own activist awakening in 1962 when he worked as an engineer on the Gemini missile program in San Leandro and took classes at Merritt College in Oakland.
He checked out a street rally where a preacher described visions of the kings of western Africa, a revelation for Seale.
"Here I am getting A's in mathematics, and I didn't know nothing about this history," he said, noting that he picked up little about black history at Berkeley High School, except that "slaves sat on a stoop and played the banjo."
Another seminal influence was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s proposed boycott of companies that would not hire blacks, including bread companies.
"We want Wonder Bread to wonder where the money went," Seale recalled King saying.
A trio of Logan High School students who sat in the first row of the 400-capacity room seemed particularly receptive to Seale's wisdom.
"This is a pivotal point in my life," said David Collins, 17, a junior at the Union City school. "I get to see a glimpse of the magnificence that was once the Black Panthers."
Abel Shifferaw, 16, another junior, said he had read extensively about the Panthers, whom the FBI accused of being communist for hosting a free breakfast program for Oakland schoolchildren. Shifferaw was even inspired to help found a socialist group at Logan, the People's Vanguard Party for Social Defense.
"My mom doesn't like it too much," he said, wearing a goatee, a slight Afro and thick-framed glasses a la Malcolm X. "She's from Ethiopia. She'd rather I'd become a doctor or something."
Seale's wife, Leslie Johnson-Seale, 58—they met when she joined the Panthers in 1969—manned a table outside the theater with DVDs and books for sale such as "The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered)."
She said the couple had been living mostly in Philadelphia, where she is from, for the past 25 years or so, but started staying part of the year in Oakland at Seale's family home around 2000.
Today, she said, Seale works with the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, which provides an artistic outlet for at-risk youths, and Urban Releaf, an East Bay tree-planting group.
She said she has few regrets from her Panther days, when she lived communally with other young people who felt driven to change the world.
"When it was over, it kind of left us confused," she said. "Because it was a way of life."
Seale said he wouldn't change his past, although he lamented the violent end for some of his fellow Panthers, such as Fred Hampton, whom police in Chicago shot dead in 1969.
"I wish I could change the situation for some of my friends who were killed," he said.
Reflecting on the social progress so many of his generation, of all colors, fought for, Seale concluded: "First of all, you're human. You're part of the greater humanity of the whole Earth—your thinking, human mind."