Seale, Bobby 1936–
Bobby Seale 1936–
Political activist, author
In Oakland, California, in 1966, passionate desire for a parity of power resulted in the formation of a revolutionary group known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Sol Stern, in an article originally printed in New York Times Magazine in 1967 and later reprinted in Black Protest in the Sixties, articulated the sentiment of African-Americans who found organization against oppression necessary. Members of the minority community felt pressured, Stern wrote, “to call attention to their claim that black people in the ghetto must rely on armed self-defense and not the white man’s courts to protect themselves” from perceived societal abuse. Black Panther Party cofounder and chairman Bobby Seale best symbolized the swelling dissatisfaction African-American individuals had with American society in the late sixties. “[Seale’s] story is not that of a man who reasoned his way into the black revolutionary movement of the late 60’s,” Howell Raines wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “He came to his eventual role as co-founder and chairman of the Black Panther Party by the more painful and damaging route of anger and compulsion.”
Seale was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1936. During his childhood his poverty-stricken family moved to Port Arthur, Texas, and San Antonio, Texas, before finally settling in Oakland, California. Failing to graduate high school because of poor grades in his senior year, Seale joined the U.S. Air Force and trained as an aircraft sheet-metal mechanic. After serving three years, however, he was given a bad conduct discharge for disobeying a colonel at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. He returned home, finished high school at night, and found sporadic work as a sheet-metal mechanic at various aircraft plants in the late 1950s.
In 1959 Seale pursued a career as an engineer draftsman, enrolling at Merritt College, a two-year institution located on the fringe of West Oakland’s ghetto, an area that was a “kind of incubator of Negro nationalism,” Stern noted. Seale was made aware of the African-American struggle for civil rights when he joined the Afro-American Association (AAA), a campus organization that stressed black separatism and self-improvement. His cultural awareness was further expanded through his friendship with Huey Newton, whom he met through the organization in September of 1962, and with whom he often sat in coffeehouses
Born Robert George Seale, October 22, 1936, in Dallas, TX; son of George (a carpenter) and Thelma Seale; married; wife’s name, Artie; children: Malik Nkrumah Stagolee (son). Education: Attended Merritt College, Oakland, CA, in the early 1960s.
Worked as sheet-metal mechanic at various aircraft plants, late 1950s; cofounder (with Huey Newton)and chairman of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, 1966-74; founder of the Advocates Scene, 1974; author; lecturer. Community liaison for Temple University’s African-American Studies Department. Military service: Served three years in the U.S. Air Force.
Awards: Received Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, 1971, for Seize the Time.
Addresses: Home —Philadelphia, PA. Office —c/o African-American Studies Department, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122; also, Youth Employment Service, 6117 Germantown, Philadelphia, PA 19144.
discussing literary classics of black nationalism and revolution.
Seale and Newton soon became disenchanted with the AAA, however, believing the organization offered little more than ineffectual cultural nationalism that would not help lessen the economic and political oppression felt in the African-American community, especially in the ghetto. Seale began adopting the views of the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who proposed armed resistance as a means for African-Americans to gain freedom and control from white society. “We began to understand the unwritten law of force,” Seale informed Stern. “They, the police, have guns, and what the law actually says ain’t worth a damn. We started to think of a program that defines and offsets this physical fact of the ghetto.”
Seale’s burgeoning anger toward white authority was intensified and his desire to strike back was made resolute by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Raines noted that the black nationalist’s death “became for Mr. Seale the symbol of the oppression of a white world he believed to be irredeemably racist and destructive.” Seale and Newton responded the following year by forming the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. “Our objective was to create a grass-root based political organization which would attract the less fortunate and teach them to use the electoral process as one avenue of gaining control of the institutions that affect their lives, especially on the local level,” Seale explained years later to B.J. Mason in Ebony.
But the immediate, tangible function of the Panthers was to provide armed patrols on Oakland’s ghetto streets, protecting residents from what the Panthers deemed racist police abuse. Bolstered by the rhetoric of revolutionary violence, they sought to ensure this protection through any means necessary. “To these young men,” Stern observed, “the execution of a police officer would be as natural and justifiable as the execution of a German soldier by a member of the French Resistance [during World War II]. This is the grim reality upon which the Panthers built a movement.” Consequently, tensions heightened between the police and the African-American community, with the police desperately trying to attenuate the appeal and effectiveness of the Panthers.
The authorities sought to weaken the Party by several means, including repealing the California law that allowed firearms to be carried in public. Led by Seale, a group of 30 armed Panthers disrupted the California State Assembly on May 2, 1967, protesting the proposed gun control legislation. After stating their case to the press, the Panthers walked out, but were quickly arrested on a variety of charges, including the violation of some obscure fish-and-game laws. Seale pleaded guilty to charges of disrupting the state legislature so that the majority of Panthers arrested could be released; he served five months in prison. The incident gained the Party national exposure and helped increase its membership.
By the mid-1960s, the black protest movement had become increasingly splintered, with groups ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which stressed nonviolent resistance and direct action, to the Black Muslims, a militant group advocating violence, if necessary, as a way to achieve separatism from whites. Although Seale was the official leader of the Black Panther Party, Newton had greater control over the group’s internal workings. Seale’s intentions, more extensive than Newton’s, lay in establishing contacts with other radical groups, both in the black protest movement and in the mostly white peace movement. “You don’t fight racism with racism,” Seale pointed out to Time’s Wallace Terry. “The best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” In 1968, acting on this belief, he led the Panthers to form the Peace and Freedom Party with several white radical groups.
Seale also participated with white antiwar leaders in the infamous demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. He and seven others, including Youth International Party founders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, were indicted under the new antiriot provision of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal to cross state lines to incite a riot or instruct in the use of riot weapons. The group, dubbed the “Chicago Eight,” went on trial on September 24, 1969.
Seale’s attorney, Charles Garry, was recovering from surgery at the time and therefore could not represent him in the trial. Two weeks before the proceedings, Seale asked the presiding judge, U.S. district judge Julius Hoffman, for a delay so his lawyer would have adequate time to convalesce. Judge Hoffman refused. Seale then retained William Kunstler, who was representing the other seven defendants, but upon Garry’s advice, Seale fired Kunstler and requested that he be allowed to represent himself, thus having the option to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence during the trial. Again, Hoffman refused his request, citing that Kunstler and his colleagues were sufficient representation for Seale.
Feeling his constitutional rights were denied because he had neither proper representation nor was allowed to represent himself, Seale consistently disregarded courtroom procedure and decorum with repeated outbursts against Judge Hoffman. In his autobiography, A Lonely Rage, published in the late 1970s, Seale recounted one of his many tirades against Hoffman for the judge’s continuing denial of Seale’s requests for representation: “I have a constitutional right to speak, and if you suppress my constitutional right to speak and if you suppress my constitutional right to speak out in behalf of my constitutional rights, then I can only see you as a bigot, a racist, and a fascist.” During the trial Seale also called the judge a pig.
Seale gained national notoriety through this spectacle, becoming a symbol of black anger and protest. He also incurred the wrath of Judge Hoffman, who finally ordered Seale bound and gagged a month into the trial. A reporter for Time described the scene: “The black defendant sat chained to his chair by leg irons and handcuffs, emitting muffled obscenities toward the bench through a gag of muslin and tape.” Because Seale continued to disrupt the court, managing “to convert the proceedings into a tragicomic harlequinade,” a Newsweek reporter noted, Judge Hoffman eventually declared a mistrial for Seale, severing his portion of the trial from the other seven and finding him guilty on 16 counts of contempt of court, each count having a sentence of three months in prison—a total of four years. He was to have been retried on the riot charges, but in 1972, after he had served two years, the federal government rescinded all charges against him.
In March of 1971, during his prison term, Seale again stood trial, this time in New Haven, Connecticut, for charges of conspiracy to kidnap and murder in the death of Alex Rackley, a New York-based Black Panther suspected by the Party of being a police informant. The Federal Bureau of Investigation believed Seale gave the order for Rackley’s torture and execution. However, a mistrial was declared on May 24, 1971, after the jury deadlocked on a verdict. The judge in the case then dismissed the charges against Seale, believing there had been too much publicity for a fair new trial.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Seale began steering the Black Panther Party away from its revolutionary, invective actions to ones that procured the development of such community action programs as free health clinics in the ghetto and a national breakfast program for inner-city children. He also swept the ranks of the Party, expelling any individuals with criminal intentions—“provocateur agents, kooks, and avaricious fools,” Seale was quoted as having said by Joan Martin Burke in her book Civil Rights.
These actions helped present a softer, more mainstream image of the Party and coincided with a book Seale published in 1970 called Seize the Time, in which he attempted to discredit the belief that the Panthers had ever been racists or cop killers. Reviewing the book for Newsweek, Raymond A. Sokolov believed that “the great revelation of his unique book is, in fact, how open and contemplative and evolving this supposed thug’s mind is.” But others remained skeptical, both of the Party’s shift in strategic emphasis and its recent history.
Still, Seale remained adamant about his changing convictions. “In the past,” he told Mason, “I’ve hated situations, but I’ve developed beyond that. It’s almost like, ’Forgive them, they know not what they do.’” In 1973, discarding the Party’s trademark black leather jacket, Seale put on a suit and tie and ran a Democratic campaign for mayor of Oakland. Out of a field of nine candidates, he finished second with a surprising 43,710 votes, an indication that the shifting Party had widened its constituency.
But Seale believed the focus was still too small. In 1974 he walked away from the Black Panther Party. “I did not feel or believe our Black Panther Party would ever reach that point where we were there, out front, as the righteous spokesmen for black folks and united with other organizations,” he wrote in his autobiography. In contrast, a reporter for Newsweek noted that “the de-Pantherization of Bobby Seale was, by common judgment and his own, a simpler matter of combat weariness—a one-way ticket out of a party that had in his estimate ’declined into a quasi-radical respectable notoriety.’” Upon his withdrawal from the Party, Seale formed Advocates Scene, an organization aimed at helping the underprivileged form grass-roots political coalitions, a goal not unlike the originally stated objective of the Black Panther Party. Around the same time, Seale also began writing A Lonely Rage. Whereas his previous book, Seize the Time, covered the ideology of the Black Panther Party, this autobiography mainly explored his psychological state during his childhood and activist years.
In the early 1980s, deviating from the stance he held when he marched upon the California State Assembly fifteen years earlier, Seale became an outspoken proponent of handgun control. He explained to a Newsweek reporter that rising unemployment in the African-American community due to governmental economic policies could have disastrous effects: “We won’t so much have political opposition as we will have more random crime.” Seale maintained this viewpoint when he declined an offer in 1983 from Eldridge Cleaver, former minister of information for the Black Panther Party, to help lead a new Party composed of unemployed black and white Vietnam veterans who would train young men and women in the use of firearms. “I don’t live in the sixties,” he was quoted as having said in Jet.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Seale continued developing and helping organizations committed to addressing political and social injustice. He became a community liaison for Temple University’s African-American Studies Department. He also lectured around the country on his past activism and the continued need for involvement. And to this he added another of his passions—barbecuing. In 1987 he published his outdoor cooking philosophy and recipes in Barbeque’n with Bobby, the proceeds from which were to go to various non-profit social organizations.
Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, Random House, 1970.
(Contributor) G. Louis Heath, editor, The Black Panther Leaders Speak, Scarecrow, 1976.
A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale, foreword by James Baldwin, Time Books, c. 1978.
Barbeque’n with Bobby, Ten Speed Press, 1987.
(With Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown) “Huey!’” Folkways, 1972.
“Bobby Seale’s Address at Georgetown University, February 12, 1974,” Georgetown University Library, 1974.
Burke, Joan Martin, Civil Rights: A Current Guide to the People, Organizations, and Events, second edition, Bowker, 1974.
Seale, Bobby, A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale, foreword by James Baldwin, Time Books, c. 1978.
Stern, Sol, “The Call of the Black Panthers,” published in Black Protest in the Sixties, edited by August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, and John Bracey, Jr., Markus Weiner, 1991.
Ebony, August 1973.
Jet, December 17, 1981; February 14, 1983; October 26,
1987; October 9, 1989; November 6, 1989; December 11, 1989.
Harper’s, May 1989.
National Review, August 25, 1970; March 31, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1978.
New York Times Magazine, August 6, 1967.
Newsweek, November 10, 1969; June 15, 1970; September 5, 1977; March 1, 1982.
Time, November 7, 1969; November 14, 1969; April 6, 1970.
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