Robert George Seale

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Robert George Seale

Robert George Seale (born 1936) was a militant activist who, with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Hutton, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966.

Born to a poor African American carpenter and his wife in Dallas, Texas, on October 22, 1936, Robert George (Bobby) Seale and his family moved to Port Arthur, Texas, and then to San Antonio, Texas, before finally settling in Oakland, California, during World War II. Attributing his failure to make the basketball and football teams to racial prejudice, Seale quit Oakland High School and joined the U.S. Air Force. After three years in the Air Force, Seale was court-martialed and given a bad conduct discharge for disobeying a colonel at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

Seale returned to Oakland and, while working as a sheet metal mechanic in various aerospace plants, earned his high school diploma through night school. In 1962 he began attending Oakland City College (Merritt College). Seale became 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. Through the AAA he met activist Huey P. Newton in September 1962. Seale and Newton soon became disenchanted with the AAA, however, believing that the organization offered little more than ineffectual cultural nationalism. In their view, this cultural nationalism would not help lessen the economic and political oppression felt in the African American community, especially in the Ghetto. Both greatly admired Malcolm X and were particularly impressed with his teachings. They were especially drawn to the idea that Black people had to defend themselves against white brutality and inaccurate education. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 pushed them to adopt Malcolm's slogan, "Freedom by any means necessary," and they founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October 1966.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

Beginning as an armed patrol dedicated to the defense of Oakland Blacks against the brutality of the city police, the Black Panthers gained local notoriety for their fearlessness and militant demand for Black rights. In 1967 the Black Panther Party (BPP) garnered national attention when it sent an armed contingent to the state capitol in Sacramento to protest a proposed gun-control law and to assert the constitutional right of Blacks to bear arms against their white oppressors. Coupling food programs for needy families and "liberation schools" for political education with defiant calls for Black control of community institutions and for "power to the people," the BPP opened recruitment centers across the nation in 1968. According to J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the BPP had become "the No. 1 threat to the internal security of the nation." Fearful of the growing popularity of the BPP and their insistence that Black Power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Hoover ordered the FBI to employ "hard-hitting counterintelligence measures to cripple the Black Panthers" in November 1968

For their participation in the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Seale was brought to trial with seven white radicals, including Youth International Party founders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, on September 24, 1969. The eight were indicted in a federal court in Chicago under the new anti-riot 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. Because his attorney, Charles Garry, had just undergone surgery and could not be present, Seale asked for a delay two weeks before his trial. Judge Julius Hoffman refused. Seale then retained William Kunstler, who was representing the other seven defendants. Upon Garry's advice, fired Kunstler and asked to represent himself, which would have given him the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence during the trial. However, Judge Hoffman insisted that Kunstler was sufficient representation and proceeded with the trial.

When Seale continued to protest, with repeated outbursts and by refusing to follow courtroom procedure and decorum, Hoffman had him bound and gagged during the trial. On November 5, 1969, the judge sentenced Seale to four years in jail for 16 counts of contempt of court, each of which contributed three months to his sentence. During his prison term Seale was also indicted for ordering the torture and execution of Alex Rackley, former Black Panther suspected of being a government informer. On May 25, 1971, the conspiracy trial ended in a hung jury and the judge ordered all charges dropped against Seale and the other defendants. The following year the federal government suspended the contempt charges and released Seale from prison.

Return to Politics

Seale returned to Oakland to find the BPP decimated by police infiltration, killings, and arrests. At least two dozen Black Panthers had died in gun fights with the police and dozens more had been imprisoned. The BPP had also been rendered impotent by internal disputes in which Black nationalist advocates warred against the program of revolutionary socialism called for by Newton and Seale. In 1973 Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, finishing second out of nine candidates with 43,710 votes to the incumbent's 77,476.

Claiming combat weariness, Seale left Oakland and the Panthers in 1974. In 1978 he published his autobiography, A Lonely Rage, which described the emotional and psychological changes he had undergone as a black activist. His 1970 book, Seize the Time, portrayed the story of the Black Panthers and the political views of Huey Newton. In retrospect, Seale found consolation in Newton's belief that, to move a single grain of sand is to change a world. "We moved a grain of sand and several hills beside," Seale affirmed. "I swear I'm surprised we lived through it."

Throughout the 1980s Seale continued to develop and support organizations dedicated to combating social and political injustices. He still lectures about his past and current experiences struggling for civil rights for African Americans. In 1987 he published Barbeque'n with Bobby, the proceeds from which go to various non-profit social organizations.

Further Reading

The career and beliefs of Bobby Seale are dramatically described in A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale (1978); and in his Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (1970). Also see his contributions to G. Louis Heath, editor, The Black Panther Leaders Speak (1976) and Philip S. Fonder, editor, The Black Panthers Speak (1970). Further background on Seale's life and activities as a leader of the Black Panther Party appear in Gene Marine's history The Black Panthers (1969), Don A. Schanche's analysis The Panther Paradox: A Liberal's Dilemma (1970), and Reginald Major's study of the party's roots and development, A Panther Is a Black Cat (1971). His murder trial is studied by Gail Sheehy, Panthermania: The Clash of Black Against Black in One American City (1971). □

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Robert George Seale

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