Seale, Robert George ("Bobby")

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SEALE, Robert George ("Bobby")

(b. 22 October 1936 in Dallas, Texas), cofounder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, author, and revolutionary.

Seale was the eldest of three children, with one sister and one brother. His father, George, worked as a carpenter and his mother, Thelma, was a homemaker. The Seale family moved from Dallas to Port Arthur, Texas, and then to San Antonio, before finally settling in Oakland, California, during World War II. Seale attended Oakland High School, but left before graduating and joined the U.S. Air Force. He was dishonorably discharged in 1958 after three years and four months. Returning to Oakland, he worked as a sheet-metal mechanic at Kaiser Aerospace Electronics for eighteen months, earning his high school diploma through night school. In 1962 he enrolled at Oakland City College (now Merritt College). At college, he joined the Afro-American Association (AAA), a campus organization that stressed black separatism and self-improvement, where he met the activist Huey P. Newton in September 1962. Seale married his first wife, Artie, in 1965; they had one child and later divorced. He married Leslie Johnson in approximately 1974.

Seale's role in the creation and popularization of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was complementary to that of Huey P. Newton's. While Newton's writing focused on the theoretical and ideological aspects of the BPP, Seale specialized in narrative and description. His 1970 book, Seize the Time: The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, uses the voice of the African-American community in its vernacular and its turns of phrase. Seale, who was beginning to make a name for himself in local productions as an actor and comedian, had an awareness of audience and an ability to hold a person's attention that Newton lacked. Newton recognized this talent early on and realized its value in persuasion. In his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, Newton said of Seale that he was an excellent mimic who could "do" several celebrities as well as members of local rival organizations. "I would crack my sides laughing not only because his imitations were so good, but because he could convey certain attitudes and characteristics so sharply."

Seale also shared fellow Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's respect and admiration for Newton. The title of his book is an indication of his tendency to put Newton above himself and to give him his due as the true motivating force behind the formation of the Black Panther Party. (The phrase "for Self-Defense" was dropped soon after the Party's founding.) His accounts of the creation of the Ten Point Platform and Program and of the conduct of the confrontations with the police always give Newton credit for all the ideas and their articulation. One time when Seale was the center of attention, however, was the Panther visit to the California legislature on 2 May 1967. He read a statement written by Newton and corrected by Cleaver. Newton received full credit for "Executive Mandate Number One," though, and Seale relates that "Huey P. Newton had ordered me to take [it] to the Capitol." This event first put the Black Panthers in the national news, and Seale was the Panther the entire country saw on television, as well as the one who was arrested. He served time from 8 August until 8 December 1967.

While Seale was in jail, Huey Newton had a confrontation with two Oakland police officers that left Newton and one officer wounded, and the other officer dead. Newton was charged with murder. From that moment, Seale devoted himself to planning how to help his fellow Panther. When he was released, he worked tirelessly with Eldridge Cleaver in the "Free Huey" campaign, refusing even to hold down a job so he would have more time available for the cause. During this period he began the tape recordings that became his book, Seize the Time. He billed it as "the true story of the Black Panther Party." Its major goal was to create sympathy for Huey Newton, who is held up as a role model and inspiration throughout the work.

On 17 February 1968, Seale and Cleaver organized a "birthday party" rally for Huey Newton at the Oakland Coliseum, located in full view of the Oakland County Jail in which Newton was being held. The speakers included not only Panthers, but also Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) figures H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. This event was intended to demonstrate black unity, but whether there was to be a "merger" or a "coalition" between the two groups was unclear. Cooperation between the two organizations was brief because of a fundamental difference in philosophies: under Carmichael, SNCC had become a black separatist organization, whereas the Black Panthers, while rejecting white oppression, did not reject white people.

The need for Huey's defense led Seale and Cleaver to select a radical white lawyer named Charles Garry, who was willing to work without a retainer, in order to get the defense started. Their coalition with the mostly white Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), which offered $3,000 for the defense fund as well as the loan of sound equipment in return for black voters registering under their party name, created negative feelings among some in the black community. Many, especially lawyers, wanted a black lawyer to represent the BPP and anyone associated with it; further, they thought that a black nationalist group such as the Panthers should stay separate from white groups.

In accord with their professed beliefs, however, Seale and Cleaver stuck with these decisions and worked together to defy racism of all varieties. Seale condemned those with "their little racist hang-ups." Cleaver published the speech he had given to the Peace and Freedom Foundation Convention earlier that year, entitled "Revolution in the White Mother Country and National Liberation in the Black Colony," in a 1968 issue of the North American Review, a mainstream, liberal, intellectual publication. Both Seale and Cleaver were cynical about the commitment of opportunistic black radicals as compared with idealistic white revolutionaries. In 1968 Seale ran for the California State Assembly, and Newton ran for Congress from the Seventh Congressional District on the PFP ticket.

Because he was briefly present to make a speech in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, Seale was arrested for conspiracy to incite a riot. Thus, he became one of the Chicago Eight, and was arrested in August and put on trial in September 1969, along with such luminaries of the left as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, and Tom Hayden. Seale wanted Garry to represent him, but the Panthers' lawyer was in the hospital for a minor operation, and the judge would not extend the trial, so Seale insisted he wanted to defend himself. The judge refused to allow him this option. Instead, he ruled that radical lawyer William Kunstler, who was defending all of the white activists, would be his lawyer as well. Seale's repeated protests led to his being bound and gagged and tied to his chair. Drawings of Seale thus silenced were distributed through the underground press all over the country, further delegitimizing a trial that liberals and activists had never accepted in the first place. Finally, Seale was separated from the group, which then became the Chicago Seven, and sentenced to four years in prison for sixteen counts of contempt of court, each count equaling a time he tried to assert his right to defend himself. He was later exonerated from the conspiracy charge and served a total of two years for contempt of court.

In the spring of 1969 Seale visited the Black Panther group in New Haven, Connecticut. Soon after he left, a Party member and accused informer, Alex Rackley, was tortured and killed. In August 1969, immediately after he posted bail for his Chicago arrest, Seale was rearrested and charged with having ordered Rackley's death, thus becoming one of the "New Haven Fourteen." He contended that "CIA-FBI infiltration" into the Party had been responsible for the crime. Seale was acquitted of all charges related to Rackley's death in 1971.

Seale spent his time after 1971 working on the party paper The Black Panther and running the Party Survival Programs in Oakland, which included free clinics. As part of this work, Seale created the first free breakfast program for children in Oakland, as well as successful food giveaways in big grocery bags printed with the Party emblem of the stalking black panther. In 1972 he ran for mayor of Oakland and placed second in the balloting. In 1974 Seale resigned from the declining Black Panther Party.

For a number of years Seale has worked with Temple University in Philadelphia as a community liaison person. He devotes much of his energy to making Panther history and his views concerning world brotherhood and peace accessible to all. When Seize the Time was reissued in 1991, Seale wrote an introduction renewing his commitment to the need for civil and human rights for everyone, regardless of race or religion, and called on new generations of youth to advocate for the original objectives of the Black Panther Party.

Seale's psychological state during his childhood and his years as an activist are explored in A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale (1978). Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton (1970) is Seale's testament to the ideals on which the BPP was founded. For more information about the BPP, see Gene Marine, The Black Panthers (1969).

Kay Kinsella Rout