It was 1966 – one year after Malcolm X was shot to death and three years after Martin Luther King Jr., shared his dreams with the world. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the time was right for Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, to start his own movement.
Seale, who traveled to Eastern Michigan University yesterday to speak about his experiences in the 1960s, said books and movies based on the controversial Black Panther Party – including the 1995 movie “Panther” – have often depicted the organization as a militant and unlawful hate group, obscuring the truth about the Panther’s philosophy, purpose and structure.
“The Black Panther Party is a piece of African-American history, catalyzed by the African American Movement,” Seale said during his lecture, adding that the BPP’s true mission was to educate blacks on their significance and cultural importance in American history, as well as on the struggles being faced by the black community.
Seale said the BPP would never have formed if not for the work of those before him, including King and W.E.B. DuBois. Before listening to them and reading their work, he said, he had been largely unaware of his cultural history.
A 1962 rally at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif. first informed him of the Civil Rights Movement, Seale said.
He said that was the first time he began to think critically about black history. “I was raised in Berkeley, California and in Berkeley High School they told me, ‘Well, I guess it wasn’t so bad for slaves all the time because they could sit on the stoop and play the banjo,” Seale added. “But they didn’t just sit around and accept slavery. They fought. They struggled. They died.”
Seale said he started the Black Panther Party – an alternative to the non-violent campaigns of other civil rights leaders – with friend Huey Newton, a law school student, after the two were given probation for assaulting undercover police officers during an antiwar rally. The officers tried to arrest the pair for using obscene language, and a fight ensued.
The Panthers, who dressed in black and were known for carrying guns, patrolled the streets at night to observe police officers arresting blacks, Seale said, adding that the group was careful to follow the laws – but they were still known as dangerous and militant. “What people don’t understand is why we were patrolling the police. But we weren’t there to stop the arrest. We were there to observe the police,” he said. “We knew all the laws, we knew all the gun laws. We were legal.”
Students said Seale’s lecture helped them to understand more about the movement and its place in American history. “You saw him as a real person instead of a radical,” EMU junior Nicole Carter said. “I hope that the people who heard it will take it upon themselves to make it their responsibility to educate others because this is a part of their history, and not just African American history, but American history as a whole.”