Again and again during a long and ranging conversation with Bobby Seale, the original founding chairman and national organizer of the Black Panther Party, he returned to one central theme.
“We have to stand up, and we have to organize,” said Seale, who spoke to me by phone last week from Oakland, California.
“You have to keep your wagon hitched to the people’s human liberation struggle.”
As one of the remaining icons of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ’70s, Seale — in photograph, perhaps best known in a black leather coat, fist raised toward the sky — still casts a formidable and controversial shadow.
A man once bound and gagged in the courtroom, once targeted and surveilled by the FBI, once imprisoned, and once feared by a significant portion of white society, these days Seale, 80, spends much of his time speaking to students of many backgrounds.
There, he relates the lessons he and the Black Panther Party learned along the way. In addition to its militant mantra, “freedom by any means necessary,” Seale’s Black Panthers helped launch the careers of a generation of black political and thought leaders, and pioneered hunger and poverty initiatives such as the free breakfast program that eventually helped inspire the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Breakfast Program.
In other words, Seale is well-suited to speak to the power of organization and the influence of the ballot box, informing a new generation of activists and community builders in the process.
And it’s this objective that will bring Seale to the University of Washington Tacoma on Tuesday night, an event produced in part by the Institute for Community Leadership. In an emailed statement, the institute explained that Seale’s appearance is intended “to help inspire those who seek to be more involved in creating stronger communities and more civic engagement.”
I think his visit is especially timely.
UWT professor Michael Honey
Not purely by coincidence, the talk will coincide with the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was gunned down while standing on the second-floor balcony of a Memphis motel April 4, 1968.
Also no coincidence, Seale’s talk will borrow from the title of King’s final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
“I think his visit is especially timely,” UWT professor Michael Honey, who teaches labor, ethnic and gender studies, as well as American history at the school.
“(Seale) is also using the theme from King’s last book. … I think it is a very deliberate effort on his part to get people to revisit the question of how do we build a social justice movement at the grass roots, in an era of renewed violence and discrimination encouraged by the politics of the ultra-right in and out of government,” Honey continued. “I am very eager to hear what he has to say.”
A forceful public speaker, Seale is no stranger to packed rooms of rapt listeners. Asked to highlight the overarching themes his lecture will lean on, Seale pointed to messages of civic engagement, the importance of avoiding intentional distractions employed by structures of power, and the need to make sure “your ideas, your beliefs and your understanding … correspond as much as possible to reality.”
Did I already mention that Seale’s talk seems especially timely?
Many of the foundations the Black Panther Party was built on continue to resonate today. You can see it in contemporary social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and in the tenets of conventional progressive thought.
In fact, as Seale pointed out, a look at the Black Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Party Platform” — which called for things like full employment, education and decent housing for African Americans, as well as an end to police brutality and murder — hardly looks like fringe revolutionary rhetoric when compared to the messages of popular progressive politicians of today.
When I started the Black Panther Party … my objective was to capture the imagination of the people. And, more than that, get them to organize.
Bobby Seale, original founding chairman and national organizer of the Black Panther Party
“When I started the Black Panther Party … my objective was to capture the imagination of the people,” Seale told me.
“And, more than that, get them to organize.”
More than 50 years later, it’s a simple message that still packs a potentially powerful punch.
Bobby Seale speaks
When: 6:30 to 8:35 p.m. Tuesday
Where: University of Washington Tacoma, William W. Philip Hall.
Cost: Event is free. RSVP at bit.ly/bobbyseale.