Panthers push to protect legacy

Founders recall past, may sue new group that has taken party name

The Charlotte Observer/January 27, 2003
By Deborah Kong

Oakland, Calif. -- The sleek leather jacket, black beret and .45-caliber pistol Bobby Seale packed in the 1960s are gone now.

In their place, the former Black Panther Party chairman sports a denim shirt and, over graying hair, a baseball cap emblazoned with "" -- the Web address for his barbecue cookbook.

Now 66 and back in the city where the Panthers got their start, Seale still speaks passionately about the social revolution the group espoused.

And he's trying to influence how the Panthers, who captured the imagination of young blacks and scared many white Americans, are remembered by a new generation. But that's just one of his projects.

If young people "really took a close look" at the Panthers' record, Seale says, "they'll be able to understand how they have to stand against all forms of discrimination."

The Panthers, founded by Seale and Huey Newton amid the turmoil of the 1960s, were a counterpoint to nonviolent civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The rifle-toting group sparked fear and controversy when it began monitoring police brutality in mostly black neighborhoods by "patrolling the pigs."

The Panthers are often remembered for their gun fights with police, resulting in casualties among both Panthers and officers.

Newton was convicted of manslaughter, a verdict later overturned, in the '67 death of an officer shot when police stopped a car Newton was driving. Another officer and Newton also were wounded.

Seale and others were charged with conspiring to kill a party member believed to be a police informant; those charges were dropped.

These days, Seale and former chief of staff David Hilliard want the focus on the Panthers' social programs. The group provided free, hot breakfasts to thousands of schoolchildren, for instance. It also tested for sickle cell anemia and advocated for more jobs and better housing for blacks.

"I never thought I'd live to talk about this," says the 64-year-old Hilliard who, like Seale, lives in Oakland. "We were being murdered and driven into exile and imprisoned. I spent no time thinking about history. We were too busy making it."

Seale recently moved back to his family home after almost three decades away to be closer to his youngest daughter. The home occupies an important place in Panther history: The group held some of its first meetings around the dining room table in 1966.

Hilliard and Seale say part of protecting that history is fighting an unaffiliated group called the New Black Panther Party.

They're considering suing the organization, which they say has hijacked the Panther name to lend credibility to racist and anti-Semitic views.

"The New Black Panther Party is totally antithetical to everything we stood for," Seale says. "There's a youthful generation of people who will be totally confused."

The New Black Panthers have been deemed a black-separatist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but their chairman, Malik Shabazz, disputes that description.

Hilliard also works with the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, which he runs with Newton's widow, Frederika. He's motivated by a sense that the Panthers' agenda remains unfinished.

"There's a generation of people that need to know this history, because it is more than about the Black Panthers. It is about America," Hilliard says. The Panthers' activism could be a kind of "how-to guide to help this generation fight today's battles," he says.

The foundation's latest project, working with a software company, is digitizing and binding almost 13,000 pages of old Panther newspapers into volumes.

There's also a Black Panther Records label that includes a socially conscious rap group, and a clothing line with Panther slogans and images. In the last six months, Seale, Hilliard and the rap group have spoken on college campuses about Panther history and current events.

Seale has been working on a revised version of his 1988 cookbook, "Barbeque'n with Bobby Seale," and is taping a cooking show for public television.

He feels that race relations have mostly improved since the 1960s.

"There was a time right here in this community, and communities all across the country, a black person, a Native American person and, every once in a while, a poor, low-income white person could get viciously brutalized or murdered or shot or killed and nothing was done," Seale says. "You did not hear about policemen being put on trial for brutalizing people as you hear about it today."

That doesn't mean blacks should stop guarding their civil rights, he says -- though he recommends video cameras over guns.

"If you want to observe police brutality and grass-roots criminal behavior -- drug peddlers and pushers -- camcorders are very, very powerful," he says.

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