Politics & Policy

Radical Old Man

Traveling the college-lecture circuit with Bobby Seale.

How does an aging “black revolutionary” spend his golden years? If you’re Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther party, now 70 years old, you can make out very well on the college-lecture circuit. Over the past decade Seale has traversed the nation’s campuses, from the prominent (Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Ohio State, Washington University) to the relatively obscure (Rowan, Weber State, Elizabethtown), boasting of the party’s accomplishments, unapologetic about its violence, and exhorting today’s youth to emulate its “leadership.”

In one of his most recent appearances, at Holy Cross, Seale portrayed himself as a “revolutionary humanist” who championed a “revolution for justice where the heart, mind, and soul is focused to bring power for all people,” a notion “that many white Americans could not understand because of the negative connotation ‘revolution’ comes with.” The movement began, he explained, when he sought out Huey Newton and expressed the need to start a “liberation movement” to fight for justice. Despite its violent rhetoric, Seale explained, the Black Panther movement should be recalled chiefly for its community activities–voter registration drives, breakfasts for children, and free busing for senior citizens. As for the myth that the Panthers killed policemen, that was just “sketch history” founded on “a misconception altered from the action of one man” who “killed a highway patrolman.” After all, Seale remarked, “people can’t blame the organization for the action of one man.”

According to Seale, the misrepresentation of the Panthers as a violent criminal organization is only part of a campaign of distortion directed against him by the government and the press. In a January lecture at Dartmouth, he cited as examples of this distortion the failure of the establishment press to tell people that Seale had been an engineer, “that I worked in the Gemini Missile Program, that I was a hunter and a fisherman, that I was an expert barbecue cook. All they told you was that I was a hoodlum and a thug.”

Of course, the press’s past emphasis on matters other than Seale’s culinary and engineering skills could have had something to do with the Panthers’ history of criminal violence. Following their initial heavily-armed demonstration in the California State House, the Panthers went on to kill at least 14 policemen, as well as an untold number of black “civilians.” Seale himself, as older audiences may vaguely remember, was tried in 1970 for having ordered the torture-murder of an alleged “informant,” Alex Rackley, a crime to which two other Panthers confessed. The Seale trial, which ended in a hung jury, took place amidst demonstrations led by the Panthers and their naïve college-student supporters, an environment that must have placed considerable pressure on the jury not to vote for conviction. (It was on that occasion that Yale President Kingman Brewster, apparently in an endeavor to keep the campus peace, atrociously expressed doubt that a black man could receive a fair trial in New Haven.) While we will likely never know whether Seale was responsible for ordering Rackley’s “execution,” the deed itself, along with the later murder of a white secretary recommended to the Panthers by the then-radical David Horowitz (and later documented by Horowitz in his autobiographical Radical Son), belies Seale’s representation of the Panthers’ character. 

Audiences who want to learn the truth about the Panthers should seek out the 1994 book by black journalist Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America. As Pearson quotes Seale, co-leader Newton wanted to recruit “brothers who had been out there robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been selling dope … brothers who had been fighting the pigs.” And he succeeded in doing so. Under Newton’s leadership the Panthers established a wide-ranging criminal empire built on extortion and threats in Oakland’s black neighborhoods. They indeed operated some of the social-service programs described by Seale–but only thanks to federal and state funds awarded by indulgent government officials to the Panthers’ violently maintained political patronage machine.

Huey Newton, after getting a manslaughter conviction overturned and evading conviction on a murder charge thanks to two hung juries, finally ended his life in a drug shootout. By contrast, Seale has prospered through activities ranging from serving as a “community liaison” in Temple University’s African-American Studies department to the sale of a book of his barbecue recipes. He is now even trying to have his life story made into a film.

While today’s college students can hardly be expected to know the facts about Seale’s, and the Panthers’, criminal history, is it too much to ask that some of their elders on college faculties speak out about them? And might not alumni and, in the case of public universities, taxpayers reasonably complain about rewarding Seale with lucrative honoraria–especially when the black community can instead supply such forthright analysts of the real problems facing black Americans as Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, and John McWhorter?

David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at Holy Cross College and author of Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition.


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