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Seale recalls days of protest, Panthers

February 27, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, a militant political movement that then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan called armed thugs and hoodlums, recounted his role in the civil rights protests in the turbulent 1960s in a speech at Shepherd College Thursday.

Seale, 67, sometimes looked back on those violent times with humor as he told of the Panthers, armed with guns on their first outing on the streets of Oakland, Calif., when they marched, only 14 strong, in what he called a "legal" protest against police brutality toward blacks.

The guns, he told the 200 members of the mostly white audience in the college's Storer Ballroom, were "an equalizer" against white racist groups and police who beat up black civil rights protesters.

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"We felt we had a right to defend ourselves," he said.

Under California law it was legal to carry loaded, unconcealed weapons in those days, he said. Within six months the California Legislature passed laws making it illegal to carry loaded guns in the city limits, he said.

In response, Seale led 40 Black Panther members in an armed protest into the state Legislature.

"We were all arrested after we left the capital," he said.

The Black Panthers, which became involved in shoot-outs with police on more than one occasion, expanded into 48 cities across the nation, he said.

The party set up free health clinics and food kitchens for the poor, he said. "By 1969, we were feeding free breakfasts to 250,000 children every day," he said.

The Panthers never got involved in race riots, he said. "We believed in community organizing."

Seale and Huey Newton, a California law student, founded the Panthers in October 1966 within a week after civil rights leader Malcolm X was killed.

The Black Panthers, he said, "grew out of my heart and soul." At the time he was running a youth jobs program in Oakland, part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty effort.

"So much was going on in the '60s," he said. "It was so profound with the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests."

Seale, who lost his train of thought several times during the speech, called himself a revolutionary humanist. He said he wasn't a black nationalist. "I wanted to humanize the world," he said.

Seale was one of the original eight defendants in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial that followed the riots during the Democratic Convention in 1968. The trial judge refused his request to represent himself and after several angry outbursts in court ordered Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom.

Seale's case eventually was severed from those of the other seven defendants.

According to a Web site on famous American trials, Seale was in Chicago as a last-minute fill-in for fellow Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

According to the Web site, Seale was most likely added as a defendant in the conspiracy case so that the government could use his highly inflammatory speeches to taint the other conspirators in the eyes of the jury.

"I was the top international news for three days," he said.

Seale ended his speech by selling his books, which were laid out on the table on either side of the podium.

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