Black Panthers Prowl the Halls of Power

At 50, the Bay Area-born movement is more influential than ever, with ex-members calling the shots in pop culture, colleges, and Congress.

(Cover design by Eric Pratt)

The weather was cool that day in Oakland, but Bobby Seale was warmed by the heat of the other 7,000 bodies huddled together with him in the Oakland Auditorium.

It was Dec. 28, 1962, and the crowd had gathered to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak about the dire need for civil rights reform in the United States. The young Seale stood enraptured as King argued that the nation should adopt a “Second Emancipation Proclamation” to eliminate the segregationist policies that had prevented millions of Blacks and other Americans from getting adequate schooling and jobs.

Seale, then 26, was a full-time inspector at an aerospace and electronics company as well as a student at Oakland’s Merritt College. As he listened, he was moved by King’s call for a boycott of businesses that didn’t employ people from the very communities that bought their products.

“He talked to us about how to deal with the fact that so many companies refused to hire people of color,” Seale tells SF Weekly. One of the companies that King mentioned was the iconic Wonder Bread.

“He said, ‘We’re going to boycott them so consistently that we’re going to make Wonder Bread wonder where all the money went,'” Seale remembers. “He inspired me.”

Four years later, Seale had become a well-known figure in Bay Area activism: He had organized the first youth jobs program in Richmond, Calif., and led the student group that had successfully lobbied to have the first Black History course taught at Merritt College. He had also just co-founded a political group that would soon change the course of the American civil rights movement: The Black Panther Party.

Created with fellow student Huey Newton on Oct. 15, 1966, the Black Panthers quickly became a fixture in the wider U.S. movement for political and economic reform — joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the United Farm Workers, and the many other activist groups springing up around that time. In March 1968, the Panthers’ connection to that larger movement, and to King, was cemented when the Atlanta preacher’s close assistant, Ralph Abernathy, called Seale to ask for his help in orchestrating the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. Seale, now 79, remembers Abernathy’s exact words.

” ‘Mr. Seale, Dr. King has me calling you and 100 other organizational groups,’ ” Seale recalls. ” ‘Dr. King wants to know if you and your organization would be willing to organize for an upcoming Poor People’s March.’ ”

“I told him, ‘Yes, the Black Panther Party will definitely do that. I’m happy to help you out,’ ” Seale remembers. “That was my coalition with Dr. King.”

“Four weeks later,” Seale says, “he was killed.”

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