The Black Panther Party and community organizing: An interview with Bobby Seale
Platypus Review 113 | February 2019
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Bobby Seale on July 9th, 2018 at Platypus UC Berkeley’s New Left reading group. Bobby Seale cofounded the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton in 1966.
Audrey Crescenti: In preparation for our summer reading group on the 1960s–70s New Left, we read The Movement Magazine’s jail interview with Huey Newton in 1968, in which Newton distinguished between “Cultural Nationalism” and what he called “Revolutionary Nationalism.”1 Could you elaborate on that distinction?
Bobby Seale: That was the thing about Cultural Nationalism. My argument in opposition to Cultural Nationalism was: You are dealing with an aesthetic. So, my argument with the cultural nationalists… [doing an impression of them]: “Yeah, but one day when we’re liberated, I’m gonna be riding down the Niger River, floating down….” I said, “No, you ain’t. Because Kwame Nkrumah is gonna tell you to get your ass out of there — this is a dam system to generate electricity to build a goddamn empire!”2 See, I was more interested in the mineral resources in the bowels of the earth of Africa.
My whole argument, I’m talking about before the party started. When the Southern Katanga province was in an uproar in Congo, about one third of the world’s copper ore was coming out of the Southern Katanga province in the heart of Africa. This research led me to bauxite! Kwame Nkrumah’s bauxite plant. In all my tech-schools, etc., I was an honest student, at the head of the class. I had a 7-skill level in structural repair and high-performance aircraft.3 I knew what bauxite was about, the ore. So later in life, when I am getting ready to start some black history classes, I said, “Bauxite!” And somebody says, “What the hell is wrong with you?” I say, “He’s got a goddamn mountain of bauxite. He’s got bauxite all over Western Africa.” They said, “What the hell is bauxite?” I said, “The basic goddamn ore for all aluminum products in the goddamn world! Africa should be filthy rich economically.” That was where I was coming from.
AC: That is similar to Malcolm X in the piece that we read this week, “I Don’t Mean Bananas.”4 He puts it this way: “You guys are too concerned with having coffee with a cracker” — talking about desegregation. What we should be focusing on, he says — the real battle — is actually taking ownership of this incredible bounty of natural resources in Africa, forming alliances with people in Africa, and not just identifying as Americans.
BS: Yeah, I understood that too. That was where I was coming from, even in supporting Malcolm. I was glad he left the Nation of Islam. Because I did not care for that little doctrinaire crap. When you were coming to my Political Education class, I was teaching you dialectics, you know what I mean? Huey never knew how to do it. But I understood it. I understood it from a mathematical standpoint, okay? One of the main dialectical principles was: “A quantitative increase or quantitative decrease causes a qualitative leap or change.” I did not have time to dissertate all the socialistic this and the art of that. That is not the point. We’ve got to organize the community. We had a voter registration drive constantly going on all the time. When we got with the Peace and Freedom Party, I made every other person in the Black Panther Party a voter registrar. That was the way I wanted to organize and put it together. So, the party member is now going to do his work, and then he’s got to see the results of his work of increasing the consciousness and unifying the people in opposition to the racist pig power structure, as we called it at the time. That’s more my line.
AC: Did you see a tension between organizing for Socialism and community-based organizing?
BS: Most of the Socialists would just talk. They intellectualized the crap too much. They wanted to teach and thereby get your thinking going like this. When Ray Masai Hewitt took me to a couple of these sessions, I said, “No, basically, our ideology is community control. It is community control. How do we get more community control of economic frameworks that retail and produce services and goods?” “But that is patchwork Socialism!” I said, “Patchwork my ass. That’s necessary. That is the foundation of whatever kind of Socialism you’re going to have. If you don’t have real people’s community control, you’re not going to have any real Socialism.” To me, Socialism is about evolving a system and an economic practice of fair-shares equality and fair-shares access. It’s from the grass-roots up. Not some pig pile structure down.
AC: There was a tendency with later black-nationalist groups to be explicitly separatist and to have no faith whatsoever in white workers — for instance, what happened after the fallout of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.5
BS: Yeah, that was Stokely Carmichael. That was why I kicked him out of my organization. He went abroad and said we are going to get rid of all these white mother-country radicals that Eldridge Cleaver is talking about. I went abroad, and they showed me this tape. I said, “Who’s this motherfucker talking about fucking up my coalition?”
AC: Huey Newton was very clear about not seeing white workers — “white radicals” he called them — as hopeless. Whereas Carmichael ultimately thought that skin color determines your tribe, and you cannot go against your tribe. If you conflate whiteness with Capitalism, then white people can never be truly revolutionary.
BS: Bullshit. He was falling into that trap with that old Nation of Islam separatism shit. That was his problem. When I got back from my tour in Scandinavia, I said, “We’ve got to get Stokely to resign from this organization.” By this time, Eldridge Cleaver was not in the country anymore, and I communicated to him through whatever framework: “That Stokely’s got to go.” Little did I know that Castro was getting ready to kick Eldridge Cleaver out of Cuba because Bill Brent had hijacked a plane and took it down there. Well, I kicked Bill Brent out of my organization because of a cheap robbery of $42 from the Black Panther Party newspaper distribution truck. While Crutch [Brent’s partner] was in the restroom, he robs them for $42. They had been distributing newspapers all night — circulating 50,000 newspapers in the San Francisco and Oakland Bay area. We really rose to that point. Plus, we had another 100,000 going across the country. I had a big organization. It was good. I had this thing scheduled where the Black Panther Party newspaper was on the streets Saturday morning. “Get your Black Panther Party newspaper!” I wanted it Saturday morning because black folks were off work, and they were in the community shopping, etc. And this was the name of the game. I really had this shit down to a science. And here this man was talking this talk. I said, “No, he’s got to go, he’s got to go.” So, they split. Eldridge was abroad with him, and they split.
AC: Newton, later at Yale in 1971, talking with Erik Erikson, said the Black Panther Party should align with the women’s and gay liberation movements.
BS: Yeah, he said that.
AC: What did you think when he said that?
BS: Well, Rodney was in the Black Panther Party. And Huey says, “I am not going to say anything.” I say, “He wants to be a full-fledged member. He’s gay. Let the man. What’s wrong with it?” As long as he is doing the work. If a person is a pig — I don’t give a damn what he is: gay, black, blue, green — then that person is a true enemy of us. That’s what I was worried about. I didn’t pay attention to that. But I didn’t know Huey was bisexual until after the party.
AC: What do you think of the misconception that the Black Panthers are socially conservative?
BS: Who said socially conservative?
AC: In “Notes on a Native Son,” Cleaver called homosexuality a sickness that was the product of emasculation by white or European society.6
BS: Well I don’t know about that. Huey Newton was gay and bisexual, as you know. But I didn’t find this out until after I was out of the Black Panther Party, because I was never around Huey. I didn’t live where Huey lived. I didn’t even like Huey to get in the middle of my organizing.
AC: Could you say more about the early history of the Black Panther Party? How you built the organization?
BS: Look, I went across this country in that seven-month period between Dr. King getting killed and Nixon being elected. And at least 30 of these organizations popped up, and I helped them go along. I got those party members who wanted to start something there to go to the colleges, find the left radicals in the college and any black student organization. Get them to get the colleges to invite me to speak. Get them to contact me, and we’ll set up the contracts, and boom. I went all over this country to talk. And I would speak, and then I would use the next day for a chapter to organize itself. I gave them a constant theme: You are organizing around programs. You want programs in the community. You will put up a breakfast program. And once you get through that, you want to put up a free medical health clinic. You want sickle-cell anemia testing programs to initiate with. I said, any other programs you can come up with after this, do that. Do that process. The first program was free breakfast for children. Simultaneously, free sickle-cell anemia testing, and on the back of that with the California Association of Black Doctors, we created the first free preventative medical health clinic. A real live clinic, boom. Those were the first three programs. And this is what I am telling people they have to do in these chapters and these branches to start their organizations. And you will learn to get people voter registrars. You will learn to identify council districts. You have to go to your voter registrar to get all this information. Where the people are, where the communities are, where your city council seats are, etc. You have to know the political structure of your community, and then you want to identify who these politicians are and what kind they are. Are they right-wingers? Idiots? This is what I was teaching the party members in all that seven-month period. My organization grew from 400 members up and down the West Coast to 5,000 members and 49 chapters and branches in the country. 5,000. Half of them were rally-Panthers.
AC: How do you define rally-Panthers?
BS: They mostly just come to the rallies. But you could get work out of them. You could get a little work going here and there. Rally-Panthers had college, or they had jobs. Like Big Man Elbert Howard: He was not able to come to the office every day when we were first organizing the Black Panther Party. He had a full-time job as a printer. He had a full-time schedule at Merritt College as a writer. He was more than a rally-Panther, because he gave us one of the first shotguns that we had. That shotgun that you see Huey holding, that was the one the Big Man had given us. My personal guns, my hunting rifles, I never put none of them out. I took Bobby Hutton, Huey, and all of them to try to show them about shooting, you know. Standing prone, sitting, how to shoot, man. You guys don’t understand. You see, I was proficient with weapons anyway, not only through the party but through the United States Air Force. I was an expert shot.
My father had contracts with the open army base. See, my father was deferred from the draft in World War II, because his leg was like a half-inch shorter, one leg was a half-inch shorter than the other. But he had this carpentry skill. And Kelly Field, Randolph Field, in San Antonio, Texas, they transferred his job during World War II to Oakland Army Base in California here. That's what happened, but we were still in Texas. It was not until World War II was over the next year and a half or so that he sent for me and my mother and family and we all got on a train and wound up getting off at the Berkeley Santa Fe train station. Doesn't exist anymore. So when I first came to California, I settled in Berkeley, California in the government projects. That was where I lived and grew up. So, that's the cycle. It is very different from Huey. Huey was a scammer. That's what he was. People write a lot of lies about me. Elaine Brown and her book, all lies. Never happened. It's just bullshit because these people in effect, Huey too in effect, was working with the FBI and others to dismantle the Black Panther Party. Now, you going to ask me how did this happen?
AC: Meaning, what was the role of the FBI in helping to dismantle the Black Panther Party?
BS: Right, so Huey come out of jail. I was in jail. Remember, I left the party 5,000 strong. Forty-nine chapters and branches plus the National Community to Combat Fascism. In some cases, the chapter and the branch were both Black Panther Party and National Community to Combat Fascism. You see, I left a big organization and they had the first teachings of putting programs up, making sure you started voter registration drives, and/or assessing who the politicians are and seeing whether you were going to support some good politicians, or if we have anybody who can run. That was what I left. They arrested me August 8, 1969. Nixon won his election in 1968. In the first week in December that J. Edgar Hoover announces that the Black Panther Party is a threat to the internal security of America. He was saying it over and over and over. The Black Panther Party is this, the Black Panther Party is that, blah, blah, blah.
They saw us as a threat. We had chairmen, minister of defense, minister of information, minister of education, etc. This makes up a committee. Each chapter and each branch, so I had deputy chairmen, deputy this, deputy that in each chapter and branch. You see what I'm getting at? So that you are consistent and you have a body and you have field marshals who can work on your central body. So each chapter and each branch was to have that central, organizing body. I didn't care for mono-leadership without that body you see? So that you can assess, inform yourselves, etc., know what your organizing methods are, what are you going to be doing. That was the methodology. I structured that in the Black Panther Party, all across the country in each one of those chapters and branches.
Then we found the Watergate tape of Nixon talking to J. Edgar Hoover. “Now, J. Edgar, when are you going to get rid of these damn Black Panthers for me?” It's in the Watergate tape. You can listen to it out at Vanderbilt University.
Now Huey, he wanted to get rid of all of this. All the structure that I had put together. So Huey started breaking down the chapters. I was in jail, 3,000 miles away in Connecticut. In fact, I was in isolation. I cannot even talk to other prisoners. It's said why, because I organized some prisoners in jail. Because they would take all the guys with long hair, the left radicals, and say that you won't shave therefore you have to be isolated. Well, I pulled a strike with the prisoners in the jail. We got up and walked away from the food. And this was the newer jail, so the food was good. Wasn't the food we were arguing about. I was arguing about the fact that you're isolating people from day room privileges, therefore you're violating the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. So I even organized a free commissary program.
I was in jail. I go through the Greater Chicago Seven conspiracy trial. Eight weeks, two months, beat up in the courtroom, all kind of stuff. Argued with the judge, severed from the trial, and sentenced to four years for contempt of court. I was out on bail for that. I was in jail for Connecticut and there was no bail.
Even though I was in isolation in jail, I got books I wanted through my lawyers: books by Ho Chi Minh, Michael Harrington, etc. I really liked Harrington because he despised state-controlled doctrinaire Socialism.
AC: I was going to ask you if you were familiar with Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual? What did you think about him?
BS: Yeah, I really have not made an assessment on him. I heard about him and I just have not made a real assessment on him. A lot of people — I just got tired of listening to them. This is real. I want the real thing. I do not like intellectual posturing. As I said before, our ideology is: “Greater community control of everything." If we do not have greater community control via the political system, then we are not going to have any real liberation. That is hard to do, but that is what we have to do. That is what I believe. I do not like sitting around and dissertating this and that. I am tired of that, I have heard that over and over. I teach dialectics.
AC: What is your conception of dialectics from?
BS: Hegel. It's Hegel. Not that I have read a lot of Hegel, but I've picked up on this. I have a book called Dialectical and Historical Materialism (Stalin, 1938). And so everybody is talking down on materialism but somebody started writing about some of the basic aspects of dialectics. So I said, "Okay, dialectics: Matter is always in motion and constantly changing.” And then it said, “A quantitative increase or quantitative decrease causes a qualitative leap or change.” I said, "Ah." Now that really got my attention. Now I understand the other principles, but I said, "Wow, I want to organize something." I don't want to sit here deliberating forever. I don't need all of that. | P
Transcribed by Audrey Crescenti, William Lushbough, Efraim Carlebach, Austin Carder, and Kevin Dong.
- Huey Newton, “A Prison Interview,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 223-40, <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/Huey-Newton-A-Prison-Interview.pdf>.↩
- “Kwame Nkrumah,” Wikipedia, last modified December 18, 2018, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwame_Nkrumah>.“The construction of a dam on the Volta River (launched in 1961) provided water for irrigation and hydro-electric power, which produced enough electricity for the towns and for a new aluminum plant.” Kwame Nkrumah was the first prime minister and president of Ghana.↩
- “7-skill level” is a classification from the nine-character Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) code used in the U.S. Air Force at the time. “Air Force Specialty Code,” Wikipedia, last modified January 15, 2019, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Force_Specialty_Code>.↩
- Malcolm X, “I Don’t Mean Bananas,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 207-222, <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/Malcolm-X-_I-Don_t-Mean-Bananas_.pdf>.↩
- The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was a Marxist-Leninist organization founded in 1969, which broke up over internal ideological disputes in 1971. “League of Revolutionary Black Workers,” Wikipedia, last modified January 13, 2019, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_of_Revolutionary_Black_Workers>.↩
- Eldridge Cleaver, “Notes on a Native Son,” in Soul on Ice (New York: Random House, 1999), p.122-137.↩