Promoting the Black Panthers

Co-founder Bobby Seale passes the torch to Black Lives Matter.

October 15 marks 50 years since the Black Panther Party began and founder Bobby Seale recently spoke out at an event in Sacramento, California’s capital, covered by Steve Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee.

“It’s not about whether the Panthers are coming back,” Seale, now 79, explained. “A new generation is organizing on their own” and 20,000 blacks have been elected to office. “What we need,” Seale contended, “is more progressive politicians elected to political office,” and he was specific about what he had in mind.

“We’ve got to get Black Lives Matter involved in the electoral process,” Seale said, charging that police still kill black people at a rate far greater than whites. “That’s why black lives matter.”

At the celebration of the Panthers in Sacramento’s Oak Park, “Children raised their right fists and shouted, ‘black power!’” and college students thanked Seale, “for instilling black pride and empowerment in their predecessors in the turbulent ’60s.”

The Black Panthers, the Bee explains, “patrolled Oakland’s black neighborhoods to protect residents fearful of police brutality. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 18 months later galvanized black youths across America to start or join Panther chapters.” The group’s 10-point program “called for full employment, better housing and radical ideas such as exempting black men from the Vietnam War. Those goals inspired social programs, including free breakfasts for inner-city kids, free health screenings, ambulance services and dental care.”

To a backdrop of Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a new generation paid tribute to Bobby Seale. One college student, 23, called Seale, “the closest thing to MLK we have left, and he’s still alive to tell the story.”

Magagnini notes that Seale was arrested for inciting a riot after the 1968 Democratic convention and served a stretch in prison for contempt of court. The Panthers expanded to 68 chapters but in 1972, “internal politics and philosophical differences had eroded membership.” Seale lost a race for mayor for Oakland in 1973, and claims that the next year he resigned from the party.

Contrary to Seale, the police do not kill more blacks than whites, and the Black Panthers hated Martin Luther King, whom they mocked as “De Lawd.”  Those are hardly the only problem with this portrait of the Black Panthers, who also come off well in PBS documentaries such as “Black Power, Black Panthers,” produced by KQED. In a 1990 response, David Horowitz wrote “PBS Promotes the Black Panthers,” included in Volume Five of his Black Book of the American Left.

For Horowitz, the Panthers were a “violent gang” and investigative journalist Kate Coleman “documented the brutal felonies, including murder, arson, and rape, that the Panthers themselves committed against other ghetto blacks.” Horowitz worked with the Panthers and raised more than $100,000 for their Oakland Community Learning Center which they used as a front for drug dealing. Horowitz ended his association with the Panthers in 1974 “when they kidnapped and murdered the woman I had engaged to do bookkeeping for the school, Betty Van Patter, a well-known member of the radical community and the mother of three children.”

The Panthers’ criminality included “the murders of at least a dozen Bay Area residents” and Party members such as Alex Rackley, 19, suspected of being an informer and hideously tortured in a taped session before being murdered. George Sams Jr. testified that he had been ordered to kill Alex Rackley by Bobby Seale, but charges against the Panther co-founder were dropped.

The New Left, Horowitz recalls, regarded the Panthers as heroes, the “vanguard of the revolution” dubbed “America’s Viet Cong” by Tom Hayden. They were “street hoodlums made doubly dangerous by their adoption of a revolutionary rhetoric that brought battalions of white radicals and left-wing lawyers to their defense.” And they also enjoyed favorable publicity courtesy of PBS and puff pieces in the old-line establishment media.

The Sacramento Bee piece mentions Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton but does not explain why Newton was not present at the event.  On August 22, 1989, “Newton was fatally shot on Center Street in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland by a 24-year-old Black Guerrilla Family member,” reportedly telling his killer his soul would live forever.

That may well doubted, but myths surrounding the Black Panthers certainly live on. And contrary to Mr. Magagnini, the song “A Change is Gonna Come,” was by Sam Cooke, not Otis Redding.