“Discussing race and democracy is important until humanity, step by step, piece by piece, evolves economically, politically, and social justice-wise,” said Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, at the University of Rhode Island’s first annual Race, Violence and Democracy Colloquium.
The colloquium, hosted by the URI department of Africana Studies, was also made possible by URI student Alexandra Castillo, who reached out to Seale and asked him to speak at URI.
“I picked him because I didn’t know anything about him,” she said. “I got to learn so much about his movement and why he created the Party. It’s been a great learning experience.”
Seale addressed a crowd of over 350 people at the Center for Biotech and Life Sciences’s Thomas M. Ryan Family Auditorium on Feb. 26. His keynote address focused on the Black Panther Party’s origins, interwoven with anecdotes from throughout various periods of his life.
It all started in 1962 when he was a student at Merritt College in Oakland, California, he said. It was there that Seale stumbled upon a group of students standing on a street corner having a meeting of the campus Afro-American Association. He joined and began to learn about his own African history. He also met future co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton through the club.
In that meeting, Seale first heard the names of other famous black people, like Marcus Garvey and Richard Wright. There the group members discussed their origins as a society. Seale remembers it being “none of that derogatory crap. We are human beings, we have a descendancy,” he said.
Soon after, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, where he first heard about institutionalized racism. Seale heard King talk about the Wonder Bread company, and how they would not hire black people to work in their factories.
“Dr. King wanted us to boycott them, and ‘make Wonder Bread wonder where all their money had gone,’” Seale said.
It was through this organized type of civil disobedience that Seale recognized there was a way he could start to fight institutionalized racism, and change Oakland for the better. He realized that the Oakland City Government needed black power.
He and a couple colleagues worked to create a functional definition of power: “The ability to define a phenomenon then in turn make it act in a desired manner.”
They looked at the phenomenon of the city council, which they felt were working predominantly for rich people, and not the general public. Seale’s solution was organization.
“We needed to organize the people, get the people registered to vote, then run for city council, vote the others out, and change laws that were institutionalizing racism,” said Seale.
Even before becoming officially the Black Panther Party, Seale and his group wanted to beef up voter registration and have more blacks in political seats across the country.
But it was an instance of police brutality that catalyzed the formation of the Black Panther Party. Seale was reciting the poem “Uncle Sammy Call Me Fulla Lucifer” by Ronald Stone, when a police officer tried to arrest him for blocking the sidewalk. The officer tackled Seale, and a brawl ensued after other officers and Newton got involved. Newton and Seale were arrested, tried, and got off with probation.
The night after the trial hearing, Seale and Newton got together to officially start the Black Panther Party of self-defense. Seale acted as Chairman, and helped to teach their 15-or-so members how to defend themselves from police brutality and other acts of violence.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Party advocated for “lead, bread, housing, justice and peace,” said Seale. They tailed police, looked out for any instances of injustice, and fought for black equality and freedom at any cost.
“We never support indiscriminate killing. Anyone who’s doing that stepped totally outside what human civility is about,” Seale said, culminating his talk. “[I hope] for a future world of cooperationism with progressive leaders.”
Overall, audience members had very strong reactions to Seale’s words. Students, staff and community members were all in attendance.
“I learned a lot more than I expected,” said Zach Desmann, a URI sophomore. “There was so much detail about his life. I have a better understanding of how we’re still not anywhere close to where we should be.”
Len Cabral, a community member from Providence, grew up influenced by Seale and was impressed by the talk.
“It was great to see him and his commitment to social justice,” said Cabral. “Hopefully people realize it’s important to have a plan. You have to understand that the struggle continues, and we have to keep our pedal to the medal.”