Bobby Seale, chairman and founder of the Black Panther Party, said Sunday that Black Lives Matter should get involved in electoral politics and provide a range of community services like the original Panthers did in the 1960s and early ’70s.
African Americans across generations greeted Seale with reverence Sunday at Brickhouse Art Gallery in Oak Park celebrating the founding of the Sacramento Panthers 48 years ago. Children raised their right fists and shouted, “black power!” College students thanked Seale, still trim and sharp at 79, for instilling black pride and empowerment in their predecessors in the turbulent ’60s.
Seale and Huey Newton started the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense on Oct. 15, 1966. The group 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.
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Seale said when he started the Panthers, there were only 50 elected black officials in the country. “Now there are 20,000,” he said. Police still kill black people at a rate far greater than whites, he said, “That’s why black lives matter.”
Seale said nonviolent protest alone won’t bring about change. “We’ve got to get Black Lives Matter involved in the electoral process,” he said. The Panthers registered 20,000 voters in the Bay Area when the party was most active. Seale said he’s long called for elected police chiefs and police commissions with investigative powers.
Seale’s history during the years of social tumult included a stretch behind bars. He was one of the original “Chicago Eight” arrested for inciting a riot after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Seale was sentenced in 1969 to four years in prison for contempt of court. He was released in 1972.
Against the musical backdrop of Otis Redding’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” young people lined up to shake Seale’s hand and buy copies of his new book, “Power To The People The World of The Black Panthers.” On display were photos and artworks reflecting the Panthers’ heyday.
“I want to say thank you for your work; it’s a beautiful thing,” said Cameron Eugene, 25, a Sacramento City College student. “You gave us a way to protect our neighborhoods and gave us a safe place to organize.”
Taylor McClure, 23, called Seale “the closest thing to MLK we have left, and he’s still alive to tell the story.”
After King’s assassination, Charles Brunson, a Sacramento postman and veteran, called Seale to announce he’d formed the Sacramento Panthers.
Seale expressed surprise and responded, “We ain’t got no Sacramento chapter. You’ve got to get to Oakland to show us what you got.’ ” The next day, he said, Brunson arrived with about 40 people, most of them women, marching up and down the street.
“I’d been a mechanic in the Air Force and I knew a good cadence,” Seale said, recalling Brunson’s greeting: “Charles Brunson reporting for duty, sir.”
Seale said he asked why so many women were in his group and Brunson replied: “If we get the women in there, we get the brothers in there.”
Seale gave Brunson six weeks to start a free breakfast program and a testing program for sickle-cell anemia. “They did it in two weeks,” he said. “They were some of the best grass-roots organizers in the world.”
Brunson, 73, is now known as Esutosin Omwale Osunkoya, “an African name meaning ‘worthy of praise, the child has returned, fights the battle of the underprivileged,’ ” he said. That included worries about police racial profiling in Oak Park and nutrition.
“A lot of our children were failing in school and we found out they really weren’t eating at home.” So the Panthers got up at 5 a.m. and started feeding up to 150 kids a day at the United Church of Christ, then made sure they got on their school buses. “After we closed our doors in April 1970, the Women’s Civic Improvement Club took over the program, and now it’s in the schools,” Osunkoya said.
His then-wife, Margo Rose-Brunson, helped launch the free breakfast program and distributed the Black Panther weekly newspaper throughout Sacramento. “We got donations for the breakfast program from white businesses,” she recalled.
J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director at the time of the group’s founding, called the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
On Father’s Day 1969, an army of police gathered outside the Panthers’ office on 35th Street in Sacramento and started firing into the air and then into the building, Osunkoya recalled. “If we didn’t have an exit plan out the back of the building, there would have been a massacre.”
To this day, Rose-Brunson says she hates Father’s Day. “There were families with kids who fled the park and came to our office. And we didn’t have any guns in the office. I said, ‘Damn, they’re trying to kill us,’ ” she said.
Nobody was hurt that day, and the branch grew to 175 active members, Osunkoya said.
Nationally, the Black Panther Party peaked at 68 chapters. But by 1972, internal politics and philosophical differences had eroded membership. Seale, who lost a close race for mayor for Oakland in 1973, said he made a mistake calling Panther leaders to Oakland to do political organizing. “In 1974, I just resigned” from the party, he said.
The Black Panthers exhibition continues from noon to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through Oct. 17.