by Lise Pearlman © 2018
The Seale family arrived in the Bay Area from Texas the year before the worst disaster of World War II on continental United States soil. Munitions improperly loaded onto cargo ships in Port Chicago suddenly ignited on July 17, 1944 — less than 25 miles from where the family now lived. The explosion rattled windows 50 miles in every direction. The devastating accident accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties suffered on naval duty during the war. It prompted the Navy to begin desegregating its units in 1946 when Bobby Seale was ten.
Seale inherited his mother’s athleticism and blamed racism for spoiling his chances to excel in high school sports. He dropped out of Berkeley High and joined the Air Force in 1955 where he learned to be a sheet metal mechanic. In 1958, he received a dishonorable discharge due to an angry outburst at his commanding officer. Seale then worked at several different aircraft companies. Each fired him after learning of his bad conduct discharge — until his last job at Kaiser Aerospace where his boss considered Seale’s expertise on a missile project too hard to replace.
In 1960, Seale started taking classes at Oakland City College (later renamed Merritt College). He began focusing on his heritage, grew his hair into an Afro and wore a moustache. Increasingly political, he quit his job at Kaiser Aerospace to stop helping the war effort. A natural extrovert, Seale had some success as a stand-up comic. He also worked as a mechanical draftsman. When he met Huey Newton in September 1962, Seale had just joined a new West Coast chapter of the Revolutionary Action Movement (“RAM”), a secretive East Coast organization that advocated guerrilla warfare. RAM found inspiration in a new book, Negroes with Guns, by former NAACP leader Robert Williams who had fled the United States for Cuba. [http://pbs.org/independentlens/negroeswithguns/rob.html]
Like the Seale family, the Newtons were World War II transplants from the South. Huey Percy Newton, born February 17, 1942, was the youngest of Walter and Armelia Newton’s seven children. Walter left Monroe, Louisiana in 1944 for work in the Alameda Naval Air Station. His family joined him the following year, when Huey was three. By the time the Newtons moved to West Oakland, their oldest children were adults. The family relocated several times and ultimately settled in a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood in North Oakland.
Melvin was the next youngest boy, four years older than Huey (pictured with Huey in the early 1970s). While Melvin focused on academics, Huey favored the streets like his older brothers Leander “Lee” Edward and Walter, Jr., “Sonny Man.” But Huey was also a quick study with a phenomenal memory. He displayed talent for playing the piano and had three years of classical training. Yet, to his parents’ dismay, Huey was often truant in high school, preferring to spend time in pool halls like his brother Lee, who had already served a jail sentence. Huey also hung out with Sonny Man, a Korean War veteran employed at the Naval Air Station, who liked to frequent the race track. A violent incident at Berkeley High got Huey suspended and referred to juvenile court. He graduated from Oakland Tech and escaped the draft with a 1-Y psychiatric exemption. Huey enrolled at Oakland City College focusing on courses in philosophy and militant politics, particularly the recent Cuban revolution and guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
By 1962, 20-year-old Newton was well-known on the Oakland City College campus. He joined the Afro-American Association, an informal study group that met at the home of local lawyer and scholar Donald Warden (later known as Khalid Abdullah Tariq al Mansour) who hosted a radio program of the same name. [https://blackbirdpressnews.blogspot.com/2012/09/a-dialogue-on-afro-american-association.html]. Among the association’s members were Ron Dellums, future Congressman and Oakland mayor, and future federal judge Thelton Henderson. When interviewed for our film project, Judge Henderson remembered Newton well: “A very bright young man . . . a quick learner. He contributed a lot, and I’ve always imagined that many of the ideas he got for the Panthers’ philosophy and some of the interest areas that they had, came from those meetings at the Afro-American Association. . . The premise of [which] was that blacks should not accept the white historical version of a Negro . . .”
Soon, Newton grew restless. Since the fall of 1962, he had often spoken at a forum by the Oakland City College campus known as the Grove Street orators. His favorite topics caught Seale’s attention — the Cuban revolution and the history of American colonial power. Seale impressed Newton, too, with his skills as an expert marksman, trained in the military to take apart and reassemble an M1 carbine blindfolded. Seale suggested Newton for membership in RAM, but RAM turned Newton down because he resided with his parents in a “bourgeois” neighborhood. (Ironically, RAM had accepted undercover policemen as charter members).
Between 1962 and 1965, Newton and Seale saw each other infrequently. Newton took seasonal jobs at the nearby Del Monte cannery, which employed two of his sisters. From time to time, he hired on as a construction worker or longshoreman or city street cleaner. He supplemented his income with car burglaries and parking lot robberies, selling stolen property and, for several months, pimping. His first serious brush with the law came in 1964 after an argument with an aggressive stranger at a dinner party whom Huey stabbed with a steak knife. Huey was convicted of felony assault and served six months before his release on three years’ probation. En route to Santa Rita, the 22-year-old spent one month in an Alameda County jail cell known as “the soul breaker.” At Santa Rita, Newton also spent time in isolation, but he was outside in the prison yard in early December 1964 when busloads of arrested Cal Free Speech Movement demonstrators arrived. Their political commitment impressed him greatly. Upon his release, Huey returned to Oakland City College. He signed up for California criminal law taught by Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Ed Meese. Huey was a top student, eagerly memorizing the constitutional rights of suspects and the do’s and don’ts of California’s open-carry gun laws.
In 1965, Newton and Seale joined blacks on campus who founded the Soul Students Advisory Council. One of its leaders was Ken Freeman, a self-taught expert on African history and editor-in-chief of the new radical political and literary magazine Soulbook. The Council increased awareness among blacks of their heritage, lobbied for courses in black history and pushed for the hiring of African-American faculty. Soulbook writer Louis Armmond introduced Seale to the works of the late revolutionary Dr. Frantz Fanon (pictured), who had participated in the recent Algerian overthrow of French colonial rule. The Soul Students Advisory Council studied The Wretched of the Earth [the 1963 translation of Dr. Fanon’s 1961 book, les damnés de la terre] as a blueprint for how a liberation movement could be started for American blacks. Seale then recommended The Wretched of the Earth to Huey Newton.
In June 1966, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael made a powerful speech rejecting the pacifism of Martin Luther King in favor of black power. A SNCC voting rights group in Lowndes County, Alabama had a black panther logo. Carmichael inspired the formation of Black Panther organizations elsewhere, including San Francisco. In October 1966, Newton and Seale launched their own Black Panther Party for Self-Defense while both were employed in the new Oakland federal jobs program headed by future Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson. Seale and Newton secretly used the office mimeograph machine at night to print out copies of their new 10-point program (modeled on The Nation of Islam’s “What We Believe”). Wilson discovered that the two of them brought guns to work and fired them. Seale and Newton then opened their first recruitment office in January, 1967 with final paychecks from the anti-poverty program. But Seale later pointed to the moment in 1965 when the two focused on the impact of Dr. Fanon’s writings as the true genesis of the Panther Party.
Next week Blog #5: Launching the First Movement Trial
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Lise Pearlman’s latest book just won the American Bookfest 2018 International Book Award for biographies and was named a finalist for both U.S. History and Multicultural Nonfiction! See review in Counterpunch by Jonah Raskin