When Americans sat in front of their televisions 42 years ago this weekend to watch Democrats in Chicago nominate a candidate for president, they were instead riveted by a different kind of spectacle: police clubbing, kicking and gassing thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters near the convention hall.
The violent clashes led to federal indictments for eight men charged with conspiracy to incite rioting. At a raucous trial in federal court the next year, the "Chicago Eight" became the "Chicago Seven" when Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale was separated from the others and tried alone after the judge had him bound and gagged because he refused to be silent.
Now 73, Seale, a grandfather of four, is still speaking out—at college campuses around the country, where he lectures in his trademark black beret about the Black Panthers as well as about social justice issues, including voting rights, education, employment and equality. He often compares the 1960s protest movement with today's activism.
Robert George Seale was born in Dallas, the son of a carpenter with an eighth-grade education and a homemaker. "My father used to beat me because I didn't know my math," Seale said in an interview with the AARP Bulletin from his home in Oakland, Calif. "Even though my father did that, I did learn a lot from him. I learned to be a carpenter, I learned to be a furniture refinisher." The family moved to Oakland when he was 8.
His political awakening came in 1962 while he was attending Merritt College in Oakland after a four-year stint in the Air Force. On the way to classes one day, he encountered a rally of the local Afro American Association, where William Brumfield, a friend's brother, was speaking.
"What do they mean Afro American Association?" he recalled asking Brumfield. "At the time we referred to ourselves as Negroes."
Brumfield, who introduced Seale to activist Huey Newton at the rally, explained that their ancestors came from Africa and they should be called Afro Americans.
"That kicked me out on a whole research of African American history and the history of struggle," Seale recalled.
In the next year, he read voraciously about African American history: from W.E.B. DuBois to Melville Herskovits' Myth of the Negro Past, which, Seale said, "destroyed all the mythical misrepresentations of black Americans."
Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Oakland to speak.
Inspired by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X
"Dr. King was speaking about what we have to do to end this discrimination, this institutionalized racism," Seale said. King spoke about boycotting companies because they refused to hire African Americans. Seale would never forget King urging members of the audience to boycott bread companies in particular, saying, "We want to make Wonder Bread wonder where the money went." The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
"I was truly enamored, inspired, everything," he said.
He soon delved into Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison—"everything I could get my hands on concerning African history," he recalled in his 1978 memoir, A Lonely Rage.
Four years later, Newton and Seale, inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a group they envisioned as community-based, rather than campus-based.
Seale found himself in Chicago in the summer of 1968 because he was asked to fill in at the last minute for fellow Black Panther Party member Eldridge Cleaver, whose parole officer would not allow him to travel out of California. He spoke twice, but was back home in Oakland before most of the mayhem began on Aug. 28.