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.
On a Scandinavian speaking tour the following spring, a reporter told him he'd been indicted for crossing state lines with the intent to riot.
"I've been indicted? Me? What are you talking about?" Seale said.
As the trial of the Chicago Eight began in the fall of 1969, Seale's lawyer became ill and Seale loudly insisted he had a constitutional right to represent himself.
The proceedings became increasingly contentious, with Judge Julius Hoffman insisting that Seale sit down and be silent. Seale refused, railing that his rights were being denied, and calling Hoffman a racist, a fascist and a pig. At one point, he criticized the judge for displaying pictures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson behind his bench, saying they had been slave owners. Hoffman, aghast, said he never thought he would hear "the father of our country" denounced in federal court.
After Seale refused to be silent, Hoffman had him gagged and chained to his chair. Within days, Hoffman declared a mistrial and ordered that Seale be separated from the rest and tried alone. The following year, he was convicted of 16 counts of contempt of court and sentenced to four years in prison. He spent two years in jail while the case was appealed. In 1972, the contempt charges were suspended and he was released.
He has no regrets about what transpired in the courtroom. "I'd cuss him out again," he said.
Returning to Oakland after he left prison, he found the Black Panthers in disarray, with many of the members killed in confrontations with the police and dozens in prison. He ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, losing in a runoff. The next year, he left the Panthers, citing combat weariness.
In the 1980s he moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in a nonprofit jobs program, and then as a community liaison for the Department of African American Studies at Temple University. He moved back to Oakland about seven years ago.
He has written two memoirs, A Lonely Rage and Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panthers and Huey P. Newton. He is working on several others, including one on modern community organizing, and is developing a video documentary.
Away from politics, barbecuing or "Bobbyque" as he prefers to call it is one of Seale's abiding passions. He's been perfecting his technique since he learned it in his early teens from an uncle in Texas. A portion of the proceeds from his cookbook, Barbeque'n With Bobby Seale, benefits his Bobby Seale Reach Foundation, which provides job and leadership training. After a heart attack eight years ago, he eliminated the artery-clogging recipes and added low-salt, heart-healthy ones.
He stopped smoking and drinking years ago, and works out every day for an hour at the Berkeley YMCA near his home in Oakland. He has one son from a brief first marriage, Malik, named after Malcolm X, who used the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after he left the Nation of Islam. Malik Seale fought in Iraq, and is now serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Although Bobby Seale condemned the war in Iraq, he supports the war in Afghanistan.
"Now I don't want my son in the war, but he's there and he made that choice. I'll support my son," he said. He and Leslie Johnson-Seale have been together since 1971, although they have never married. "We consider ourselves married '60s style," Seale explained. She has a son, Romaine, whom the couple raised together, and they have a daughter, J'aime. They have four grandchildren.
These days, he looks back proudly at the work of the Black Panthers. The group's goals, he said, included decent education, full employment, housing, free preventive health care and an end to police brutality.
Seale laughed as he recalled how then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan called him a hoodlum in 1967.
"I'm an engineer, I'm a carpenter, I'm an architect, I'm a jazz drummer, I'm an expert barbecue cook," he said. "I am not a hoodlum. I'm a community organizer."
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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