SU co-hosts Black Panther Reunion

by Canda Harbaugh

May 20, 2005

The former headquarters stood on 20th Ave. and Spruce Street, less than a mile southeast of campus. The community programs were aimed to fight poverty, especially for residents of the Central District, just east of campus.

Seattle’s chapter of the Black Panther Party, with deep historical roots in this area, thrived during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, with about 300 members at its peak in 1970. Last Friday and Saturday, with the help of SU’s Black Student Union, Black Panther members met to educate others of their plight in Seattle’s first Black Panther Party Reunion and Forum.

"Originally BSU was just going to help out by being at the tables, registering people and handing out information. But we ended up co-sponsoring part of the event on campus," said Alyson Palmer, junior political science major, and co- president of BSU.

Sylva Jones, ’03 alumnus of SU, was on the Black Panther Party Reunion and Forum planning committee. She contacted Palmer to get students involved.

"Traditionally, the BPP was powered by college students," commented Palmer, explaining one of the reasons that it was important for members of Seattle University to get involved.

In fact, not only did SU students and faculty attend, but also members of the University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College. Besides college students, there was a large number of people from the greater Seattle, especially from Central District and Capital Hill area.

The reunion and forum began with a film festival in Wyckoff Auditorium Friday afternoon. After the films, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, participated in a question and answer discussion. On Saturday, Garfield Community Center continued the reunion and forum, in which participants watched films, attended workshops and listened to speeches by former BPP members, such as Aaron Dixon, former captain of Seattle’s chapter of BPP.

Formed to oppose police-initiated violence against black people, the BPP is well known for its militancy and Marxist discourse and, according to reunion participants, has historically been misrepresented.

"Their overall mission was an eye-opener to me," said Lloryn Hubbard, freshman biology major, and BSU member. "Many times people are misinformed and compare the BPP to a KKK for black people or something crazy like that. In no way is that true. They were fighting for the same things that [Martin Luther King Jr.] and Malcolm X were, but they just decided that they would defend themselves, which they did legally."

For about the first year of its existence -- from mid-1968 to mid-1969 -- Black Panther members performed armed patrols of Seattle streets to protect poor black neighborhoods from police brutality. Participants were surprised to learn the measures that Seattle Panthers took to legally carry guns.

"That shocked me. Their weapons were legal and the police could do nothing about that," said Hubbard.

Palmer was similarly surprised at the care they took in handling guns.

"They were trained that they can’t point guns at anyone because even if they accidentally pointed it at someone, it would be considered assault. They wore guns, but didn’t fire until fired at first. They were trained to use the guns for protection and for safety."

Media images show BPP members toting guns and wearing black leather jackets, sunglasses and berets. What never made newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s were the numerous community service projects that the BPP implemented.

"Some of [the media images] ring true; they did where black berets and black clothes and they did stand on the steps [of city, county and state buildings] with their guns, but they also instituted a lot of social programs, a lot to support the African American community," explained Palmer.

One of the most famous programs the Seattle Black Panthers established was a free breakfast program for school children. It is now a national program that the government funds.

An elderly white woman who attended the film festival and listened to Seale speak remembers the children’s breakfast program. She stated that she had been with the BPP since its inception and remembers a man coming to Seattle and stating, "All you women, give up your gold rings because we need to feed some children." She didn’t want to give up her ring, but she was part of the BPP, and it was her duty.

The BPP also established a health clinic, dedicated to treating all people regardless of their ability to pay. It is still around today, known as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center located on 21st Ave. South and Yesler Way. The Seattle Chapter also established a food bank, a liberation school, a statewide program to test for sickle-cell anemia, a legal aid program, a tutoring program and a number of other programs.

"[The BPP’s] self-defense extended to everyday survival, which is why they [implemented] social programs," explained Jones. Jones also stated that the BPP taught the black community "that you can solve your own problems, and you don’t need anyone else to do it for you."

The Seattle chapter, being one of the three strongest forces -- Los Angeles and Chicago being the others -- worked to protect the community with both guns and social programs, but ran into trouble along the way.

In 1970, the FBI wanted to raid Seattle’s BPP headquarters, like it had recently done in Chicago and Los Angeles. However, Mayor Wes Uhlman refused to allow them to, stating that they posed no threat to the community.

"He pretty much said, ‘You are not going to raid the Black Panther Party offices here because they do so much for the black community,’" said Palmer. "In effect, Mayor Wes Uhlman helped to prevent further FBI raids on Black Panther Party offices because people higher up in the U.S. government said, ‘Wait a minute, we need to look at what the FBI is doing here.’"

BPP reunion participants were educated about Black Panther history, but ultimately, what young people learned from Black Panthers was that they have the ability to change things, to organize and to fight to help themselves and others.

"I think the BPP is somewhat inspirational as far as young people taking a stand for what they believe in," said Hubbard. "They are a perfect example of the power that motivated, organized young people have, and we can literally change major situations we are passionate about."

Seale stressed that in order for society to grow and in order for the black community to thrive, there needs to be coalitions with all different kinds of people.

"Bobby Seale emphasized that we need to join with other communities so we can progress, in the face of other former Black Panther members who said we need to just take care of the African American community," said Palmer.

Palmer made a connection between Seal’s message and what Seattle University is attempting to do on campus.

"OMSA alliance has done a good job of bringing the cultural groups together. Some of the cultural groups do work well together and we just need to continue that."