Last night well_lahdidah and I went to see Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, speak at the Penn Law.
Bobby Seale is 69 years old now. He was a particularly good-humored speaker. He would often start in on long, rambling tangents. For example, he told us he was particularly impressed when he saw Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. This led into a tangent about how he didn't care much for religion, preachers, his religiously-zealous and aggressive Aunt Zelma, or angry nuns, about why he preferred a 45-minute Catholic mass to a 4-5 hour Baptist mass, about why he couldn't stand the Baptist preacher that had 32 suits and three Cadillacs when his congregation had so little, and then would manage to bring it right back around to his original point, about how he was truly impressed by King's preaching.
He told many stories about the early days of the Black Panther Party. He was very particular about telling us that he was a college student and working full-time as an engineer, and that Huey P. Newton had finished 2 years of law school. Bobby Seale bankrolled the first office for the Black Panthers because he had a good job. They were college-educated, but California governor Ronald Reagan called them hoodlums. He talked about how J. Edgar Hoover tried to sway public opinion against the Black Panther Party by telling people that they hated white people and wanted to kill white people, in spite of the fact that they worked alongside white progressives every day. Or that J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panther Party was the greatest threat to the internal security of the nation. Why? Bobby Seale asked. Because of the Free Breakfast Program for Children?
He several times made disparaging remarks about a Melvin Van Peebles film, presumably Panthers, which he said was off-the-mark and made wild exaggerations for effect. One particularly funny criticism he had of the film was that it showed Black Panthers pulling cars up onto a curb and parking cockeyed. The Panthers didn't do that, he said. We always parked legally.
Although he told several good stories that involved fights and guns, I'll admit that it occasionally felt like a candy-coated history of the Black Panther Party. I've read that there were schisms within the organization and that not everyone agreed with the creed "All Power to All People." However, when Bobby Seale said it, I believed it.
The question-and-answer session was mediocre and thankfully short. One interesting question that came up was the topic of funding. Although Bobby Seale contributed his own money from his job early on, he said that their newspaper (which reached a circulation of 250,000 at its height) helped, but that he also relied on celebrity support. He mentioned, in particular, Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda. The Black Panthers were so much in the news, celebrities themselves, that fund-raisers went very well. (The shy, low-key revolutionaries in attendance should have taken note: you need charisma and media attention.)
It was a great thing to see, and I'm glad that well_lahdidah was willing to join me there in lieu of fancy Valentine's Day activities.