Biography of Activist Bobby Seale

Co-founder of the Black Panther Party

Black Panther Bobby Seale
Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 with Huey Newton.

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Bobby Seale (born October 22, 1936) co-founded the Black Panther Party with Huey P. Newton. The organization, which was the most well-known group launched during the black power movement, stood out for its free breakfast program and emphasis on self-defense—a departure from the nonviolent philosophy advocated by civil rights activists.

Fast Facts: Bobby Seale

  • Known For: Co-founder, along with Huey P. Newton, of the Black Panther Party
  • Born: October 22, 1936 in Dallas, Texas
  • Parents: George and Thelma Seale
  • Education: Merritt Community College
  • Spouse(s): Artie Seale, Leslie M. Johnson-Seale
  • Children: Malik Seale, J'aime Seale
  • Notable Quote: “You don't fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity."

Early Life and Education

Bobby Seale, the first child of George and Thelma Seale, was born on October 22, 1936. He grew up with a brother (Jon), a sister (Betty), and a first cousin (Alvin Turner—the son of his mother’s identical twin). In addition to Dallas, the family lived in other Texas cities, including San Antonio. Seale's parents had a rocky relationship, separating and reconciling repeatedly. The family struggled financially and sometimes rented out parts of their home to other families to earn additional income.

Seale's father, George, was a carpenter who once built a home from the ground up. He was also physically abusive; Bobby Seale later described being whipped with a belt by his father at age 6. When the family moved to California, George Seale struggled to get carpentry work or join a union, as unions often excluded African Americans during the Jim Crow era. When George Seale did manage to enter a union, he was one of just of three black men in the state with union membership, according to Seale.

As a teenager, Seale hauled groceries and mowed lawns to earn extra cash. He attended Berkeley High School but dropped out to sign up for the US Air Force in 1955. After a conflict with a commanding officer, Seale was dishonorably discharged. However, this setback did not deter him. He earned his high school diploma and made a living as a sheet metal mechanic for aerospace companies. He also worked as a comedian.

In 1960, Seale enrolled in Merritt College, where he joined a black student group and his political consciousness took hold. Two years later, he met Huey P. Newton, the man with whom he would start the Black Panthers.

Founding the Black Panther Party

At a 1962 demonstration against the Kennedy Administration's naval blockade of Cuba, Seale befriended Huey Newton. Both men found inspiration in black radical Malcolm X and were devastated when he was assassinated in 1965. The next year, they decided to form a group to reflect their political beliefs, and the Black Panthers were born.

The organization reflected Malcolm X’s philosophy of self-defense "by any means necessary." The idea of armed African Americans proved controversial in the broader United States, but as the civil rights movement waned following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., many young black Americans leaned towards radicalism and militancy.

The Black Panthers were particularly concerned about racism in the Oakland Police Department, but before long, Panthers chapters sprang up nationwide. The Black Panther Party became most well known for their 10-point plan and free breakfast program. The 10-point plan included culturally-relevant teaching, employment, shelter, and exemption from military service for African Americans.

Legal Battles

In 1968, Bobby Seale and seven other protesters were charged with conspiring to incite a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When the trial date arrived, Seale's lawyer was ill and unable to appear; the judge denied the request to delay the trial. Seale claimed the right to defend himself in order to advocate for his own constitutional rights, but the judge did not allow him to give an opening statement, cross-examine witnesses, or speak to the jury.

Seale contended that the judge had denied him his right to counsel, and he began to speak out in protest during the proceedings. In response, the judge ordered him bound and gagged. Seale was chained (later strapped) to a chair, with his mouth and jaw strapped shut, for several days of the trial.

Ultimately, the judge sentenced Seale to four years in prison for contempt of court. That sentence was later overturned, but it did not mark the end of Seale’s legal troubles. In 1970, Seale and another defendant were tried for killing a Black Panther believed to be a police informant. The hung jury resulted in a mistrial, so Seale was not convicted of the 1969 murder.

As his court battles unfolded, Seale wrote a book tracing the history of the Black Panthers. The book, published in 1970, was titled Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. But the time Seale spent behind bars awaiting the outcomes of various court cases had taken a toll on the group, which began to fall apart in his absence. The settling of the court cases saw Seale take charge of the Panthers again. In 1973, he changed focus by putting his bid in to become the mayor of Oakland. He placed second in the race. He left the Panthers the following year. In 1978, he wrote his autobiography, A Lonely Rage.

Later Years

In the 1970s, the black power movement subsided, and groups like the Black Panthers ceased to exist. Deaths, prison sentences, and internal conflicts spurred by initiatives like the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program played a role in the unraveling process.

Bobby Seale remains politically active, giving talks on his life and activism at college campuses and other venues. More than 50 years after the Black Panthers formed, the group continues to influence politics, pop culture, and activism.

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