The Mitby Theater at Madison College’s Truax campus was filled to capacity Tuesday evening as one of the most iconic figures in black American history, Bobby Seale, spoke to students and community members.
Seale, 83, founded the Black Panther Party in 1965 alongside the late Huey P. Newton and spearheaded a social movement both in Oakland and nationwide to organize the black community.
Seale spent nearly the entire day on Tuesday at Madison College meeting with President Jack Daniels and touring the facility. The Truax campus features a beautiful entry lobby and other amenities that Seale, who tours colleges delivering keynote speeches, took special note of. Seale also noted Madison College’s diverse student and faculty body.
“When I got here today, my God, I love this college,” Seale said. “They took me on a tour and this is fantastic. I didn’t even know it existed on this level ... And I know about schools in other places that are doing some great stuff, but I did not know that this college here is fantastic.”
Prior to delivering his speech, Seale hosted an hour-long press conference in the Tasting Room on the first floor of the Truax building. He took just two questions as he told stories about how the Black Panthers went on patrol to watch police officers. Armed with guns of their own, they confronted the police who they felt were unjustly cracking down on their neighborhoods.
“We all had full time jobs and Huey Newton was in law school at the time,” Seale said, “so it wasn’t like we did this every day. We maybe went on those patrols five or six times. Our feeling was if you shoot at us, we’d shoot back at you. But we never went out to have a shootout with police. That wasn’t our purpose. Our purpose was organizing the community.”
In addition to their confrontational tactics, in 1969 the Black Panthers organized community breakfasts for kids. Seale said the program was controversial at the time because people saw that kids were being educated by the Black Panthers.
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI at the time, said that the program was “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the Black Panther Party and destroy what it stands for.”
“When the press came up and asked me ‘Don’t you think kids should eat breakfast at home?’ I said ‘Some of them ain’t got no breakfast at home,’”Seale said. “So I said we’ve got free breakfast at St. Augustus Church here and we’re going to have free breakfast programs. J.Edgar Hoover attacked our program. He’s on national television saying the Black Panther’s breakfast with children program is a threat to the internal security of the American people. People started scratching their head asking how is a breakfast program for kids a threat to the internal security of America?”
Seale was asked what he thinks are issues that affect the youth of today and what he believes they should focus on. He was also asked what lessons students can take away from the approach the Black Panther Party took in terms of educating black children.
“The most important thing is to know how to learn,” Seale said. “Not just to know how to read and write, but to know how to learn. Know how to research … to make sure that your ideas, beliefs, understanding and rationalizations correspond as much as possible to reality.”
Seale said one of the biggest issues that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party was the lack of black people elected to public office. To his count, back in 1965 there were only about 55 blacks holding publicly elected office nationwide.
Today, Seale strongly supports black candidates, but also backs Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
“People run around here talking about socialism,” Seale said. “Well, I agree with Bernie Sanders. The corporate money rich is socialism. When money, by the trillions of dollars, is distributed to the largest and greedy corporations, that means those politicians who are doing that are bought out by corporate money.”
After the press conference, Seale participated in a book club run by Jimmy Cheffen, who heads Madison College’s Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.
“I started this book club when I heard that Bobby Seale was going to be coming to the college,” Cheffen said. “We read his autobiography ‘Seize the Time.’”
Cheffen commented on how relevant — and colorful — the book remains today. Seale shared more anecdotes from his life and talked about his time in the Air Force and how it led to his being a proficient engineer and working on the Gemini Missile program. He spoke about his childhood, movies that have been or are being made about his life, and the youth projects he still works on in California.
Through it all, Seale displayed the bombast he was known for as an iconic figure in the ‘60s.
“It means so much to have someone like Bobby Seale come speak here,” Daniels said. “I spent some time with him this afternoon. I used to live in Oakland as well, so we know some of the same people. But everything he says is still relevant today.”