Ex-Black Panther head to talk at WMC

February 08, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

By the time Richard M. Smith was born 21 years ago, Bobby Seale -- co-founder and chairman of the Black Panther Party -- had already quit the organization that helped create the unsettling, startling image of African-Americans advocating violent revolution.

Smith, the president of Western Maryland College's Black Student Union -- and who was instrumental in arranging Seale's appearance on campus today -- encountered the Black Panthers in the eighth grade.

What he heard about them was this:

"That there was a militant group who didn't like white people," he recalled with a laugh. "But my mother always brought me up to research things."

He learned not only of their insistence on the right to bear arms but of their alliance with other groups in opposing the Vietnam War and their support of the rights of Chicanos and Native Americans. The Black Panther Party sponsored free breakfast programs for children, manufactured clothing and opened free health clinics.

For those reasons, Seale, 63, will be speaking at 7 p.m. today at Western Maryland's Baker Memorial Chapel in Westminster.

It's been more than 25 years since Seale quit the group he co-founded in 1966 with the late Huey P. Newton in Oakland, Calif.

The party, which once claimed 5,000 members throughout U.S. cities, was weakened by dissension and violence, and all but disappeared by the end of the 1970s.

Seale now works as a community activist in the Philadelphia area, directing Project REACH, which trains young people as carpenters, drywallers, roofers, painters, plumbers and electricians, and renovates decrepit housing for use by homeless mothers and their children.

He also travels regularly to speak about the Panthers, the 1960s and his current projects, which have included a barbecue cookbook.

But he still echoes the Panthers cry: "All power to all the people."

He advocates what he calls a "grass-roots people's pragmatic philosophical view" -- mixing a vision of cooperative spirit and environmental activism with resistance to racism and sexism.

In addition to his role as chairman of the Panthers, Seale gained fame as one of the "Chicago Eight" defendants, charged with conspiring to commit violence in the streets during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

He was bound and gagged during the trial, in 1969, after the judge decided he was disrupting the proceedings.

His case was separated from the 4 1/2-month trial, and he and the others were acquitted of the conspiracy charge.

Seale, however, was jailed for two years for contempt of court, leading to a nationwide Panther-sponsored "Free Bobby Seale" campaign. The contempt-of-court conviction was reversed by a federal appeals court that criticized the trial judge.

Seale looks back at those times with wry humor. He has remarked that the Black Panthers' images and slogans made the party famous worldwide before it had enough money to pay office rent.

"Bobby Seale is someone I personally have really followed," said Smith, the Western Maryland College student. Smith went from office to office at the college to raise Seale's $4,500 speaking fee, an amount far beyond the resources of the 40-member Black Student Union.

"We're excited, because this is the first time the Black Student Union in a while has done something like this, and we were able to make it happen," Smith said.

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