FEATURE
Bobby Seale's Shadow
continued
By the time the second Rackley murder trial—with Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale as defendants—began in October, the momentum for the prosecution had been lost. The pretrial motions and jury selection broke the previous records held by the McLucas proceedings, taking four months to winnow 1,500 candidates down to 12 jurors and 2 alternates. By then, the press and the police seemed to be on trial, as reporters and police officials were questioned under oath to determine whether the publicity negated the possibility of a fair trial.

"The downfall of the prosecution was to rope in Bobby Seale," said Koskoff. "They already had a confession from two shooters. They could do no better than that. [State’s Attorney] Markle was a competent lawyer but he got sucked in by the politics. They never had a case against Seale."

The Revolution, which seemed imminent, was averted, thanks in part to the sense of justice for all that came out of the Rackley murder trials. However, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Black Panthers, nationally and in Connecticut.

"As far as the Panthers were concerned, the trial was less successful," says Koskoff. "Nationally, it revealed a part of them they didn’t want people to see. In Connecticut itself, the Panthers were destroyed, which of course was what J. Edgar Hoover wanted."

*

Whether Bobby Seale had any foreknowledge of the crime, the shadow of Alex Rackley's death will forever fall across his career. Indeed, the prosecutor’s case hinged on the fact that Seale was in New Haven the night before the murder, on May 20, 1969—giving yet another speech at Yale. The prosecution’s star witness was George W. Sams, Jr., a Panther hanger-on who just prior to the Rackley murder had been released after a lengthy stay at an "institution for mentally handicapped." He, like Warren Kimbro, pled guilty to second degree murder in the case, cooperated with authorities and was given a reduced prison sentence (four years). In press accounts, Sams was repeatedly referred to as the state’s "star witness" against Lonnie McLucas, Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins.

And yet by all accounts, Sams was a frightening character. He showed up in New Haven a week before the Rackley murder, and no one at the Panther headquarters seemed to know why he was there. Frances Carter, one of the eight Panthers first arrested (but later released) for Rackley’s murder, called Sams "the ugliest bastard I’d ever seen. Talking crazy, his eyes deep, beet red . . . Just stunk like ten dogs. Foamy when he talked. Almost like a Halloween character. Scary! . .. . He was sick, sexually perverted, always trying to work his will and wanting to forcibly have sex . . . He stayed a week, but it seemed like a lifetime. He was the kiss of death. I can recall him wielding this big old billy club-type thing. The whole family cohesiveness-camaraderie we were experiencing stopped."

Kimbro, by all accounts one of the most earnest and articulate members of the New Haven chapter (it was his house, at 365 Orchard Street that they used as headquarters), seems the least likely to have anything to do with such brutality. And yet, there it is: he was guilty and served prison time.

"Many of the people in the New Haven chapter of the Panthers were middle class," recalls Koskoff. "They were defined more by their propaganda than by their own personalities. And they were young and impressionable. Lonnie, for example, was so eager to please and so easy to manipulate. If you told him to jump off a bridge, he’d do it. Bring into this group a psychopath like George Sams and it’s easy to see how they were intimidated. Sams was a big, barrel-chested guy who was manipulative and violent. He was basically apolitical and had this Panther connection as a way to vent his violence. On top of that, Sams was really stupid. He was clearly coached through his testimony by the prosecution, but his stories always broke down under cross-examination. I remember my father asking him—the prosecution’s star witness—why he was known as ‘Crazy George,’ and he said there was no reason, ‘It’s like if I called you Roskoff or Foskoff,’ he said. Everyone just stared at him, aghast."

According to the prosecution’s hired medical expert, Sams was completely stable and reliable as a witness, despite the fact that, in order to keep him subdued during the trial, he was placed on "tranquilizers, pain killers, skin medication, Darvon, Phenobarbital and central nervous system depressant."

Hugh Pearson, in The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (1994), writes: "The Rackley case became one of the most controversial Panther cases of all, a prime example of the question of which illegal activities could be blamed on genuine party leaders, and which on agents-provocateurs or just plain deviants in the party. Seale was accused of ordering Rackley’s murder for being an alleged government agent, with the words, ‘Do away with him.’ Williams and others were accused of being present when Seale gave the command, George Sams accepting it, then he, Lonnie McLucas, and Warren Kimbro, the alleged triggermen, driving Rackley to a swamp to kill him. The case hinged largely on the questions of whether Seale actually did appear to give the command, and if so, how Seale’s command could be interpreted. The Panthers would insist that party member George Sams ordered the murder of Rackley on his own."

The day after the news of Rackley’s murder broke, the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register and New York Times ran follow-up articles, this time with staff bylines. It seems a note was found with Rackley’s body, allegedly linking him with "Chairman Bobby" Seale. It was, in all probability, planted there.

*

Among the many gripping images from the 1960s, the court artist’s rendering of Bobby Seale bound, gagged and shackled to a chair in Judge Julius Hoffman’s Chicago courtroom stands out. That one image from 1969 may have done more to convince Americans of the brutality of its own government than the four previous years’ worth of daily death totals from Vietnam. The timing, as far as Seale’s New Haven trial was concerned, was impeccable, if completely unplanned.

On May 1, 1970, President Nixon called campus radicals and protesters "bums." On May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on a campus demonstration, killing four Kent State University students and wounding 11 others. The battle lines were drawn in Vietnam and in America. By the time Seale went on trial in New Haven, the young and disaffected were prepared to believe the worst about their own government and the best about their revolutionaries.

As reprehensible as the government’s desire was to "muzzle" Seale, it was understandable. As Pearson noted, "Bobby Seale was a far better public speaker than Newton. He became the party’s ambassador to the rest of the world." Partly as a result of his notoriety and talent, Seale spent a total of two years in jail awaiting trials in which he was acquitted. And thanks to the clear prejudice of Judge Hoffman, Seale may well have been America’s best-known political prisoner.

Three decades later, if anyone has cause to be bitter about events of that decade, it is Bobby Seale. He watched as his friends John Huggins, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark and 26 other Panthers were killed by police and another 68 wounded. But despite the legacy of violence that dogged his steps, including the still-mystifying Rackley murder, Seale seems humbled by the passage of time. "I am lucky to be alive and my three kids are okay," he said. (One son is a doctor, another is a socially conscious rap singer and his daughter is going to college).

Seale has even made peace with Nick Pastore, the New Haven detective who arrested him and brought him back to face charges in Connecticut. Pastore, in fact, showed up at Seale’s recent speech in New Haven and hugged his former nemesis, congratulated him for continuing "the struggle" and presented him with a pink porcelain figurine of a pig as a peace offering. (Pastore went on to become New Haven’s Chief of Police and now runs Criminal Justice Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, DC).

Seale also feels that some things, in regard to race in this country, have improved, not the least of which is police brutality, declaring, "A lot of people can’t believe it still when they see the photographs of us with our loaded weapons, but police brutality back then was 60 to 80% worse than it is today. Even with the recent cases in New York, at least the murder and brutalization and profiling of African Americans by police now goes to court 90% of the time. Back then, they didn’t even hold hearings. For years, we watched civil rights activists brutalized and killed and dealt with that institutionalized racism."

Finally, he doesn’t hold the "power structure" responsible for the demise and death of Huey Newton, who was murdered in 1989 on an Oakland sidewalk after an argument with a drug dealer. "Huey Newton was a Ph.D., but he wasn’t smart enough to get out of abusing drugs," said Seale. "Huey made a contribution and I will never take that away from him, but he died of drugs. Period."

*

Bobby Seale was born in Dallas, Texas in 1936, and his family moved to Oakland in 1945. Before attaining worldwide recognition for his work with the Panthers, Seale worked diligently within the system. During a stint in the Air Force, he was an aircraft structural mechanic and later became an inspector engineer with the Gemini Missile Program. He spent three years at Merritt College as an engineering design major and got a government job upon graduating. He was nearly 30 when he met the much younger, and hipper, Huey Newton.

"A lot of people don’t understand about the origins of the Panthers," he explains. "I was working in the War on Poverty office in Oakland at the time. I was employed by the government."

And yet what initially got Seale angry, long before J. Edgar Hoover went to work on him, was the murder of Malcolm X. As he told the audience in New Haven recently, "It was Malcolm X’s death that really pissed me off. He had left that Muslim religious organization the year before and was reaching out for a wider audience."

The religious component of the Muslims, and to some extent the Reverend King’s SCLC, had always bothered Seale. "I wanted the Panthers to be a righteous secular organization. I was an engineering and design student who grew up reading everything I could get my hands on about science," he said. "My staunch, myopically Christian Aunt Thelma used to shout at me, ‘Shut up with that science stuff...that’s the work of the devil.’ But, by the time I formed the Panthers, everything had to be scientific to me. It had to be proven, pragmatic, workable, no mythical mumbo jumbo. The Black Panther Party did not have a hard-line academic stance, we were not ‘armchair revolutionaries’ and we were not close-minded. Our ideology was always in motion, based on whatever worked. And the 10-Point Program was deliberately made simplistic. ‘We want full employment for our people...Period.’ What could be simpler than that?"

What about the guns?

"Our guns were loaded, but this was not about machoism," he said. "We wanted to capture the imagination of the community. And we did everything within the letter of the law. Huey had spent two years in law school, and he’d found a statute in the California law that said unconcealed, loaded guns were legal and that citizens had the right to observe the police ‘from a reasonable distance.’ So, we patrolled the Oakland community legally for six months, from January to May of 1967. At that point, a state senator sponsored a bill that would disallow loaded guns within city limits."

The guns brought the Panthers world renown when they showed up at the state capitol in Sacramento sporting crisp leather jackets, berets and loaded rifles on their shoulders. They were there to offer an opinion on the senator’s proposed legislation. The governor, Ronald Reagan, had arranged a photo op on the capitol lawn, in which he praised the gun proposal. But along came the Panther phalanx, and the entire crowd—media, audience, young people—followed Seale and company. Ronnie was left, nearly alone, at the microphone.

"We only had 40 members and we were internationally famous, with our pictures in papers in London, France, Algeria, Kenya, all over the world!" Seale says, still amazed at the sheer chutzpah of his colleagues.

By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in April 1968, the Panthers had 400 members. Within weeks, that number soared to over 5,000, as black college students dropped out in disgust over the murder of Dr. King—the living proponent of peaceful protest—to take up the arms and aims of self-defense proposed by the Black Panther Party. Two-thirds of those who joined were women, many interested in administering the community-level educational, medical and breakfast programs.

"The tide turned after that," said Seale. "People are still skewing the Black Panthers, but we were never separate from the civil rights movement. We were a part of the civil rights movement, but we were simply no-nonsense. We were NOT a hate group. Give me a break! We didn't have time for hate. We needed all the friends we could get. A lot of people don’t realize how damn hard we worked. We regularly worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. What Franz Fanon said was true: ‘You are a revolutionary 24 hours a day.’"

*

While the seething anger of his Panther past can still occasionally well up, Seale is one of the more upbeat speakers making the rounds on college campuses today. Among his salient points, and expanding agenda, is the necessity to adapt the human liberation struggle to the 21st century by mastering the new technology, with its explosively mobilizing power.

"We didn’t have videos or computers or camcorders back then," said Seale, who now has his own well-designed Web site http://www.bobbyseale.com. "It is an over developed and fast-paced high-tech computerized scientific globalizing social order now."

The legendary events of the formation of the Black Panthers will also be coming to a screen near you soon, under the tentative title "Seize The Time" (also the title of Seale’s compelling memoir of the Black Panther Party). Having been righteously burned by the producers of the 1995 film Panther, which Seale calls "90% fiction" and "stereotyping," he has formed his own film production company, Reach Cinema, Inc., and sought foreign film crews as well as a carefully monitored script process to tell the story correctly.

The effort to set the record straight on the past has not blinded Seale to the future. He ends his speech with a ringing defense of science, modern technology and what he calls "polytechnic" thinking. "DNA testing has proven that all that race superiority stuff is dead!" he loudly proclaims, pounding the point home on the podium. "The future is all about evolving community control. We need a 21st century social organizing reality, progressively different from the Sixties, and we need to get humanity to understand and realize how all civil-human rights issues are interconnected and interrelated with people’s ecological-economic-enviro-empowerment practices. Let’s get beyond the present extremist practices of avaricious racist corporate monopoly capitalism, GATT and NAFTA. We are losing power. We are getting crumbs. All power to the people!"

Right on.

To take a tour of Bobby Seal's photo gallery, click here.

Click here to read Alan Bisbort's bio