Born in Dallas, Texas on October 22, 1936, Robert George (Bobby) Seale moved with his family to Oakland, California during World War II. After dropping out of high school, he served three years in the U.S. Air Force before he was court-martialed and given a bad-conduct discharge for disobeying a colonel at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Following his time in the military, Seale returned to Oakland and worked as a sheet metal mechanic in various aerospace plants while earning his high-school diploma in night school. A watershed moment in Seale’s radicalization occurred in 1962, when he first heard Malcolm X speak at a public meeting. That same year, Seale began attending Oakland City College (a.k.a. Merritt College), where he joined the Afro-American Association (AAA), a campus group that advocated black separatism. Through the AAA, he met and befriended another young radical named Huey Newton.
In 1966 Seale and Newton collaborated to establish the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, for which they adopted Malcolm X’s famous slogan: “Freedom by any means necessary.” To codify the nascent organization’s creed, Seale and Newton jointly drafted a ten-point program titled “What We Want, What We Believe” demanding that the U.S. government furnish its black inhabitants with reparations payments; guaranteed jobs, incomes, and housing; Afrocentric education; exemption from military service; and the immediate release of every black prisoner in the country.
In August 1968 Seale participated in demonstrations that helped to foment violent riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a speech he gave at Chicago’s Grant Park, Seale stated: “If the police get in the way of our march, tangle with the blue-helmeted motherfu**ers and kill them and send them to the morgue slab.” In the aftermath of the chaos, Seale was among eight persons — the so-called “Chicago Eight” — arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot. At his trial the following year, he was so disruptive that he had to be gagged and strapped into a chair in the courtroom. On November 5, 1969, the presiding judge sentenced Seale to four years in prison for 16 counts of contempt-of-court.
While Seale was incarcerated, a fellow Black Panther named Fred Bennett had an affair with Seale’s wife and impregnated her; Bennett was subsequently murdered, burned, and mutilated beyond recognition. There was speculation that perhaps Seale had ordered the killing, but this was never proven.
Also during Seale’s term in prison, he was indicted in New Haven, Connecticut for having ordered the May 20, 1969 torture and execution of Alex Rackley, a fellow Black Panther whom the organization wrongly suspected of being a police informant. When the case went to trial, yet another Panther, Warren Kimbro, testified for the prosecution and claimed that Seale had been present while Rackley was being tortured, though he could not say with certainty that Seale had given the order to kill Rackley. Seale’s trial ended with a hung jury in May 1971, and the charges were subsequently dismissed. In 1972 the federal government also suspended Seale’s earlier contempt convictions and set him free.
After Seale’s release, he and the Panthers shifted their tactics from political violence to conventional politics. In an effort to improve their public image, for instance, they initiated a “free breakfast program” for schoolchildren in a number of U.S. cities. But in fact the food was sometimes extorted from local businessmen, and the meals were typically accompanied by political indoctrination sessions. In Seattle, for example, the participating youngsters were taught that “the capitalists” were “the pigs who control the country” and “steal from the poor,” and who therefore deserved to be murdered. Seale also approved a Black Panther Coloring Book which was to be distributed to the children, but he quickly withdrew it because of public outcry over its illustrations showing youths killing policemen, and captions such as: “The only good pig is a dead pig.”
In 1973 Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and finished second out of nine candidates, garnering 43,710 votes.
One evening during a small dinner party at Huey Newton’s apartment in 1974, Newton vented his rage at Seale because the latter had failed to adequately discipline someone within the Party. After ordering his guards to savagely beat and whip Seale, Newton personally sodomized him with such violence that Seale had to have his anus surgically repaired by a Pacific Heights doctor who was a political supporter of the Panthers. Soon thereafter, Seale, fearful that Newton might kill him, relocated to Philadelphia. He did not return again to Oakland until August 1989, shortly after Newton’s death.
While living in Philadelphia during the late 1970s and virtually all of the ’80s, Seale served ten years as a teacher and community liaison officer for Temple University’s Afro-American Studies Department. He also had roles in the films Rude Awakening (1989) and Malcolm X (1992).
In 2002, Seale, identifying himself as a “political revolutionary humanist,” relocated to Oakland in order to work with young radicals dedicated to social and political change. At a Black Panther reunion that same year, Seale, to the shock of many in the audience, declared that “Race is bullsh**!”; that the Nation of Islam claim that an evil scientist had created whites in a laboratory was fictitious; that radicals’ preoccupation with Marxism was largely an exercise in “intellectual masturbation”; and that the revolution he now sought to promote had nothing to do with violence: “I don’t see the relevance of guns,” said Seale.
Over the years, Seale has earned a great deal of money on the college lecture circuit, where he has continued to call for black liberation and to denounce American racism.
Seale is the author of Seize the Time, a 1970 book about the Black Panthers; A Lonely Rage, his 1978 autobiography; and Barbeque’n with Bobby Seale: Hickory & Mesquite Recipes, a cookbook published in 1987.
Since 2013, Seale has been trying to produce Seize the Time: The Eighth Defendant, a screenplay which he wrote based on his autobiography.
In 2016, Seale and photographer Stephen Shames co-authored the book Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers.
Further Reading: “Bobby Seale” (Britannica.com, Spartacus Educational, Encyclopedia.com, Weebly.com); “What We Want, What We Believe” (The Black Panthers’ Program and Platform, 1966); “The Black Panthers Remembered” (by Ron Radosh, 2-5-2009); “The Black Panther Party” (Marxists.org); “Radical Old Man” (National Review, 3-7-2007); “Bobby Seale, Black Panthers Founder, Writes His Own History” (San Francisco Chronicle, 10-14-2016).