For Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, America’s shameful problem with racism has greatly improved but the basic struggle of the tumultuous '60s — “it’s still about getting all power to the people” — must continue in the form of voting, getting progressive people elected and changing backward laws.

Seale, 78, a defendant in the notorious “Chicago 8” trial following riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, will speak Feb. 2 at Southern Oregon University. The talk is sponsored by the Black Student Union as part of Black History Month.

The highly publicized Panthers, who organized 50 years ago in Oakland, Calif., were noted for providing free breakfasts for inner city children and organizing voter registration drives but also for openly carrying weapons, which they said they needed to protect themselves against police brutality. The organization slowly dissolved in the '70s amid reports of the group's involvement in drug dealing, violence and murders. 

“The relevancy of '60s protest is just as relevant today,” said Seale, in a phone interview. “Back then, we started observing police actions. We used tactics and were avid researchers, not just woofin' and hollerin'. Our weapons were pointed at the ground. We would recite the law to the police. It blew their minds. It captured people’s imaginations.”

Such actions were part of the “Black Power” movement of the times and helped increase the number of black elected officials from 50 nationwide to 7,000 by the end of the '70s, he said, and twice that by the end of the century.

In the '60s, America’s racism was open, with African Americans barred from voting in many states. However, since then, millions of people of all colors have stood up against it — and the election of a black president, Seale said, signaled the decline of  “a long history of blacks denied access to the system.”

On violence, which Martin Luther King eschewed under all circumstances, the Black Panther philosophy was conditional, said Seale.

“I always preached non-violence because the First Amendment guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and protest. It’s the law of the land ... but if you send people to brutalize us, we’re going to defend ourselves. That’s first and foremost. I believe in the right to self-defense if attacked. I’m going to shoot back. Then I’m back to my peaceful rally.”

The solution to the shootings and racial conflicts that followed in Ferguson and Brooklyn, he said, is to have community control of police, with an elected police commissioner and a police review board with powers of investigation. Seale said he speaks at colleges, seeking to educate the new generation on how to implement this process and bring power into the hands of all the people rather than a few appointed officials.

Seale, who was arrested during the 1968 Democratic Convention, said he did nothing there except give a speech in a park.

“I was arrested because I was a top leader," he said. "That’s the only reason they stuck me in there. We won in the higher courts.”

On his Facebook page, Seale calls for peaceful protest and labels the killing of police a “racist fascist mentality." His post drew scores of vehement comments for and against. Some even disputed him by posting video of the young Seale sounding a more fiery, revolutionary note.

Addressing the current polarized political landscape in the United States, Seale's comments are more reminiscent of his '60s rhetoric.

“It’s caused by Tea Party-backed avaricious rich gerrymandering a whole lot of (congressional) seats in the Midwest for the billionaire club — then the right-wing racist crap from Fox News, which does it for the big corporations.”

Seale said small companies tend to be the supporters of liberals. In the upcoming presidential election, Seale said, he will support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or some other progressive, saying “it’s about legislation and policies that make sense” — not just about racial problems but issues involving the economy and environment as well.

“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “It’s important to keep up the struggle.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.