On Monday, co-founder of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale spoke to a full Filene auditorium in an event co-hosted by the Dartmouth Political Union and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. The event, titled “On His Activism and Legacy: Bobby Seale,” was attended by approximately 220 people, with dozens more turned away when the auditorium reached capacity.
The Black Panther Party was a key player in “a vision of Black freedom in the United States that was radical at the time,” according to history professor Matthew Delmont, an expert on African American history and the history of civil rights.
“They were responding to the unequal treatment and life chances many Black citizens had with regards to education or to housing and health care,” Delmont said.
The event covered topics including Seale’s early engagement with politics, his use of education in the fight for Black liberation and some of the philosophies of the Black Panther Party.
Moderated by history professor Julia Rabig, the event started with a discussion of Seale’s lack of engagement with politics prior to the founding of the Black Panther Party. He spoke about his experience in the U.S. Air Force, which he said served as his introduction to American politics.
“I respected my commander-in-chief,” Seale said. “I had no differentiation between Democrat and Republican.”
Seale said that his respect for the history of Indigenous peoples — based on his personal experiences with the Sioux tribe of South Dakota — later served as the basis for his work with the Black Panther Party. The motivation behind his commitment to Black liberation, he said, was his prior knowledge of Indigenous history.
Seale said that his time studying at Merritt College in Oakland, California inspired him to utilize education as a tool to further Black liberation, one of the guiding principles of the Black Panther Party. According to Seale, integrating African American history into school curricula, advocating for the creation of an African American history department at Merritt and researching the rights of individuals within the state of California — such as the right to observe police officers in order to improve accountability — were all important techniques in what Seale saw as the path towards equality.
“You join the political protest movement world to change things for the better,” Seale said, describing the next step after education. “That’s all it is. Give everyone a decent life. Don’t fall for racist crap. Respect all humanity, regardless of what ethnicity we may represent.”
Speaking about one of the first armed patrols of the Black Panther Party, Seale said that then-law student Huey P. Newton — another co-founder of the party — researched the right to observe police officers. After being accosted by police officers, Newton’s research into the law helped allow the armed delegation to continue. Seale said that observing police officers was one of the Black Panthers’ primary tactics used in an effort to mitigate police brutality towards Black people.
“Huey [P. Newton] researched the law,” Seale said. “When [the police] said we had no right to observe, Huey recited his research.”
Seale also underscored the broad scope of the Black Panther Party beyond the violence with which it is typically associated. He also discussed collaborative and inclusive justice in the collective struggle for equality, specifically citing the Asian community and the LGBTQ+ community.
Additionally, Delmont said while the Black Panther Party was often characterized by their association with being armed, self-defense was an effort to push back against police violence they experienced.
“The thing about the Black Panthers is that they were college students,” Delmont said. “It’s easy to pigeonhole the Black Panthers just based on those images of them with guns. That self-defense, again, it was important, but that’s only a small part of their larger, larger legacy.”
The Black Panther Party had “a vision” of what it meant to support Black communities in various cities and focused on “a need to feed communities,” Delmont added.
“They organized an effort to provide free breakfast to Black kids across the city of Oakland, and then in other cities as well,” Delmont said. “And it precedes the kind of formalized progressive programs and ends up showing up in most public schools later in the 1960s and 1970s. This is actually an early model of community care that gets picked up by the government.”
In an audience Q&A section following the main presentation, Seale continued to emphasize the importance of education as a means of activism.
“Pull the history together and write good academic articles about the history,” Seale said.
Olvin Abrego Ayala ’25, who attended the event, said that Seale’s commitment to continue making changes in the world was one of the most inspiring takeaways. Ayala emphasized the need to “actually take matters into my own hands.”
“I was also talking to people about possibly creating a coalition for ethnic studies. We were thinking about, ‘how can we do this,’” Abrego Ayala said. “I’m feeling more energized.”
Dewitt Mallary, another attendee, lived in New York during the height of the Black Panther Party and said he found the idea of political coalition building particularly interesting, especially having witnessed the “division between the Black movement and the White Leftist movement.”
“[The] struggle to create coalitions [is something] that we are still dealing with right now,” Rabig said. “It’s really useful to talk to someone who was in the mix at an important moment.”
In organizing the talk, the DPU wanted to challenge "preconceptions” of the Black Panther Party and “seek nuance,” according to DPU technical director Dylan Griffith ’25. Griffith said that Seale was chosen for an event because he is still able to “share those kinds of inception points that provoked him into being a loud figure.”
“He founded the Black Panther Party, which is a huge movement in the civil rights era, has a massive presence in our history and in the contention between civil disobedience versus militant pushback,” Griffith said. “And so to be able to invite him to share his experiences, it was a singular opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of.”
Ultimately, Seale encouraged the audience to stay informed and commit to progress.
“Get your education. Stick to the progressive programs related to constitutional, democratic, civil human rights for all people. Don’t deviate from that,” he said.