Why I Joined the Black Panther Party

Elbert 'Big Man' Howard

Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard

There were many reasons why I joined the Party, some are easy to explain and talk about and some are not so easy. Some reasons go deep into childhood experiences. But I’ll save that for the book about my life story.

I was discharged from the U.S. Air Force at Travis Air Force base in northern California in 1960. I liked Oakland and decided to stay a while. Besides, my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, had no more to offer me than when I enlisted in the Air Force in 1956. At least Oakland seemed to have a thriving Black community with friendly people. However, the lines of segregation were clearly drawn with the city’s storm troopers there to keep Black people in line and not crossing it without deadly consequences. These deadly consequences were carried out almost weekly with white cops killing Black citizens. Without exception it was officially termed “justifiable homicide” by the police and city officials.

So I got a job and started college on my G.I. bill. I went about my life enjoying the wealth of talented musicians who lived, worked, and played in and around the Bay Area. Jazz and Blues were my favorite art forms. Life was good, all I had to do was keep a job, some money in my pockets and keep out of harm’s way, or so I thought.

BigMan001 It was 1966 when I first met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. We were attending Grove Street Community College. We all were interested in Black history, as a matter of fact, we were one of the first Black student organizations on any campus that we knew of at that time. It was called the Soul Students Advisory Council. Sid Walton was our campus advisor. I became introduced to the speeches and writings of Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet” and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. We were interested in political sciences, revolutionary politics and social revolution as well. Our interests went beyond what was offered in the classroom at that time.

We would have political education classes after school. We would meet at Bobby’s mother’s house, at Huey’s apartment, and at my house. We would read and discuss the Red Book, the writing of Du Bois, Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Castro, and many others. We were always seeking solutions to our community situations.

One particular incident that pushed me into the Party was caused by the Oakland Police Department. One evening my date and I were out of town. We had just enjoyed a set of Lou Rawls live at Don Barksdale’s nightclub. I told my date to wait at the club door while I went to get my vehicle. I got it, came back and double-parked while I waited for her to come out. While I waited, Oakland P.D. showed up in storm trooper style and started writing citations. There were white patrons parked in front of me and in back of me who were double-parked also. I took offense and asked why I was singled out for a ticket. Was it because I was Black? Or was it because I was Black and had a new pick-up truck? I said, “F— you white m— f—,” and attempted to leave. Needless to say, I was surrounded by a large number of cops with guns drawn and taken to Oakland City Jail. I was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, threatening a police officer, and other things I’d never heard of. My and my truck spent the night in jail.

The next day I got out on bail. For lack of better knowledge, I hired attorney Donald Warden, a loud-mouth radio personality. I knew that Huey studied law and knew how the Oakland justice system worked so I asked him if he would go with me to court. Huey agreed to go there with me. He told me to go on up to the front of the courtroom and he would hang in the back because Donald Warden did not like him and might say something stupid if he saw him with me. My case came up and several of the cops who arrested me were there to give their testimony. However, the judge said something sarcastic like, “he is most likely guilty but I’m going to dismiss it.” Huey and I left the courthouse with me mad as hell. On the drive to Huey’s apartment, we discussed the laws regarding firearms in the city. From that day forward, I started riding around Oakland with my loaded shotgun in the rack of my pick-up truck – just like the rednecks of the day did.

At this period in time the struggle for civil rights was raging out of control. Malcolm X was telling the nation it’s the ballot or the bullet. He was telling us to defend ourselves. If any man puts his hands on you or your, you had a right, you had an obligation to fix him so that he would never be able to do it again. I believed in these teachings and still do. I was truly angry.

I think that my anger was always tempered with discipline and reasonable thought. I like to think that my patrols in the street never lead to unnecessary bloody confrontations. The young brothers that rode with me ad to follow the rules of engagement set forth by Chairman Bobby Seale and Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton. I think that the bright red pick-up truck with a bunch of Black brothers in it was on the Oakland P.O. blotter to avoid confrontation. As a result, there was no loss of life in the community or of Panthers or police. This is not to say there were not ambushes, harassment, and false arrests. L’il Bobby Hutton was a young brother who was always ready to rumble with the cops but he also had discipline and would always listen to me when he was with me. I suppose that is one of the reasons I have always felt the loss of him very deeply. The day before he was murdered, he called me on the phone and said he wanted to see me about something. I told him to come on over to the house and I’d be home. He came to the house around 7:00 pm and I asked what was up. He told me he needed a shotgun. He knew I always kept several legal shotguns, rifles, and handguns on hand because I had been a hunter and sportsman in the past. I asked L’il Bobby why he needed a shotgun. He smiled the way he always did when I took him to ask about something. Little did I know at the time that I would never see his smile again.

I gave L’il Bobby a twelve gauge Winchester pump shotgun. I asked him again, sounding like a father or big brother, “Are you sure this is not for something personal?”

He said, “No, Big Man. This is Party business.” He told me he was going on street patrol that night.
I said, “Okay, be careful. I’ll see you later.”

The next morning I got the news – “Panthers and police in shootout. Panther killed.” I found out it was L’il Bobby. Then emotions started to creep in on me. The what-ifs. What if I had not armed him? What if I had gone with him? What if I had tried to get it called off? Here some thirty years later the what-ifs still creep into my mind as I think of L’il Bobby from time to time. But I know the awful feelings that I get would be worse if I had not tried to arm him well to do the job he gave his life doing, protecting the community in which we lived.

Early on when the Party first opened an international headquarters office we were not too organized in terms of steady opening and closing hours. Staffing was not too together. I told Chairman Bobby Seale we needed to get organized in our office. We could not afford to be opening at twelve or one o’clock in the afternoon or when someone decided to come in and open. I told the chairman I had open hours in the morning and if he wanted to give me a set of keys, I would open every morning at nine and hold it down until someone else came in later. I felt this gave us a more professional look to the community. As a result, we were there to accept donations, sell our newspaper, and take phone calls from people around the city, state, country, and world. There was tons of mail coming in from the many places. We had people coming in wanting to join the Party. We took names and phone numbers. From the mail we received a great many newsworthy articles for our newspaper. There was also a good amount of hate mail. We got invitations to speak to groups and at rallies. It was from some of those invitations that I did my first speaking events. I had never been a speaker or spoken before a group of people before. But I was selected to be a Party spokesman.

The first group I was selected to speak to was a convention of San Francisco probation officers. They wanted to know what we thought about them and their jobs. At first I was a little nervous but when I thought about how much I disliked them and their jobs, I really got into it. In California, like in most states, parole officers hold godlike powers over a person on parole. These state employees could send a person back to prison for any reason or no reason at all. They could just make something up and send a person back to prison.

My questions to them were: What have you done to try and keep ex-cons from returning to prison? Had any of them went to employers to help get employment for their charges that paid a living wage, a wage that allowed a person to take care of a family? How many had reached out to the community institutions to help these people make it on the outside, like churches, schools, community organizations? I asked how many had got involved with their charges who needed drug treatment, other than violating them and sending them back to jail? My final question to the group was: did your college education and training teach you to deal with human being with all their complex problems or did your training just turn you into a tool to keep revolving doors at the penitentiary turning? In my conclusion I read our BPP 10-point Platform and Program. For it being my first speech before a large group, I think it went well. It was not what they wanted to hear but I didn’t care.

©2012 Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard