WHEN I JOINED THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
By Elbert "Big Man" Howard
There were many reasons why I joined the Black Panther Party
(BPP). 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
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 awhile. Besides, my hometown of
Chattanooga, Tenn. 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
I got a job and started college on my GI 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 harms way; or so I thought.
It was around 1966 when I first met Huey Newton and Bobby
Seale. We were attending Merritt 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 science, revolutionary politics and social
revolutions 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 writings of Dr. DuBois, Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Castro
and many others. We were always seeking solutions to our
One particular incident that pushed me into the BPP involved
the Oakland Police department.
One evening my date and I were out on the town. We had just
enjoyed a set of Lou Rawls live at a local nightclub. My
dated waited at the club door while I went to get my car. I
got it, came back, and double-parked while I waited for her
to come out. While I waited, Oakland PD showed up in storm
trooper style and started writing citations. There were
white patrons parked in front of me and in back of me, also
double-parked. I took offense and asked why I was singled
out for a ticket. Was it because I was black? Was it
because I was black and had a new pick-up truck? I said F.
you white MFs 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 truck and I spent the night in jail. The next day, I got
out on bail. For lack of better knowledge, I hired attorney
Donald Warden, a loudmouth radio personality. I knew that
Huey studied law and knew how the Oakland justice system
worked, so I asked him if he would go to court with me.
Huey agreed. 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 may say something stupid if he
saw him with me.
My case came up with several of the cops in on the arrest in
the court to testify against me. 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
At this period in time, the struggle for Civil Rights was
raging out of control. Malcolm X had told the nation that
it's the Ballot or the Bullet. He was telling us to defend
ourselves. If any man puts his hands on you or yours, you
had a right, you had an obligation, to fix him so 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 streets never led to unnecessary bloody confrontations.
The young brothers that rode with me had 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 PD blotter to avoid confrontation. As a result,
there was no loss of life in the community or of Panther or
police. That is not to say there were not ambushes,
harassment and false arrests.
Lil Bobby Hutton was a young brother who was always ready to
rumble with the cops, but he also had a 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 there. He came
to the house around 7:00pm. I asked him 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 Lil Bobby why he needed a shotgun. He smiled the
way he always did when I took him to task about something.
Little did I know at the time that I would never see his
smile again. I gave Lil Bobby a 12-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 OK, be
careful, I'll see you later.
The next morning, I got the news. Panthers and police in a
shootout and Panther killed. I found out it was Lil Bobby.
Then the human 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 Lil Bobby from time to time. But I know that 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
regular 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 12 or 1:00 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 9:00am 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 to take
phone calls from people around the city, state, country and
world. There was tons of mail coming in. 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 also got invitations to speak
to groups and at rallies. It was from some of these
invitations that I did my first speaking event. I had never
been a speaker or spoke before a group of people before.
However, I was selected to be a BPP 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 got into it and thought about how
much I disliked them and their jobs, I really got into it.
In California, like in most states, parole officers held
god-like 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 question to them was,
"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 community institutions to help these
people make it on the outside, like churches, schools and
I asked how many had gotten 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 beings with all their complex problems or did your
training just turn your into a tool to keep the revolving
doors at the penitentiary turning?" In my conclusion, I
read our BPP 10-Point Platform and Program. I think it went
well for being my first speech before a large group. It was
not what they wanted to hear, but I didn't care.