Black Panthers Say Their Name Has Been Stolen

Times Staff Writer

Much has changed in the 36 years since the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded here and rose to national prominence.

The Oakland traffic cop who came to the front door on a recent afternoon just wanted to shake the hand of Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who recently moved back to his hometown. Forget about the parking ticket he held in one hand. This was all “Yes, sir!” and “Glad to meet you, Mr. Seale.”

“We’re senior citizens now,” shrugged Seale, a little embarrassed by his new, respected, elder persona.


But just because the Panthers are graying, said the 65-year-old Seale, who is recovering from heart bypass surgery, doesn’t mean they should watch helplessly as their reputation is threatened by “racist” usurpers calling themselves the “New Black Panther Party.”

Seale and other founders of the original, Oakland-born Black Panther Party are seeking to protect their legacy in courts and the U.S. patent office. At stake is a small-scale, politically tinged business operation that includes a Black Panther clothing line, “legacy tours” of Oakland police battlegrounds, college speaking engagements and a rap group created by the offspring of former militants.

“By using the Panther logo, which is our brand name,” complained former Panther chief-of-staff David Hilliard, “this other group is getting instant validation for its racial hatred and anti-Semitism.”

Founded in Dallas in 1989, the New Black Panther Party gained notoriety through the anti-Semitic rhetoric of its former national chairman, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a spokesman for the Nation of Islam who joined the New Black Panther group in 1994. Muhammad died last year.

The upstart group made headlines again after Sept. 11, 2001, when its new chairman, Washington, D.C., attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz, described the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center as payback for America’s “past sins and current sins against the people of the Earth.”

Shabazz, 35, accused by the Anti-Defamation League of “virulent anti-Semitism,” became a regular on Fox News and other TV outlets after the attacks.

This notoriety rankles the original Panthers, who say Shabazz is polluting and distorting the historic Panther cause.

“There is a generation of young people,” said Hilliard, who conducts $20 guided bus tours of Panther landmarks in Oakland, including the site of the first Panther-pioneered free breakfast program, “who confuse us with these guys on television who promote racial hatred and anti-Semitism and vigilantism.”

The original Panthers, Hilliard said, practiced coalition politics, forming political alliances with the Peace & Freedom Party, the gay liberation movement, Brown Berets and the United Farm Workers, to name a few.


Criticized Mandela

In contrast, New Panther leader Shabazz opposes interracial political coalitions and was fiercely critical of Nelson Mandela for working with white politicians in South Africa.

“This dishonors and denigrates our history,” said Hilliard, who heads the Huey P. Newton Foundation, named for the Panther co-founder who was slain in 1989. “It also impacts our support base as a business, because our politics are green, not black. The cat was black, not our politics.”

Seale, who still sports a beret but now wears a wool sport coat instead of his trademark leather jacket, said the post-Sept. 11 posturing by Shabazz and others has cut into his public speaking business.

“This year I’ve only got two engagements,” said Seale, who commands $5,000 an appearance on the college lecture tour. In recent years, the former Panther leader and Chicago 7 defendant said, he had averaged 10 to 12 lectures a year.

“When this group started to show up on Fox News and calling into C-SPAN supporting Al Qaeda, supporting the Taliban, supporting Islam, supporting the Palestinian suicide bombings,” said Seale, “it slowed my business down. I’ve lost $20,000 to $25,000 in basic income that I would normally get in the fall.”

To fight back, Seale and Hilliard, along with former Panther leader Elaine Brown and Fredrika Newton, Huey’s widow, hired Oakland attorney Andrew M. Gold to represent them in a copyright, trademark and brand-name infringement action against the New Black Panther Party.

Public comments by New Black Panther Party leaders have vacillated between attempts to mend fences with the original Panthers and dismissals of Seale and others as tired has-beens who are apologists for Israel.


Changes Ahead

There is some indication that the pressure from Seale and other original Panthers is having results.

New Black Panther leader Shabazz said in a telephone interview last week that the party plans a national meeting in February when it expects “to seriously consider changing the organization or its name.” The party Web site, which previously featured photographs of Huey P. Newton, has been taken off the Internet for “repairs.”

Shabazz said he is on an “indefinite leave of absence from the party to handle pressing legal matters with my law firm.” He said he was not sure he would participate in the February meeting.

Shabazz declined to answer additional questions about the party except to say that it “is not a racist or anti-Semitic hate group and never has been.” Despite his protestations, both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center describe the New Black Panther Party as anti-Semitic.

Oakland attorney Gold reacted with cautious optimism to the Shabazz statement.

“If it is true that they are going to potentially change their name, then it’s great,” Gold said. “We are not trying to silence them. Our only concern is their attempt to affiliate themselves with the Black Panther name.”

Gold said a lawsuit still may be necessary. The New Black Panther group has so far ignored a 1997 injunction by a Texas judge banning its use of the Panther name.

“The game plan is to try to raise some money to litigate,” Gold said. But fund-raising for the Panthers, long famous for their “radical chic” support in the celebrity community, has dried up since the post-Sept. 11 appearances by Shabazz.

“When I called our former supporters in academia and Hollywood,” Hilliard said, “the first response I got from some of these people on our Rolodex was, ‘What are you going to do about these guys going around spouting anti-Semitism?’ ”

Attorney Gold wrote Shabazz in August, demanding that he cease using the Panther name and logo. Seale and the other Panthers were particularly incensed that the New Black Panthers featured pictures of Newton on their Web site alongside Nation of Islam spokesman Muhammad.


Not About Money

Although the Panthers and the Huey P. Newton Foundation receive some income from college lectures, tours and a designer clothing contract with the Fresh Jive line, Gold said it is not about the money.

“The real concern is that 100 years from now, when the history of the 1960s is written, that the Black Panther Party be seen as a significant chapter in the civil rights struggle,” he said.

Taking the Panther name and attaching it to alien ideas, argued the attorney, is the equivalent of starting a new software company and calling it “New Microsoft.”

“Yeah,” laughed Seale, sitting in Hilliard’s Oakland townhouse. “Call yourself ‘New Microsoft’ and see how long it takes to find [yourself] in court.”

In some respects, the copyright conflict has served to revitalize the original Panthers, who formally disbanded as a political party in the 1970s. Since then, some key Panther leaders, notably Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, have died, the latter after years of exile and a conversion to Reagan Republicanism.

Hilliard, like Newton, battled problems with drugs. Seale worked as a radio host in Denver, a political organizer in Washington, D.C., and community liaison for Temple University in Philadelphia. Although he came back once to run unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland, Seale said he returned to his hometown permanently this fall, in part to be near his youngest daughter, who is a junior at San Francisco State.

But now the old Panthers, a little slow of step though still quick with a political phrase, are reunited in the fight to save their name.

One step toward that goal is their sponsorship of a rap group called the Black Panther F.U.G.I.T.I.V.E.S. The three performers record under the Black Panther Records label led by Dorion Hilliard, David’s son.

One of the singers is James Calhoun, son of former musician Bill Calhoun, who performed at political events with the Lumpens singing group founded by the Panthers. Among their best-known songs was the political anthem “Power to the People, Right On!”

To the dismay of the old Panthers, the same song is now used by the Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric as part of its energy-saving advertising.

James Calhoun, who also uses the stage name Jamiel Hassan, grew up and worked with rap star Tupac Shakur, the since-murdered son of another prominent former Panther, Afeni Shakur.

Although the format and music are hip-hop, the message of the Black Panther musical trio, in keeping with its heritage, is decidedly political and anti-gangster. The group name, Calhoun said in an interview before a recent performance in San Francisco, is an acronym for “Future Under the Guidance of Intelligent True Individuals who Visualize Every Struggle.”

“My father was with the Lumpens in the 1960s,” said Calhoun, leaning on the bar of the Justice League club while Seale and Hilliard beamed proudly nearby and other supporters sold posters and T-shirts. “Here we are in 2002, doing the same thing with a new twist.”

One line from the group’s album, titled “All of Us,” goes: “This is not a gangster party. This is the Black Panther Party.”