The Seattle Medium
In April of 2018, members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of its founding in Seattle.
The chapter was significant because Seattle was the first city outside of California to establish a chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. The roots of the chapter came as a group of young Black men and women from Seattle — led by Aaron Dixon, Elmer Dixon and current King County Councilmember Larry Gossett – took a chance to witness Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael when they were each keynote speakers for Black Student Union events in California.
As a young high school student at Garfield High School, Elmer was mesmerized by the fiery speakers and their messages about the protection and rights of Black people and their communities. Urged to get involved by his older brother Aaron and friend Larry Gossett, they each got a taste of revolution and the seed and commitment was planted.
“We took a trip down to San Francisco to attend the West Coast Conference of BSUs at San Francisco State University, the speaker was Bobby Seale,” recalled Elmer in an interview with The Seattle Medium. “It was the most fiery speech I’d ever heard, since and before or before and since.”
Due to negative propaganda and the turmoil of the 60’s, and the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, labeled the Black Panther Party a national security threat the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. However, in the eyes of many in the Black Community, the Black Panther Party was more of an asset than a threat.
Citing community activism and protection as their main objectives, the Black Panther Party took a very active role in the community. From providing school breakfast and lunches, clothing, legal aid and of course protection from police brutality, the Black Panther Party took the Black movement to more progressive and radical positions than the non-violent dogma of the Civil Rights Movement. Abiding by the 2nd Amendment, the right to bare arms, the Black Panther Party was one of the first movements to advocate for the legality of the 2nd Amendment in the Black community as a means of protection.
The 1960s saw a turning point in racial interaction and politics in America. Black leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Hutton, and Fred Hampton were assassinated and cities were burning in retaliation. The Black Power consciousness was not to be denied and people of all races around the world began to recognize that the Black power struggle had to be addressed.
“Unfortunately, at that time for the Panthers one of the party leaders, Bobby Hutton, was killed by police and we were invited to the funeral,” said Gossett. “20 young Black men and women from Seattle saw the Black Panther Party in action, a very powerful image.”
As young people Larry Gossett, Aaron and Elmer Dixon and others exuded that consciousness and established the Seattle Chapter. Aaron and Larry, who were undergraduates at the University of Washington at the time, and Elmer, a senior at Garfield High School, took It upon themselves to exercise their right to civil disobedience on behalf of human rights particularly the rights of Black people.
“By October of 1968, Seattle was the fastest growing Black Panther Party in the country percentage wise,” said Gossett.
Like their predecessors in California the Seattle Chapter worked diligently to provide the Central District and surrounding neighborhoods with civic resources and protection during a volatile time.
They provided legal aid, education assistance in the form of school breakfast and lunches, clothing for the less fortunate, medical assistance in the form of the Sidney Miller Clinic and the Carolyn Downs Medical Clinic, where for example Sickle Cell Anemia test were provided. And of course, protection.
As a part of the Black Panther Party’s program, protection from police brutality was a priority. Panther members were designated to ride in groups and tail police patrols to thwart off any potential issues of police misconduct.
“They were exciting times, they were challenging times,” says Elmer. “Our first program was the Police Alert Patrol, which meant we filled up a car with six armed Panthers and would patrol the police, follow the police around to make sure they weren’t brutalizing someone.”
However, according to Elmer, that dynamic, the “us against the police” was not the focal point of the Black Panther Party, as the organization followed a 10-point program to address the needs of their people.
“Point six states we want an immediate end to the murder and brutality against Black people,” said Elmer. “This was one of our focuses but it wasn’t the only focus. But because of that dynamic and J. Edgar Hoover naming us the number one threat to the internal security of the United States and us making sure that cops weren’t killing unarmed Black people, that was that natural dynamic, opposition between Panthers and police.”
The Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party made its presence with effort and contribution. They solidified their role in the history of Seattle as well as the history of the nation, establishing the Carolyn Downs Medical Clinic, and many of its members took on leadership roles within the community. They embodied the strength of the African American community, the strength needed to endure a significant part of the history of our people, U.S. history and the Black Panther Party will always be remembered.