“There are millions of people who are living below subsistence”: Black Panther Party Founder Bobby Seale as Public Health Activist

By Wendy S. Salkin

Picture it: Tuesday, February 14, 2017. It is four o’clock and the Tsai Auditorium of the Center for Government and International Studies is packed to the gills, abuzz with energy. Harvard faculty, students, staff, and community members fill every seat, line the steps, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the back. They are turning would-be attendees away at the door. The occasion for such excitement is this: The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research here at Harvard hosted the event, “Bobby Seale in Conversation with Jim Sidanius.”

Jim Sidanius is the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in memory of William James and of African and African American Studies. His work spans broadly across both decades and areas of inquiry. He and his co-author Felicia Pratto are famously responsible for formulating social dominance theory, “a general model of the development and maintenance of group-based social hierarchy and social oppression.” He has also pioneered work in other areas of political psychology, including such research areas as “political ideology and cognitive functioning, the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.”

And Bobby Seale, as you may know, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). I had never before seen Bobby Seale speak and did not know what to expect. And, ultimately, I am pleased not to have watched any of his interviews in advance, as I was able to have the experience with fresh eyes. (It’s worth noting that many of his interviews and speeches are easily accessible on YouTube. It’s worth watching them, including his 2015 New York Times interview with R&B artist D’Angelo.) His energy and enthusiasm captivates his audience, as when, during his talk last week, he recited from the Declaration of Independence, and while so doing impersonated both John Wayne and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He recited this passage:

“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursu[ed] invariably…evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, [then it is the] right [of the people]…to [alter and change that] Government, and [] provide new Guards for their future security.”

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