Seattle Black Panther Party was a product of local and national
circumstances that had created a legacy of in-equality in the black
community. Once in place, the
Seattle BPP showed both the willingness to adhere to the prerogatives of
the parent organization as well as participate in innovating its own
tactics and programs. The
evidential focus up to now has been on the Panthers themselves.
Another angle worthy of investigation is an analysis of how others
saw the Panthers. What did
whites think of the Panthers? What
behaviors did they display because of those perceptions.
Did Seattle’s legacy of “muted” racism make itself evident
with regard to the Panthers? To
answer these questions, two episodes that involved Washington State’s
governor and Seattle’s mayor may prove helpful.
after the aforementioned Rainier Beach High School incident occurred in
September of 1968, Seattle’s mayor, J.D. Braman took action that was
typical of many other white American politicians who were confronted with
the BPP: He would
not let the BPP’s act pass without some type of response that would
reassure the public that the authorities were in control.
Aside from making comments that attacked the BPP, Braman
successfully worked to have a gun law passed that would put restrictions
upon firearms in the city. The
caveat was that the law would not take effect for one year.
The Washington State legislature was presented with the task of
passing its own gun bill that would become law more quickly.
The Panthers saw this as a direct attack on their organization and
decided to lobby against the legislation.
Black Panthers had been faced with a similar situation in 1967.
As the California state legislature was debating a bill that would
outlaw the public display of guns by non-law enforcement officials, thirty
Panthers from Oakland went to Sacramento with their guns and stood in
front of the capital building. All
of the Panthers were ultimately arrested for conspiracy to disturb the
When the Seattle Panthers heard about the proposed House Bill No.
123, which would make it a “gross misdemeanor to exhibit firearms or
other weapons in a manner manifesting an intent to intimidate others”,
they too decided to make a demonstration in front of
’s legislators in
February 29, 1969 representatives of some of
’s other civil rights groups to traveled to
to speak to state politicians. They
were joined a handful of Seattle Black Panthers.
When they arrived at the capitol, several of the Seattle blacks
went inside to speak to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Meanwhile, a number of Panthers stood on the capitol steps,
brandishing rifles and shotguns. Aside
from voicing their displeasure over the purposed gun legislation, the
black activists also told the politicians of the poor conditions and
inequitable treatment being endured by Seattle’s black community.
During the meeting, Washington State Patrol officers were called
onto the scene to deal with the armed Panthers who were waiting outside.
Unlike the incident in California, the gun-toting Panthers were not
arrested, but merely instructed to put their weapons away, which they did.
visit solicited two sets of responses from the legislators.
Some viewed the visit negatively.
Lt. Governor John Cherberg said, “I am unalterably opposed to
interrupting the orderly business of the Senate to hold such meetings.”
Senator Frank Atwood accused the Panthers of “[engaging] in a
pitch that was inflammatory and served no useful purpose.”
On the other hand, Senator Martin Durkan believed it was beneficial
for the senators to see first hand the anger of the black community.
also came from citizens, many from across the country, who voiced their
displeasure with the Panthers’ bravado in front of the legislative body.
Two letters to Washington Governor Dan Evans are indicative of the
overall tone of the correspondence. One
person wrote, “To me this is open and active anarchy and rebellion.
Are you…going to let the Black Panthers rule and ruin us??
I reiterate I hope you and the Legislature enact laws Damn Soon
to Liquidate the Black Panthers and eliminate all such threats of Armed
Another letter writer stated,
your office be good enough to tell me why our law enforcement agencies in
Olympia did not disperse forthwith the insulting, irresponsible goons
pictured in the attached news release?
Apparently they were not even given a slight tap on the wrist and
asked to go home like good children.
California’s governor Reagan, who approved of the arrest of the Oakland
Panthers, Governor Evans promoted restraint during the incident.
Evans, who, was away from the capitol at the time of the Panther
visit, later chided Lieutenant Governor Cherberg for calling in the state
patrol. Evans likewise wrote
to a complainant, “If the Black Panthers, or anyone else, violates the
law here in Olympia the state will take immediate action.
However, there was no law violation by the Black Panthers and they,
of course, have the same rights that any other citizen of the State of
Evans remained consistent with this type of response.
Several months later, after two Black Panthers had been invited to
speak to a Bellevue High School Civics class, one citizen wrote the
governor to complain about allowing a public school to serve as a forum
for anti-government organizations. Evans
seems to me that with regard to the Panthers, as well as other groups,
that first of all it is important that school children in particular have
the benefit of varying points of view; and secondly, if the viewpoint of
the Black Panthers is as bad as both you and I believe, then I am
confident that high school students—when they see them in the flesh and
listen to them—will have enough judgment and understanding to make the
proved himself to be an insightful politician for he seemed to understand
that if the government was worried about the threat of the BPP, the best
way to address that fear was to let their alternative points of view be
aired. In California it was
generally agreed that any time that the Black Panthers were involved in
any confrontations with authorities their membership climbed.
Evans’ tempered handling of the Panthers’ armed display
indicated a willingness to let public debate run its course.
Evans was not the only Washington political leader to practice restraint
when dealing with Seattle’s Black Panthers.
Late in 1969, Seattle’s mayor’s position was assumed by a
thirty-four year old Democrat Wes Uhlman.
At this time the city was consumed with an array of pressing
concerns. Boeing was
downsizing, the city’s major league baseball team, the Seattle Pilots,
was threatening to move due to inadequate facilities, the police
department was in the midst of a scandal, and most disconcerting of all,
Seattle had been victimized by eighteen bombings over the previous seven
months. Thus in the mind of
the new mayor, any situations that involved the city’s Black Panthers
were just one among a myriad of other concerns demanding his attention.
seeming lack of concern toward the Panthers was not shared by the federal
government. Just months after
taking office Uhlman recalled getting a telephone call from his chief of
police, Frank Moore, who told the him that the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearm
(ATF) branch of the federal Justice Department wanted to conduct a raid on
the Black Panther Party headquarters in Seattle. According to the ATF, the
Panthers were stockpiling illegal weapons.
Uhlman discussed the matter with Moore and together they decided
that they would not support such action.
Today Uhlman states that their reasoning was based on the fact that
the Seattle police had an undercover agent within the Panthers, whose
safety would be in jeopardy. Also,
that agent had indicated that the weapons that the Panthers were
accumulating were in fact legal which contradicted the ATF’s rationale
for the raid. When Moore
relayed the news of the city’s unwillingness to support the raid to the
ATF representative in Seattle, the agent requested a personal meeting with
Uhlman the next day. When the
meeting occurred, Uhlman said he was told that the Nixon Administration
was anxious for this raid to take place.
Uhlman again responded that he would not lend any support to such
action. The agent became angry
at Uhlman’s unwillingness to cooperate and threatened to enact the raid
regardless of the city’s position. At
this point Uhlman said that if such a raid took place, he would instruct
Seattle’s police department to encircle the BPP headquarters, and then
determine who the aggressors were at that time.
Uhlman’s insinuation was that there was a strong possibility that
ATF agents would be arrested. After
hearing this, the agent left.
town, Elmer Dixon said that the Panthers had been tipped about the raid by
a local television reporter. “He
was in the police station because…he had heard that the ATF was in
town….He noticed that the cops seemed to be making preparations for
something and he asked, ‘What’s going on?’
One of the cops said, ‘We’re going to get those Dixons.’ So
he called us up and said, ‘You guys are getting raided….’”
Dixon said the group went into what they called “red alert.”
They got in combat gear and starting using a phone tree to alert
the community. “People were
hiding, people were all over in front of our office and out in the trees
and bushes, under cars. We
were…ready if that attack came.”
the raid never came. The ATF
decided to back away from their plan, and Uhlman believed that would be
the last he would hear of the situation.
However, before long the episode was leaked to the press.
Uhlman believes that it was done by the ATF to embarrass him by
portraying him as a sympathizer of militants.
He admits that his decision was politically compromising, but he
strongly believed it was the right choice. Uhlman was certainly informed by previous incidents both in
Seattle and Chicago. On July
19, 1968, Seattle police had raided the BPP headquarters and arrested
Aaron Dixon and another Panther, Curtis Harris, for stealing a typewriter.
The arrest led to rioting and violence in the Central Area and the
Seattle Police were condemned for the raid.
Michael Ross, the acting president of CORE, accused the police of
acting “out of fear and ignorance” in their employment of “excessive
Then two other events took place.
The first was in Chicago. On
December 4, 1969, with the blessing of Mayor Richard Daly, Chicago police
raided the city’s BPP headquarters and killed Panthers Fred Hampton and
Mark Clark while they slept. The
raid created a firestorm of reaction within the black community in Chicago
and beyond. Four days later
Los Angeles police attacked that city’s Panther Party headquarters.
Three police officers and three Panthers were wounded in the raid.
Uhlman made it known he wanted no part of this trend of attacks
upon the BPP. When asked by
reporters about his decision, especially in light of the bombings that
were plaguing Seattle, Uhlman responded that “such raids smack of
‘gestapo-type’ tactics….The easy-answer thinkers say we can
eliminate the bombings by eliminating the Panthers.
We’ve been taking a lot of pressure to act precipitously, but
we’re going to withstand the pressure and do it the right way.”
Uhlman was also aware of how Huey Newton’s arrest after the 1967
shootout with Oakland police served to increase the BPP’s membership.
He guessed that the Seattle BPP probably only had a handful of
official members at that time, but numerous other young blacks were
enthralled by the group’s message. Uhlman
told a reporter, “If you give them a cause, they can make political hay
out of it, and the kids will look on them like Robin Hoods.
Then you wind up with 900 Panthers.”
the aftermath of the affair, Uhlman, like Evans, received letters from
people all over the nation. Many
writers attacked the mayor for his decision.
One citizen stated, “When idiot public officials cast their lot
with proven communist agitators and anti-american (sic) bastards as
the BLACK PANTHERS then it is time to IMPEACH such public sons of
Another concerned citizen opined, “I don’t see why the federal
agency had to ask a jerk like you whether they could stage a raid on the
black panthers. (sic) This
organization is downright rotten, but it takes a rotten jerk to know a
rotten organization. I hope
one nite (sic) one of your soul brothers slits your throat.”
And yet another respondent wrote, “Uhlman, you stupid ass, you
are just as bad as the people, who are making such an issue of the two
panthers who were killed in Chicago.”
the same time there were as many letters who saw Uhlman’s decision a
stand against deconstructing the Bill of Rights. One supporter stated,
“You have GUTS—and even more…it would appear you do support the TRUE
American spirit and the Constitution of this country.
Let’s keep the principle…MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL!”
Another writer added, “As a fifty year old veteran of WWII [with]
twenty-one years active military service allow me to extend heartfelt
gratitude and congratulations in your brave decision to put the Bill of
Rights, for which I have served so long, into effect.”
Another citizen admitted, “We need more like you.
I don’t necessarily agree with the Panthers, but the tactics of
the Police, et al, frightens me more.”
These responses indicate that Uhlman’s decision was
controversial. For many
citizens who believed the turmoil of Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, and
fire in the streets was tearing their world apart, Uhlman’s decision
brought little comfort. Their
letters seem to ask, who would keep Seattle and America safe?
Simultaneously the letters represent a debate concerning the
philosophy of law and order versus Constitutional rights.
Interestingly, among the many letters viewed, there was no clear
consensus about whether social stability or individual liberties were more
a public official Uhlman made the decision that the Panthers represented
no threat to the city’s safety or legal integrity.
His decision argued that the Panthers were citizens, too, and
citizens have rights. The
Panthers’ image and rhetoric, which alienated numerous citizens in and
out of Seattle, certainly made Uhlman’s job in this case more difficult.
But like Evans’ earlier reaction to the Panthers, time has
indicated that Uhlman’s decision was the correct one.
Uhlman and the Seattle Panthers did not always agree.
One particular issue in which they became antagonists was
Uhlman’s appointment of Charles Gain as Seattle’s acting police chief
in July of 1970. Gain was from
Oakland and the Seattle Panthers were offended by his selection.
At the time of the appointment Aaron Dixon stated that Gain’s
appointment would incite discontent among the Seattle’s Black community
because Gain was a “war mongrel.”
After the passing of nearly four decades Wes Uhlman continues to
stand by his decision. He says
that he never felt that the Seattle BPP was that militant.
Perhaps it was his youth at the time that gave him that
perspective. He readily admits
that if he had been a black man in America during the 1960s, he may have
been out in the streets protesting as well.
As to the claim that Seattle’s Panthers were overly armed, he
responds that they had some guns, then with a smile he adds, and a
typewriter, but that did not equate to a threat upon society.
Uhlman says that an episode some years later cemented his view that
he made the correct decision. In 1978, he was in the Central Area at a
farewell gathering when he was approached by an elderly lady.
They exchanged greetings and then she thanked him for saving her
sons’ lives. It was Mrs.
Dixon. Uhlman said her words
put a human touch to the whole affair.
Panther co-founder Bobby Seale recently spoke at a Party reunion held in
Seattle. During his talk he
called the Seattle Panther chapter the “most dynamic and profound” of
all of the organization’s branches.
Seale explained that the Seattle branch’s sickle-cell testing
program was much more advanced than any of the other Party medical clinics
from around the nation. He
continued to answer the question by describing what the Seattle branch was
not, and that was a set of members who disregarded the main framework of
the national headquarters.
has often been cited as a place that was different when it came to
political and social occurrences. The
city’ activist past has often produced a story that has run contrary to
the experiences of other American places.
To a degree, the history of the Black Panther Party in Seattle fits
this mold. Seattle Blacks
lived among a citizenry that was more tolerant than those found in
numerous other large cities in the country.
But this tolerance was not universal, and because intolerance did
exist, the BPP came to fruition in Seattle.
This brief study of the Seattle BPP suggests that branches of the
organization could, and did, experience different circumstances.
In Seattle, the Panthers existed among a population that allowed
for an uncomfortable coexistence. As
a consequence, the Seattle Panthers were able to pursue their militancy.
When the chapter’s end came it was on their own terms.
Unlike Panther branches in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles,
there was no attempt to use the full force of a police department to wipe
them out. And because of this
the subjects of this story can still be found attempting to affect social
change. Elmer Dixon is a
diversity consultant. Meanwhile,
Aaron Dixon and Leon Valentine Hobbs work together at Seattle’s Harder
House, a transition home where wayward teenagers and young adults are
assisted in finding stability and direction in their lives.
All of these men agree proudly that the militancy of their youth
informs their current efforts to reform society.
They also believe that decisions like the one made by Mayor Uhlman
were unlikely to occur in any other place besides Seattle.
Consequently, the history of the Black Panther Party in Seattle
offers an interpretation of the BPP that presents another way of
understanding the Party’s existence in America.
Kurt Schaefer 2005
Philip Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak, USA: Da Capo
Press, 1970, xxxi.
Digest of Enacted Laws—Forty-First Legislature, Regular and
Extraordinary Sessions, 1969, House Bills, 7.
“Some Senators Angry But Militants Make Their Point,” Seattle
Times, Marcy 1, 1969, 2.
Otto J. Vincent, letter to Dan Evans, March 1, 1969, Evans Papers,
Washington State Archives.
R.R. Swallwell, letter to Dan Evans, March 4, 1969, Evans Papers,
Washington State Archives.
Dan Evans, letter to Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Picalolo, March 4, 1969, Evans
Papers, Washington State Archives.
Dan Evans, letter to Verna Skogmo, May 6, 1969, Evans Papers,
Washington State Archives.
Wes Uhlman, Interviewed by Kurt Kim Schaefer, March 14, 2005, Seattle,
Elmer Dixon Interview.
Don Hannula, “Negroes Criticize Amount of Force in Police Search,”
Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, 2.
See: John Kifner,
“Inquiry Into Slaying of 2 Panthers Urged in Chicago,” New York
Times, December 6, 1969, 29, and Steven V. Roberts, “Panthers
Battle Police on Coast,” New York Times, December 9, 1969, 1.
“Seattle Mayor bars US raid on Black Panther’s Center,” Chicago
Sun Times, February 9, 1970, 1.
Anonymous letter to Wes Uhlman, Uhlman Papers, University of
Marian Argree, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers,
University of Washington Archives.
Alvin Simmons, Letter to Wes Uhlman, February 11, 1970, Uhlman Papers,
University of Washington Archives.
Carl Robie, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University
of Washington Archives.
John F. Shaw, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University
of Washington Archives.
Krisi Oldenburg, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers,
University of Washington Archives.
David Suffia, “Californian Named Acting Police Chief,” The
Seattle Times, July 6, 1970, 1. and Aaron Dixon, interviewed by
James Johnson, July 11, 1970. Found
in Black Panther Papers, University of Washington Archives.
Gain had been involved in the incident where Bobby Hutton had
been killed in 1967. Uhlman,
who was attempting to clean up corruption within the Seattle police
department, stated he was going to make his acting chief at the time,
Frank Moore, a permanent chief but was unable to for political
reasons. Gain was near
retirement and Uhlman wanted a strong personality to come up and use
strong-arm tactics to clean up the force.
And then leave. Uhlman
said Gain did this job quite well.
Wes Uhlman interview.
Wes Uhlman Interview.
Bobby Seale, talk at BPP 35th Reunion, Seattle, WA, May 14,
2005 and Bobby Seale Interview.
The Seattle chapter, like numerous other ones across the nation, was
scaled back significantly in 1972 when the national headquarters
called in its membership to participate in the Oakland campaigns of
Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown. Most
chapters in fact closed. However,
the Seattle Branch continued its programs under the leadership of
Elmer Dixon who could not report to Oakland as he was on probation.
Elmer Dixon Interview.
explores the first three years of the Seattle chapter of the Black
Panther Party from its founding by Black Student Union members in 1968
through the 1970 crisis negotiated by Mayor Wes Uhlman. The essay is
presented in three parts:
Part 1: Background--the BSU and Black
The Panthers and the Politicians
to enlarge images below]
Mayor J.D. Braman announced a crackdown in
September 1968 and secured tougher gun laws for Seattle. The article
above appeared in the Seattle PI September 12, 1968. Below
September 14. Click to read them.
The Afro-American Journal
had a different perspective and offered a different warning in its
September 19, 1968 edition below.
A few months later, on February 29, 1969, a group of Seattle Panthers led by Lt. Elmer
Dixon gathered on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia to protest a bill that
would make it a crime
to exhibit firearms "in a manner manifesting an intent to intimidate
(Photo: Washington State Archives)
Seattle PI March 4, 1969
Wes Uhlman's Decision
Newly elected mayor Wes Uhlman probably
saved the lives of Panthers and law enforcement officers alike when he
stopped Federal officials from carrying out a raid on BPP headquarters
early in 1970.
Seattle PI February 7, 1970
Seattle Times March 12, 1970
In 1970 Congress launched a full
scale investigation of the Black Panther Party. On May 12, the House Committee on
Internal Security began hearings in Washington D.C. focused on the Seattle
chapter. Six witnesses were called, only one of them a representative of the BPP.
Co-founder Elmer Dixon refused to testify, citing his 5th Amendment guarantee
against self-incrimination. Two of the witnesses were officers of the Seattle
Police Department who had long been involved in Panther surveillance, two were
investigators working for the Committee on Internal Security. The sixth witness
was an undercover agent who testified secretly that he had been a member of the
Seattle BPP for eighteen months.
Here is link to the documents, photographs, and testimony
that the committee considered. Below are articles that appeared in the May
12, 1970 Seattle Times and the May 15 Seattle PI.
The Seattle chapter lasted until 1978,
much reduced in size and largely focused on community service. The
articles below are from 1975 and 1978.
Seattle Times Nov 21, 1975
UW Daily April 27, 1978