The 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.
Soon 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.
California’s 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 peace.1 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 Washington State ’s legislators in Olympia .2
On February 29, 1969 representatives of some of Seattle ’s other civil rights groups to traveled to Olympia 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.
The 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.3
Reactions 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 violence.”4 Another letter writer stated,
Will 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.5
Unlike 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 Washington has.”6 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 responded:
It 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 correct choice.7
Evans 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.
Dan 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.
Uhlman’s 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.8
Across 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.”9
But 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 force.”10 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.11 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.”12
In 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 bitches.”13 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.”14 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.”15
At 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!”16 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.”17 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.”18
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 important.
As 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.”19 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.20
Black 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.21
Seattle 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.22 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.
(c) Kurt Schaefer 2005
1 Philip Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak, USA: Da Capo Press, 1970, xxxi.
2 Digest of Enacted Laws—Forty-First Legislature, Regular and Extraordinary Sessions, 1969, House Bills, 7.
3 “Some Senators Angry But Militants Make Their Point,” Seattle Times, Marcy 1, 1969, 2.
4 Otto J. Vincent, letter to Dan Evans, March 1, 1969, Evans Papers, Washington State Archives.
5 R.R. Swallwell, letter to Dan Evans, March 4, 1969, Evans Papers, Washington State Archives.
6 Dan Evans, letter to Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Picalolo, March 4, 1969, Evans Papers, Washington State Archives.
7 Dan Evans, letter to Verna Skogmo, May 6, 1969, Evans Papers, Washington State Archives.
8 Wes Uhlman, Interviewed by Kurt Kim Schaefer, March 14, 2005, Seattle, Washington.
9 Elmer Dixon Interview.
10 Don Hannula, “Negroes Criticize Amount of Force in Police Search,”Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, 2.
11 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.
12 “Seattle Mayor bars US raid on Black Panther’s Center,” Chicago Sun Times, February 9, 1970, 1.
13 Anonymous letter to Wes Uhlman, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
14 Marian Argree, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
15 Alvin Simmons, Letter to Wes Uhlman, February 11, 1970, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
16 Carl Robie, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
17 John F. Shaw, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
18 Krisi Oldenburg, Letter to Wes Uhlman, No Date, Uhlman Papers, University of Washington Archives.
19 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.
20 Wes Uhlman Interview.
21 Bobby Seale, talk at BPP 35th Reunion, Seattle, WA, May 14, 2005 and Bobby Seale Interview.
22 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.