Elbert Howard, a civil rights activist who was among the six original founders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, has died. He was 80 years old and died after a “long illness,” according to the Associated Press.
Born in 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Howard grew up amid a climate of acute racial violence; as a child, he saw one of his relatives being whipped by members of the Ku Klux Klan, reports Chris Smith of the Press Democrat. In the hopes of escaping discrimination in his home state, Howard enlisted in the Air Force as a teenager. After he was honorably discharged at the end of his term, Howard moved to Oakland, California and began studying at Merritt College. There, he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who would become key figures in the changing face of black activism.
It was 1966—one year after Malcolm X was assassinated and Martin Luther King, Jr., staged his historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In June of 1966, the black activist James Meredith was shot by a sniper after beginning his “March Against Fear” through the South. In October, a black teenager named Matthew Johnson was shot and killed by police in San Francisco.
That same month, Newton, Seale, Howard and three other men— Sherwin Forte, Reggie Forte and Bobby Hutton—established the Black Panther Party. The organization’s primary purpose at this time was to monitor police activity for possible abuses in black communities.
“The Oakland police had a long history and reputation of being very aggressive about policing the African-American community,” says Bill Pretzer, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s senior history curator. “Elbert met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and they started talking about what, if anything, they could do to reign in the police and they came up with this idea of following police cars.”
The Panthers, clad in leather jackets and berets, would shadow police officers on the streets to physically observe the way they interacted with the African-American drivers they flagged down. On their person, the Panthers carried law books and, often times, loaded guns, which was legal under California law at the time.
With his military background, Howard was able to teach his fellow Panthers how to handle their weapons. At 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, with a large afro and his signature dark glasses, he certainly cut an imposing figure—his nickname was “Big Man.” But friends and family say Howard was a “gentle giant.” Howard was, in fact, primarily involved with the Panthers’ community activism, says Pretzer. He helped found various programs that provided medical services to black families in need, free breakfasts to black children in Oakland, classes to prison inmates, and a free medical clinic for patients with sickle cell anemia.
Howard also edited the Panthers’ newspaper, which sold 200,000 copies a week at its height, and traveled to Europe and Asia to found Black Panther chapters there.
But in the 1970s, the Black Panthers started to fracture due to internal conflicts, clashes with police, and interference by the FBI. Howard withdrew from the organization in 1974, and for a time, worked as a Kmart manager in Tennessee. He later moved back to California and—when he wasn’t hosting local jazz and blues radio programs—once again took up social justice causes. He was involved in the now shuttered Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline, lectured about his work as an activist, and took an active role in preserving the legacy of the Panthers.
Almost annually, former members of the Panthers host a series of family reunions, and Pretzer says that Howard was one of the biggest promoters of the gatherings, helping to organize them and encouraging the people who attended to save, archive and donate their memorabilia for posterity.
Recalling their days together in the Black Panthers, Billy X. Jennings, a friend of Howard and the organization’s archivist, says that Howard was “a beloved member.”
“There were lots of personality conflicts and ideological conflicts within the Panthers,” as Pretzer says. “But Big Man was somebody that everyone could rally around.”