POV: What drew you to the Black Panther Party originally?
Elbert Howard: Basically the need in the community, because when I got out of the service in 1960, things were bad in terms of unemployment and poor housing and police brutality. At the time, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and myself were in college, studying revolutionary theories and practices and so forth. We were seeking ways of dealing with problems in our community. We studied the way some other countries dealt with problems; some things could be implemented in our situation. Personal conflicts with the Oakland police spurred us to do things that called attention to us. What was different about our situation was studying revolutionary theories. When Malcolm X came along, I really took notice of what he was saying, talking about defending ourselves and defending our community, as opposed to the nonviolent [approach] that was going on at the time. We were young and we didn't necessarily believe in the nonviolent approach, because we saw the beatings, having dogs sicked on us, having our mothers and sisters brutalized by police. So that's where we drew the line, and that's where the difference came from.
POV: Many people have a settled idea of what the BPP was about. What do you think is something that people don't appreciate, or misunderstand?
Howard: I think they misunderstand quite a few things. A lot of that is because of the picture that the media painted of us, what the powers that be said about us. People had a tendency to believe that stuff. People didn't understand what our survival programs really meant: schoolchildren's breakfasts, feeding the hungry. Those programs helped immediate problems; they were also organizing tools. The Panthers themselves weren't the only ones in those programs; we got the community involved, teaching them how to become self-reliant, whereas the government wouldn't help with problems. It was about us helping ourselves.
POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then?
Howard: Of course. Conditions change, and we have new situations we have to deal with, but essentially the problems are the same: there's a need for community organizing. It's more and more relevant to have survival programs, because the authorities have deteriorated health care and schools. All of that stuff is crumbling. There's a need for free health clinics, free food programs, and independent schools. For people to survive they have to have some self-reliance, community organizing. I just can't seem to stop doing this kind of work.
POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we've made progress towards those goals?
Howard: We've made some progress, but with the current regime and people in political power, they have diluted that progress, and tried to take the country away from some of the basic things we had in the Ten Point Program. We quoted some things from the Constitution, and the Constitution has come under attack, and been pushed aside by the people in charge of America today. Everything we said in that program, we had a human right to: jobs, housing, food, clothing, education and peace. There's always ongoing opposition to it, and in my opinion an ongoing need to fight for it.
POV: Looking back at your time in the Black Panther Party, are there things you would do differently? Would some of your goals or methods change?
Howard: Some of the methods would change. I don't know if I could change the whole Party, but if I could change anything, I would have put more emphasis on community service rather than the militant rhetoric. I would have encouraged putting the weapons away a lot sooner, even though that was a necessity at the beginning. That lasted too long. As for a little self-criticism, we in the international group could have gotten the word out to the brothers and sisters in other countries more clearly. We should have relied more on the people to come to our aid. I don't think we got that out enough. Those within the Party who had a voice, some of them were a little too militaristic.
POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the Black Panther Party? What lessons could someone involved in community work today draw from your experience?
Howard: One lesson that they can take away is the importance of community organization, going out and educating people in the community and being educated by people in the community — finding out what their wants and needs are, figuring out ways of meeting those needs. You just can't do it alone. Revolutions are done when people are ready for revolution. Just nitty-gritty grassroots work is what is needed, and the young people ask me, "What can I do?" I tell them to start where they are, look at the overall condition. I would tell students to get themselves registered to vote and start with where they're at, to mobilize and organize for their own interests, if nothing else. Look around your community, see what people are suffering from, get involved. You can't be afraid to do that.
POV: How did you get the nickname "Big Man"?
Howard: That goes way back to when I got out of the military. The guys on the base took to calling me that. We'd go into town and they would introduce me to people in the community like that. To me it meant a lot more than just my size. It dictated the way I acted. It meant I'm going to be a Big Man, I'm going to have to do things that fit that, being faithful to my friends, not telling people lies, and being some kind of a moral guy.
Billy X. Jennings
Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the original six members of the Black Panther Party, served as the Party's deputy minister of information and as a member of the International Solidarity Committee. He was the founding editor of the Party's newspaper, the Black Panther Party Community News Service. He currently works as an advisor to several groups in Memphis working to improve education and health care.