Black Panther Co-Founder Fought for People

Elbert “Big Man” Howard in 2012. Photo from Wikipedia

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Those who knew Elbert Howard from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, or befriended him when he lived briefly in Memphis, referred to him as “Big Man” – not so much because of his six-foot, 250-pound frame, but largely because he stood tall on principle and commanded attention when he spoke out vehemently against injustices.

“He wasn’t just a large and imposing figure, it was the heart that he had for service,” said the Rev. Willie L. Henry Jr., a former member of both the Black Panther Party and The Invaders, a local Black Power youth movement somewhat akin to the Black Panther Party’s mission. 

 Henry said he met the affable Mr. Howard in Memphis when Mr. Howard worked as a furniture salesman.

On July 23, Mr. Howard died in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the age of 80 and left behind an enduring legacy and indomitable spirit that encapsulate the man and the Party that he helped to shape into a formidable organization.

Santa Rosa is an hour’s drive from Oakland, Calif., where it all began in 1966 for Mr. Howard, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Reggie Forte, Sherman Forte and Bobby Hutton, the charter members of the Black Panther Party.

Mr. Howard fought until the end for human rights for all people, Carole Hyams-Howard wrote under her byline in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper about her husband and his legacy.

“Thanks to all of you who helped him, encouraged him, were patient with both of us, and loved him,” she wrote.

On Saturday, Aug. 25, Mr. Howard’s family, friends and comrades from the Party, both former and current members, will celebrate his life and legacy in the Bobby Hutton Grove in deFremery Park at 18th and Adeline St. in West Oakland, Calif. 

The grove of trees was named for Bobby Hutton, who joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 17. He was killed in April of 1968 by Oakland police officers near deFremery Park. 

Oakland had become a bastion of deep-seated angst that black residents were feeling about the police during that era of hostilities and civil unrest. Sporting tams to one side and taking up arms in a militaristic show of force, Mr. Howard and his comrades were prepared to defend the black community.

Although history has recorded much of the tumult and deadly confrontations between the Panthers and law enforcement, Mr. Howard and his comrades nevertheless continued to focus on the mission.

He alone was responsible for setting up a free medical clinic for sickle-cell anemia and a work-study program for parolees, his wife said. The Panthers also created a free breakfast program for poor school children.

“No where in history did a few people with determination and a few resources have such an impact on a lot of people across the country,” Mr. Howard reflected in a story in Memphis’ Tri-State Defender in 2006.

The first editor of the Party’s newspaper, The Black Panther, Mr. Howard was a prolific writer. He wrote about the inequities and economic depravation that often relegated black people to sub-standard living conditions. 

He also spoke “truth to power” – to use a familiar cliché – and carried the Party’s message of “Power to the People” across the world. In fact, he would say, “Power belongs to the people.”

As the Party’s international spokesperson, he penned articles, wrote books and lectured extensively on some of the horrid conditions affecting African Americans and improving black America’s self-worth on treks to Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. 

“When Bobby Seal needed a defense during the trial of the ‘Chicago Eight,’ it was Big Man who kept things going,” Henry pointed out. Seal was charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Mr. Howard was an active member of the Party from 1966 to 1974. After the police raids, jailings and killings, the Party was reduced to tatters. But the big man’s activism and penchant for social and economic justice never waned. 

Condolences and tributes were published in the San Francisco Bay View for Mr. Howard, including those from his daughter and cousin. 

“He spent his life fighting for the people…all over the world,” said Tammi Moore Miller, Mr. Howard’s cousin.

Mr. Howard meant so much to Tynisa Wilson. “Today, I lost someone so special, so great – my daddy,” she said.

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