Black Panther Party Seattle Chapter (1968-1978)

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 10/16/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20648

The Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party was the party's first outside California and the second outside Oakland, where the party was founded in 1966. Nineteen-year-old Aaron Lloyd Dixon (b. 1949) was appointed captain of the Seattle chapter by party co-founder Bobby Seale (b. 1936) at the Dixon family home in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood in April 1968, a week after Dixon and other young activists from Seattle met Seale and other Panthers at a conference in California. Within two years the Seattle chapter grew from a neighborhood storefront office to a main headquarters providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free transportation to visit family members in prison, and a free medical clinic. The Seattle Black Panther Party disbanded in 1978 after 10 years serving the community.

From Chicago to Seattle

Aaron Lloyd Dixon, son of Elmer James Dixon Jr. (1924-1985) and Frances Emma Sledge Dixon (b. 1925), was born January 2, 1949, and raised in Chicago with his older sister Joanne Marie (b. 1947), and two younger brothers, Elmer James III (b. 1950) and Michael R. (b. 1951).

Elmer Jr. worked as a technical illustrator at Chanute Air Force Base in Champaign County, Illinois. In 1957, he received multiple job offers from Spain, Alabama, and Seattle. Boeing offered him an opportunity to work in the Pacific Northwest. He had always had concerns about his young boys getting into some kind of trouble and making the right decisions in raising them. He did not want to take any chances with what he saw as the influence of bad behavior (gangs, mafia) spreading throughout Chicago. Getting involved in gang activity was not going to happen to his children. Ultimately, this concern led him to accept the offer to work at Boeing in Seattle.

To make the move, however, the Dixon family would leave the safe haven, family, friends, and security of Birch Village, formerly a military-housing facility for air-force pilots at the base. Elmer, a natural explorer, adventurer, and artist, was excited about moving his tight-knit family 2,000 miles from Illinois to Seattle in a 1952 Plymouth. In contrast, the 1957 move was a harrowing experience for the children. They missed their family and many tears were shed along the way.

In 1960, after changing residences and schools several times since arriving in Seattle three years earlier, the Dixons moved into their own home at 905 33rd Avenue in Madrona, a mixed neighborhood on the east of Seattle's Central Area (or Central District) neighborhood. Aaron Dixon recalled in his 2012 memoir that "The neighborhood residents were Black, White, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese. At that time, the Central District was the only part of Seattle where Asians, Blacks, and Jews were allowed to live due to the practice of 'redlining' and racial restrictive covenants" (My People Are Rising, 24).

The purchase of their own home was a turning point in the family's life and brought pride and gratification to Elmer Jr. He planted trees around the house that represented each of his children. The house was large and spacious with hardwood floors. As the family settled into the home, they began to make friends and forge relationships in the neighborhood.

Civil Rights in Seattle

Seattle residents were no strangers to the civil-rights movement that by the 1960s was a dominant force nationwide. Racism existed but was less than in other American cities. Many Seattle blacks fought back in organizations such as the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Urban League, Universal Negro Improvement Association, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), National Negro Congress, the Nation of Islam, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), among others.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) made a single visit to Seattle, arriving on November 8, 1961. The civil-rights leader was invited by Reverend Samuel B. McKinney (1926-2018), a friend and former classmate at Morehouse College. King's itinerary was packed with public appearances including at the University of Washington, Temple de Hirsch, Garfield High School, and Eagles Auditorium.

Twelve-year-old Aaron Dixon attended the speech at Garfield, sitting on the edge of the bandstand watching and listening to King's words. After two days of lectures and speeches, King left Seattle on November 10, having made an impression on everyone he encountered. "He was the right man at the right time at the right place with the right message," said McKinney (De Leon).

"Black Power" and Student Activism

Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) and Robert George "Bobby" Seale launched the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in West Oakland, California, on October 15, 1966. The party's main goal and original purpose was to prevent police brutality against African Americans and improve the black community. Within two years, the small hilltop neighborhood of Madrona would become home to the Black Panther Party's Seattle chapter.

A major inspiration for that Seattle chapter came on April 19, 1967, when flamboyant civil-rights leader Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), who coined the phrase "Black Power," came to Garfield High in Seattle to speak to an estimated 4,000 students. When he spoke in Seattle Carmichael was chairman of SNCC, but he would soon resign that position to join the Black Panther Party.

Sitting in the front row for the Garfield speech were brothers Aaron and Elmer Dixon and their friend Michael Dean. Carmichael walked on stage wearing black sunglasses and shouting "black power!" to the cheering audience as he raised his fist. His speech impacted many Seattleites black, white, brown, and yellow. Aaron Dixon remembered:

"We left the Garfield auditorium with a much different view of whites than what we had before. A slow current of anger began to brew inside me, and to my mind whites were now the cause of all the problems that Black people faced. I walked out of the auditorium transformed. I was not the same person who had entered. From that day forward, I looked at the world and everyone around me with anger and rage" (My People Are Rising, 58).

In June 1967, Aaron Dixon graduated from Garfield and in September began attending the University of Washington, where he joined the Black Student Union (BSU). By early 1968, tensions were growing fast in Seattle as housing, employment, health care, and relations with police had all become explosive issues for black residents. On March 29, 1968, a rainy Tuesday, things came to a head at Franklin High School. Accounts differ as to exactly what triggered the events, with some indicating that the BSU received a call from Trollis Flavors (b. 1949), a Franklin student who was suspended following a fight with a white student while the white student remained in school.

An estimated 25 to 30 Black Student Union members from UW including Aaron Dixon; Anthony Ware (b. 1951); Larry Gossett (b. 1944), president of the Washington-Oregon Black Student Union; and Carl Miller (b. 1945), chairman of the Seattle chapter of SNCC, decided to go to Franklin to channel the students' anger in constructive directions, gathering outside a sandwich shop across from the school demanding reinstatement of suspended students among other demands.

Gossett and Miller led the group of BSU members and Franklin students to the school office, asking to meet with principal Loren Ralph (1909-1987), who refused to talk with them. Between 12:30 and 1 p.m., Gossett and Miller held a sit-in rally at the principal's office, then moved to the school auditorium to speak to an estimated 100 students. The group of protestors left the school grounds and the confrontation ended.

Gossett, Aaron Dixon, Miller, and Flavors were arrested on April 4, 1968, and taken to the King County Jail. Elmer Dixon and Anthony Ware were taken to juvenile detention. Later that evening, news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A cloud of sadness filled the air not only in Seattle but through the world, and violence flared in more than 100 cities across America. As Larry Gossett recalled:

"About six or seven hours after we got in jail, news came that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. And the black prisoners, their conception of black power was that they were going to go beat up these white prisoners" (Gilbert).

Black Panther Party Comes to Madrona

On April 5, 1968, the day after King's assassination, the student activists were released from jail, but the shock of Martin's death was immediate and strong. On April 11, some 20 eager young men, both BSU members from Garfield High and SNCC members, rented four or five cars to drive to the second annual West Coast BSU Conference at San Francisco State College.

While in California, on April 12 the group from Seattle attended a memorial service for 17-year-old Robert "Little Bobby" James Hutton (1950-1968) at the Ephesian Church of God in Berkeley. Hutton was the treasurer and first recruit to have joined the Black Panther Party in 1966. Hutton was killed on April 6, two days after King's assassination, when he and Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), writer, activist, and early leader of the Black Panther Party, were confronted by police.

After Hutton's funeral, the group headed back to the BSU Conference to listen to the keynote speech by Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. After two hours of listening, inspired by Seale and the party, Aaron and Elmer Dixon and Anthony Ware approached Seale. Aaron said, "We want a Panther chapter in Seattle" (My People Are Rising, 80). The four talked briefly and they left a phone number with Seale.

A week later, after the Seattle contingent had returned home, Seale called Aaron with word that he and two other Panthers were arriving in Seattle the next day, April 20. Elmer Dixon and Ware went to the airport that afternoon and picked up Seale and the others. After arriving at the Dixon family home in Madrona, Seale spoke, providing instructions and recommendations and outlining the Panther platform to a group of young men and women. The meeting lasted all day and into the evening. Then Seale asked the question, "Who's going to be the defense captain?" (My People Are Rising, 83). Fingers pointed at six-foot-tall, 19-year-old Aaron Dixon, who did not respond immediately. Reluctantly, he accepted the role of captain, launching the first Black Panther Party chapter outside California and the second outside Oakland.

Aaron soon flew to Oakland and spent a week training in the world of an official Black Panther. After the training, there were meetings, selling Panther newspapers, and introductions to numerous party members including co-founder Huey P. Newton, who had been arrested and was in the Alameda County Jail. Meeting Newton was a requirement for all new captains. Aaron was now armed with a clear vision of how to organize Seattle's Black Panther chapter and envisioned a society with equal justice for everyone.

The first task was to find an office somewhere in the Central Area. On May 26, 1968, one was located at 1127 34th Avenue, near the intersection with E Union Street in Madrona, owned by Benjamin Brill (1897-1971) of Brill Realty. Brill was a longtime resident of Madrona. Panther members Willie Brazier (b. 1948), Chester Edward Northington (b. 1944), and Curtis Ray Harris (b. 1947), the Dixons' brother-in-law, approached Brill about the vacant office space. After first refusing he eventually agreed to rent to the party. The quiet working-class Madrona neighborhood on the hill above Lake Washington had given birth to and would provide a home for the new Seattle Black Panther Party.

Within days, the party headquarters opened, and the news spread quickly throughout the Central Area. In the first two months of operation, more than 300 membership applications were received. The party attracted a wide range of people who lived in the community. A number of young Asian Americans who had grown up in the neighborhood applied. Guy Kurose (1953-2002), a martial-arts expert and son of Japanese American teacher and activist Akiko Kurose (1925-1998), would later work on the party's breakfast program and march in rallies for justice. Mike Gillespie (b. 1951), a Filipino American trumpet player, and Mike Tagawa (b. 1944), a Japanese American and veteran of the Vietnam War, also joined. At 25, Tagawa was a few years older than most members; he had been born during World War II at the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho. Considering himself "a foot soldier," Tagawa did weapons training and cleaning and taught political education classes.

Young women were also among the applicants. Joanne Dixon Harris, Aaron and Elmer's older sister, participated in a variety of activities, as did Joyce Redmond (b. 1947), who already had a reputation for being fierce, and Kathy Jones, who was still in high school. "Maud Helen Allen was captain of the women, Kathleen M. Halley was deputy minister of finance and treasurer, and Alice Spencer was communications secretary" ("From Memphis and Mogadishu"). New members were required to go through six weeks of military training and learn to follow orders, but women who joined were not required to participate in the training. "Years later Panther Michael Dixon, younger brother of Aaron Dixon, pointed out that female members often challenged male chauvinism within the party" ("From Memphis and Mogadishu").

Growing Pains -- Golden Years (1968-1969)

The Seattle Black Panther chapter experienced immediate growing pains. By the end of 1968, the party had an estimated 2,000 members across the country. From 1968 through the end of 1969, Panthers were constantly being scrutinized, arrested, and jailed, accused of numerous crimes, and sometimes murdered. This did not deter the party from working for the community, but the struggle was always in day-to-day survival mode.

As the party developed a framework for the future, the Madrona neighborhood was transforming into a Black Panther community. A mixture of fear, apprehension, pride, and hope was common to many. The very sight of Panthers brought shivers and fear to some onlookers when they walked by in black leather jackets, black pants, black berets, afros, and dark sunglasses, symbolizing the power they had. The phones in the office rang constantly with people asking for assistance.

When the party was barely more than three months old, on the hot summer night of July 29, 1968, Seattle police raided the headquarters and chapter captain Aaron Dixon and defense minister Curtis Harris were arrested for the alleged theft of a typewriter from the nearby Legal Service Center at 1700 E Cherry Street. No drugs, no weapons, a stolen typewriter! The arrest touched off a full-scale three-day riot in Seattle, resulting in additional arrests, wounded police officers, civilians hit by gunfire and rocks, and property damage throughout the Central Area. Dixon and Harris would later be acquitted of the theft charge. The riot was not on the scale of some in larger cities, but was the start of scattered firebombing, rock throwing, and gunfire aimed at closing down known racist businesses. The riot also marked the beginning of conflict between police and the party that would last two years.

But no matter what the community was facing, the Panthers saw themselves as there to protect. In September 1968, a black mother called the headquarters stating her son was beaten several times by white students at Rainier Beach High School. She continued to call daily to report other black students were being attacked and threatened by white students and the school staff refused to protect them. On September 6, 1968, after several calls from other black mothers, 13 Panthers arrived at the school carrying rifles and confronted principal Donald S. Means (1920-1971), demanding protection for black students. He agreed and the Panthers returned to the chapter office. Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman (1901-1980) pushed to have a gun law passed that would restrict firearms in the city or weapons used in a manner manifesting intent to intimidate others. This set the stage for more battles and a Panther protest against state gun-control legislation.

Early the next year, Seattle Panthers heard that the state legislature was planning to pass a gun bill like that advocated by Mayor Braman. On February 28, 1969, party members drove to Olympia to demonstrate in support of their right to bear arms. The Panthers walked up the steps of the capitol building holding rifles and shotguns and stood in formation led by Elmer Dixon with the weapons pointed upright. Asked to unload the weapons, they did so peacefully. Aaron Dixon went inside the building and read a prepared statement. But the gun bill had already passed and was quickly signed by Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). Before the year ended, the Panthers were no longer carrying weapons in public.

In 1969, the Panthers established a Free Breakfast Program for schoolchildren coordinated by Elmer Dixon III at the Madrona Community Presbyterian Church at 832 32nd Avenue. The program would eventually expand to five locations serving "an estimated 300,000 meals from 1969 to 1977" ("A Panther Sighting ...," 68). The Seattle group also helped to maintain and manage the Black Panther Party in Tacoma as well as Oregon offices in Portland and Eugene. By the fall of 1969, the Seattle chapter headquarters moved from the Madrona office to a two-story home located at 173 20th Avenue in the Central Area.

Party member Leon "Valentine" Hobbs III (b. 1949) was assigned to work with University of Washington neurosurgeon Dr. John R. Green to open a medical clinic by December 1969 in the new headquarters. Green and other physicians and nurses volunteered their time. The clinic was opened on December 1, 1969, and named the Sidney Miller Free Clinic after a Panther member who was shot and killed during a robbery.

The clinic, which also tested for sickle cell anemia, relocated several more times before settling at 2101 E. Yesler Way. It was renamed the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center in 1978, honoring Carolyn Jean Downs (1953-1978), a young mother who joined the party and dedicated all her time to movement. Carolyn Downs was the first free medical clinic in the Pacific Northwest, an important legacy of the Seattle Black Panther chapter. With the launching and success of such programs, increased membership, and party members no longer openly carrying weapons, the programs became the primary vehicle to address concerns and immediate needs of the community.

The 1970s -- Stormy Weather

As the 1960s came to a close, the party was about to turn over a new leaf, both good and bad. The Black Panther Party was arguably the most important revolutionary organization in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No longer displaying weapons under the new gun law, the Panthers changed their standard uniform from black leather jackets and berets and toned down their rhetoric.

In 1970, Michael Dixon established the Business to Prisons Program with the assistance of Melvin Dickerson (1951-1994), using vans, cars, and a donated bus to transport friends and family for visits with those incarcerated in five state prisons on a regular basis. The same year, the Liberation School opened at two housing projects, focusing on black history, writing skills, and political science. The school was held five days a week during the summer. Classes began at 9 a.m., lunch was served at noon, and school ended at 2:30 p.m. The focus was reading, exercise for maintaining health, fitness, and mind stimulation. Field trips were taken to enhance the students' learning experience. The school continued until 1972.

For a short period of time during 1970, free clothing and shoes were offered to the community, as was ambulance service. Other programs such as free food complemented the free breakfast program. Fifty bags of food were delivered every Wednesday to families across the city. These services were considered simple basic needs for the community. Securing the donations of food and funds for the programs was a fulltime job and not taken lightly.

The Seattle chapter was not destitute. Its primary steady source of income came from the sale of the Black Panther newspaper. Actors and entertainers would donate funds to the party, among them Greg Morris (1933-1996), James Brown (1933-2006), and Seattle native Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). Hendrix asked to have Panthers as security guards during his concert on July 26, 1970, from 2:30 to 10 p.m. at Sicks' Stadium, the Seattle baseball venue, which turned out to be his last show in his hometown and in the U.S. Two months later, on September 18, 1970, Hendrix would pass away in London suddenly and too soon.

Unfortunately, the Black Panther Party began to fall apart at the seams midway through the 1970s. Why after a few years of explosive growth did the party unravel? The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its COINTELPRO program (created in 1956 to undermine radical groups) sought to break up the party. In fact, in 1969 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) deemed the Black Panther Party the greatest threat to national security. The FBI tactics were extreme, with the goal to gut the entire party. The added pressure from the government caused the party to divide within itself at every level.

Not helping the added burden on the party, national Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver fell out with each other, resulting in a split that contributed to the party's demise. The Seattle chapter was beginning to weaken due to the party's organization and leadership changes. In 1972, Aaron Dixon was transferred to the party's Oakland headquarters, leaving the control of the chapter to Elmer Dixon. Some other chapter members were summoned to California while others stayed in Seattle.

In 1976 the Seattle chapter broke away from the national party in Oakland, and it officially disbanded two years later in 1978 after 10 short but powerful years of service to the community. The Seattle chapter was one of the party's longest-lived chapters and an integral part of the black community. By 1982, the Black Panther Party officially ceased all operations.

Legacy

A major part of the Seattle Black Panther Party's legacy was helping the sick and poor through the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, which in 2018 was still welcoming everyone and treating them regardless of ability to pay. By then, of the 13 clinics the party started across the country, Seattle's was the only one still operating.

The legacy also lives on in later generations of black-empowerment groups, including Black Lives Matter. The Panthers helped make "black" a word to be proud of. The groups of today sprang from concerns of a younger generation of activists focused on social justice, economic equality, and self-determination. The Black Panthers' legacy is seen every day in activist groups holding today's leaders to the fire and demanding greater accountability.

The boldness of the Seattle Black Panther Party was matched by the boldness of the historical circumstances. The complex, rapidly changing political environment presented challenges to the short-lived party that pushed it to its limits. Members came up against questions to which there were no immediate answers. Still, they left subsequent activists and revolutionaries with a rich heritage to learn from.

In 2006, Aaron Dixon ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by Maria Cantwell. As of 2018 he spoke at colleges, gave interviews, and visited various communities, while Elmer Dixon III, field lieutenant, breakfast-program coordinator, and Seattle chapter leader, was principal owner of a leading diversity consulting firm and a community leader.

From April 26 to 28, 2018, the Seattle Black Panther Party celebrated its 50th anniversary with events at Seattle's Washington Hall and Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. The celebration included appearances by actor Danny Glover; former Black Panther Party chair Elaine Brown; poet, activist, and former Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver; poet, activist, and hip-hop artist Rell Be Free; and others, along with dance performances, a fashion show, and many more performances and tributes.


Sources:

Kurt Schaefer, "The Black Panther Party in Seattle, 1968-1970," University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project website accessed October 11, 2018 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/Panthers1_schaefer.htm); Tikia Gilbert, "The Franklin High School Sit-in," University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project website accessed October 11, 2018 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/BSU_Franklin.htm#_edn14); "Frances Dixon -- Retired Clinical Assistant & Black Panther Mom," People of the Central Area & Their Stories website accessed Jun 22, 2018 (http://centralareacomm.blogspot.com/2016/06/frances-dixon-retired-clinical.html); Seattle Black Panther Party 50th Anniversary website accessed July 5, 2018 (https://www.seattlebpp50.com/); Daudi Abe and Quintard Taylor, "From Memphis and Mogadishu: The History of African Americans in Martin Luther King County, Washington, 1858-2014," BlackPast.org website accessed October 11, 2018 (https://blackpast.org/memphis-and-mogadishu-history-african-americans-martin-luther-king-county-washington-1858-2014); Craig Collisson, "Black Panther Party," BlackPast.org website accessed July 11, 2018 (http://www.blackpast.org/aah/black-panther-party); "The Black Panther Party: Seattle and the Nation," BlackPast.org website accessed July 15, 2018 (https://blackpast.org/the-black-panther-party-seattle-nation); "Braman Warns Panthers," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1968, p. 7; "Seattle Black Panther Leader Is Released on $3,000 Bond," The Seattle Times, July 31, 1968, p. 47; Ferdinand M. De Leon, "When King Was in Town," Ibid., January 16, 1994, p. L-1; Dale Nelson, "Black Militant Delegates Anger Some, But Wake Some Others," The Bellingham Herald, March 2, 1969, p 34; Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Black Panthers open the Sidney Miller Free Medical Clinic on December 1, 1969," "Capitol Hill and the Movement: Dotty DeCoster Remembers" (by Dotty DeCoster with Heather McIntosh), "Cirque Playhouse (Seattle, 1950-1981)" (by Peter Blecha), "College and high school students hold sit-in at Seattle's Franklin High on March 29, 1968" (by Alan J. Stein), "DeCoster, Dotty (1944-2015)" (by Priscilla Long), "Dwyer, William L. (1929-2002)" (by John Caldbick), "Gossett, Larry (b. 1945)" (by Doug Merlino), "Madrona Memories, Part 2 -- Civil Rights and Civil Unrest" (by Carol Richman), "Martin Luther King Jr. arrives for his sole Seattle visit on November 8, 1961" (by Mary T. Henry), "Mass arrests follow disturbances in Seattle's Central Area on July 31, 1968" (by David Wilma), "Riots erupt in Seattle's Central Area after Franklin High protestors are sentenced on July 1, 1968" (by David Wilma), "Rumors prompt armed Black Panthers to visit Rainier Beach High School on September 6, 1968" (by David Wilma), "Seattle Black Panther Party protests gun-control bill in Olympia on February 28, 1969" (by Linda Holden Givens), "Seattle Neighborhoods: Central Area -- Thumbnail History" (by Mary T. Henry), "Seattle police raid Black Panther office in Central Area, setting off riots, on July 29, 1968" (by Alan J. Stein), "Stokely Carmichael speaks to 4,000 at Seattle's Garfield High School on April 19, 1967" (by Priscilla Long), and "Women's Majority Union publishes Lilith's Manifesto, a women's liberation document, in the spring of 1969," http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 16, 2018); Aaron Dixon, My People Are Rising (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012); Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 159-169, 221-222; Jeffrey Zane and Judson L. Jeffries, "A Panther Sighting in the Pacific Northwest: The Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party," in On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities Across America ed. by Judson L. Jeffries (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 41-95.


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