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Originally published September 19, 2012 at 8:42 PM | Page modified September 20, 2012 at 5:55 AM

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Life, times of a Panther foot soldier

Once, a bunch of Seattle teenagers took up arms, burned buildings and drew the wrath of the federal government. They also started a health...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I met Aaron Dixon in Oakland in the mid-1970s. Our son attended the Oakland Community... MORE
The Seattle panthers were low life thugs that invaded Rainier Beach Jr Sr High School... MORE
Nice to know Dixon's associate Larry Gossett found a comfortable home being "the... MORE

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Once, a bunch of Seattle teenagers took up arms, burned buildings and drew the wrath of the federal government.

They also started a health clinic and fed hungry children.

Aaron Dixon's "My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain," (Haymarket Books) presents a clear narrative, while staying true to the chaos of a fabled period in U.S. history.

Dixon, 63, was 19 in 1968 when he led the first chapter of the Black Panther Party established outside California.

He remained a Panther as the party spread across the country, spent years at party headquarters in Oakland and was there as the party unraveled in the late 1970s.

Dixon's family was doing pretty well for black folks at the time.

They came to Seattle from Chicago when his father was offered a job at Boeing in 1957. He became a technical illustrator there. Dixon's mother played Beethoven and Tchaikovsky on the piano. They listened to jazz and opera and lived in Madrona with neighbors of every race.

But he could see the poverty and segregation in the Central Area. He saw racism affect his parents. His grandparents talked about their experiences, and the adults taught him, his two brothers and sister about the long struggle for equality.

Dixon started to feel himself subject to mostly subtle racism at Queen Anne High School, and transferred to Garfield in 1966, his junior year. Stokely Carmichael spoke at Garfield in 1967, and inspired Dixon and other black students, including future King County Councilman Larry Gossett, who went on to found a Black Student Union at the University of Washington. Dixon and Gossett were jailed after a BSU protest in support of black students at Franklin High School in 1968.

They were in a cell when they heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

Later that year, UW students attended a BSU conference in San Francisco and some of them, including Dixon, met with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Dixon asked about starting a chapter here. The new chapter drew Asian-American members and also support from sympathetic white people.

Armed members barged into mostly white Rainier Beach High School and demanded the principal protect black students from beatings and harassment.

They monitored the police, and threw Molotov cocktails at businesses they thought were taking advantage of the community.

Violence was always a losing proposition.

The federal government started a covert program to destroy the Panthers. They planted informants and staged raids.

In 1969 the Panthers began moving away from armed confrontation, instead creating schools and feeding programs to fill the unmet needs in poor communities, but conflicts continued.

In the most storied raid, federal and local police killed Chicago leader Fred Hampton while he slept, and wounded several other Panthers. A raid in Los Angeles followed that, but when federal agents told Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman they planned a raid here a few days later, he wouldn't allow it.

The Seattle chapter was woven into the community here. It started the first free community health clinic, now called Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center. It started a school and ran a free breakfast program for children.

While his brother Elmer ran the local chapter, Dixon spent years in Oakland, where sex, drugs and violence mixed with good works.

Young people around the world were working at revolution and partying, too.

In the end, the Panthers' own leadership flaws brought on the party's decline.

Dixon witnessed that up close, working with the increasingly highhanded top leadership in Oakland. People began leaving, and he did, too, in 1978.

For a time he turned to crime to support himself, which led to his being imprisoned for fraud. In recent years, he has worked for community-service organizations.

Dixon said he wrote the book partly as an inspiration to young people facing challenging circumstances today.

It is also a cautionary tale and well worth reading.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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