When Bobby Seale approached the podium inside a lecture hall in the University of Colorado on Wednesday evening, a single woman in the nearly 500-person crowd pumped her clenched fist into the air.
The fist, although a symbol of struggle among many groups, is perhaps most associated with the Black Panther Party that Seale, 81, founded in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 along with fellow activist Huey P. Newton. It was the most iconic revolutionary group to emerge in the political maelstrom of the 1960s.
Seale's emergence as a black revolutionary happened over many years, and he told the audience on Wednesday evening that as a high school student, he identified most strongly with the Native Americans he read about in history class out of sheer necessity.
"This is the 1950s," he said. "There is no black history in American schools."
Seale said that over the years, he sought out information about the history of black people in the United States — and African history as well — eventually working with other students at Merritt College in Oakland to include more items on the curricula about black history.
The Black Panther Party began in October 1966, and Seale said that Newton, who was a law student, studied up on how the members could legally carry guns so they could patrol the streets of their neighborhood and observe the police.
He joked with the audience that he required members to wash up before they embarked on their first patrol because the goal of the group was to organize the community — a goal that wouldn't work if they went out "stinking."
"People are going to say, 'Boy, go out and organize some soap under your ass,'" he said. "We had to be neat when we went out."
Seale said that people in the neighborhood didn't quite know what to make of a group of armed black men refusing to back down from a police officer, who eventually threw his hands up in the air and left in frustration.
"I took my party members back to my house and fed them. I always fed my troops," he said. "That was the beginning of the party. We were legal. We were as legal as we could be."
The group organized armed patrols of Oakland police, a practice which led to dramatic confrontations that nearly ended in violence. The group made national news on May 2, 1967, when an armed contingent strolled into California's state Capitol to protest a bill aimed at ending their right to openly carry weapons.
The Panthers became the target of illegal FBI surveillance and local police departments brutalized and sometimes killed members. Internal contradictions — including substance abuse, political authoritarianism, sexism and ideological disputes — led to violence within the group and greatly contributed to its decline.
Seale said that the Black Panthers have been largely misunderstood throughout the years because, contrary to what some people believe, they never set out to attack police. More than two dozen Panthers were killed by police, and about a dozen police officers were killed in shootouts with the group.
Although the group carried weapons, Seale started the organization with the idea of getting black people to run for public office as a way to effect change. At the time of the BPP's founding, about 50 black people held public office of any kind in the United States, and he said that number was in the tens of thousands by the end of the 20th century.
He added that the party was also denounced as a racist group of black men out to shoot and kill white people — a description with which he has always taken issue. He said gun sales increased after a high-ranking public official made such remarks on television.
"I can distinguish between a Ku Klux Klanner and a white radical who is getting his ass kicked for standing up for my civil rights," Seale said. "I can distinguish between the two."
Seale told the audience that the BPP organized with various other groups during its existence and said that with the current political climate in the United States — a huge tax cut for the wealthy, degraded infrastructure, environmental collapse, etc. — cooperation among different groups now is more important than ever.
He called for liberal and progressive people of all stripes to organize and seek public office and, mirroring the woman who stood at the beginning of his talk, closed with: "Power to the People."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.