Elbert Howard, one of the Black Panther Party founders, dies at 80
Elbert Howard, one of the original six members of the Black Panther Party, formally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, has died at the age of 80 years old. Howard had been sick for a number of years, according to his wife Carol Hyams who confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Howard had been known as “Big Man” because of his build but did not reach the profile of fellow founding members Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, or even Eldridge Cleaver.
Howard worked for the Party as its deputy minister of information. As a result, he was only made available to the public media when the other members of the Party were on trial or in the news.
Howard was born on January 5th, 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Anderson and Emma Howard. After witnessing one of his relatives get badly beaten by the KKK, Howard enlisted in the Air Force as a teenager in order to escape this kind of violence. At the end of his service, he was honorably discharged and moved to Oakland, where he met Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Howard came up with the Party’s strategy of shadowing police officers alongside Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
According to Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Senior History Curator Bill Pretzer, “The Oakland police had a long history and reputation of being very aggressive about policing the African-American community… Elbert met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and they started talking about what, if anything, they could do to reign in the police and they came up with this idea of following police cars.”
Howard was by default the go-to person for commentary during the trials in New Haven of Bobby Seale and other members of the Party for a 1969 murder case. In 1970, Howard spoke during the party’s attempts to hold a convention in Washington D.C. to symbolically rewrite the Constitution to make it fairer for Black and poor people. After Howard University and the Black Panther Party got into a conflict over the use of its campus, “Big Man” called the HBCU’s administration “a tool of this racist and fascist American government.”
Howard left the Black Panther Party in 1974 amidst its continued infiltration and destruction by the FBI and internal disputes. But he soon returned to taking up social justice causes in California, working on the now-defunct Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline in addition to lecturing about his work as an activist and helping to preserve the history of the Black Panther Party.
Howard was asked in 2004 on the PBS docu-series POV to name something people didn’t appreciate about the Black Panthers and his reply was:
“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.”
Elbert Howard is survived by his wife, a daughter, Tynisa Howard Wilson; a stepson, Robert Grimes; two grandsons; and three step-grandchildren. Howard lived in Santa Monica at the time of his death.