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Saturday 18 January 2020

Obituary: Elbert Howard

Co-founder of the Black Panther Party which set up schemes to help poor families and those in prison

PANTHERS: Elbert Howard in Washington in 1970. Photo: AP
PANTHERS: Elbert Howard in Washington in 1970. Photo: AP

Elbert Howard, who died last Monday aged 80, was an author and civil rights activist who was one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, in 1966.

The organisation's central aim was to monitor police activity and to defend the black community against what was perceived as state-sponsored oppression. Members began openly carrying arms, as was allowed by Californian law, leading to several showdowns with authority, and the state's governor, Ronald Reagan, tried to have the gun laws overturned.

"The police would patrol our community, and almost every week somebody would get killed, and so a show of arms was a necessary move at the time," Howard recalled in 2002. "Extreme actions required extreme measures."

With a military background, Howard taught his comrades how to handle weaponry. But alongside their militancy, the Panthers also devised social programmes, including free medical services for impoverished black families and breakfasts for their children. Howard - known as "Big Man" - was one of the principal organisers, served as the movement's international spokesman and edited its newspaper, which at its height sold 200,000 copies per week.

He also travelled to Europe and Japan to set up Black Panther chapters.

Elbert Howard was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on January 5, 1938. His father died when he was an infant, and he was brought up by his mother. He recalled seeing one of his relatives being horsewhipped by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

He spent several years in the US air force, then following an honourable discharge he moved to Oakland, studying at Merritt College.

There, he met Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton. In June 1966, the black activist James Meredith was shot and injured by a white gunman during his March Against Fear; Stokely Carmichael told fellow marchers: "The only way we're going to stop them white men from whupping us is to take over. What we're going to start saying now is 'Black Power'."

The following October Howard joined Seale and Newton, along with Bobby Hutton and Reggie and Sherman Forte, in forming the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence.

Howard took part in such activities as shadowing police officers on the streets in order to discourage them from abusing black people, as well as founding a free clinic for those suffering from sickle cell anaemia and instituting work-study programme in prisons.

As in all radical groups, there was much dissension within the movement - but, as the Black Panther archivist, Billy X Jennings, put it, "Nobody got a grudge against Big Man."

But the years of conflict - both with the authorities and within the party itself - took their toll, and Howard left in 1974, returning to his home state. There, in Memphis, he became a manager in the Kmart chain of shops.

He also served on the boards of educational institutions and in latter years wrote and lectured about his years of activism.

After marrying for a second time he moved back to California, to Sonoma County, where he set up the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline and presented a jazz and blues show on local radio.

In 2001, he published an autobiography, Panther on the Prowl.

Elbert Howard is survived by his second wife, as well as by a daughter from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

© Telegraph

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