50 years later: Why Seattle created its own Black Panther Party

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Dixon remembers when segregation was widespread in Seattle. He grew up in Madrona, which, like the Central District, was once a predominantly Black neighborhood.

“It was really great in terms of the community that we had [with how] people looked out for each other,” he said. “But once you went outside of the community then you had to deal with the racism. [You] had to deal with finding jobs and having doors closed on you.”

As the Civil Rights Movement swelled, Aaron marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in picket lines. But everything changed when Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. At the time, Aaron and his brother, Elmer, were students at the University of Washington and active in the Black Student Union.

“When he was killed, a lot of young people decided it was time to to create a stronger movement, a movement that was based upon defending ourselves and protecting ourselves,” he said.

So late that April, Aaron and Elmer helped found the Seattle branch of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary group that fought for black Americans’ rights. Our city’s party was the first chapter to be formed outside of the party headquarters in Oakland, California. It led armed safety patrols in communities of color, fought police brutality, set up a free breakfast program for kids, and advocated for safe and affordable housing and culturally-competent education, among other things. It even established a community medical clinic that’s still around today.

The Seattle Black Panther Party eventually disbanded in 1978 when membership dwindled around the country as leadership changed. In honor of the Seattle Black Panther Party’s 50th anniversary, which they’re celebrating throughout this weekend, we talked with Aaron about the party’s legacy and how he’s seen Seattle change.

First, what were the Black Panthers all about?

The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary political organization founded in Oakland by Huey [P. Newton] and Bobby Seale.

Our focus was on serving the people in the community. We’d fight against any problems that the community had or any entity that wanted to do harm, and to empower the community.

It was not a violent organization, but we believed in defending ourselves. When we did start carrying weapons, patrolling the police and showing that we were going to defend ourselves and our community, it really made a lot of people in the community feel proud. When we turned our office phones on, we got so many calls from the community for all kinds of things — domestic violence, police abuse, all manner of issues.

What was Seattle like when you founded the party?

We grew up pretty much in a segregated community with other minorities — Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese. We [minorities] were all pretty much regulated to that area. We had our own gas stations, pharmacists, our own businesses.

You know, we weren’t allowed into certain neighborhoods like Ballard or Queen Anne and other areas like Federal Way. Those were areas we weren’t welcomed at.

What motivated you to start the Seattle Black Panther Party?

We all saw the civil rights movement unfold before our eyes on television. … We saw the brutality and the racism that Martin Luther King and the demonstrators had to deal with. You know there was the political assassinations that happened one after another — John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and then eventually Martin Luther King. You also had the Vietnam War going on where a lot of black soldiers were put on the frontlines.

It was a period of revolution. You had all of these things that led up to creating this movement in America and we had that movement in Seattle. It permeated everything in our lives. And of course the culmination was the assassination of Martin Luther King.

When he was assassinated, I said that my picket line was going to be replaced by the gun.

How have you seen Seattle change since then?

Under segregation we had our community value system, oral tradition, our own culture. We felt very safe and empowered in our community — and we’ve lost all that.

You hear a lot of young people talking about “spaces.” I’ve always wondered, what are they talking about? What I came to realize is that because they don’t have a community anymore, they don’t have places where they feel safe and where they can congregate.

Many Seattleites believe our city still has work to do when it comes to addressing racism and racial equity. What gives you hope in the midst of social movements today?

I think this is a new generation that’s coming. [In a school outside Burien], there was a white teacher who was teaching her middle school kids out of my book, “My People Are Rising.”

I came to visit the students and I’m thinking ‘How am I going to keep their attention for an hour?’ I didn’t change my speech for them and they listened so attentively. And when I finished, they just bum-rushed me! They came from the bleachers and ran toward me to take selfies and get my autograph.

That generation of young people gives me hope. They see what’s going on and, you know, I think Trump has a lot to do with that. They are not going to allow this crap to continue like it is. Like those Florida kids said, ‘We’re going to vote your ass’ — excuse my language — ‘out of office.’