Robert ‘Bobby’ Searle was a co-founder of the Black Panther movement that came to symbolise the more aggressive side to the civil rights movement in America. Searle founded the Black Panthers along with Huey Newton.


Bobby Searle was born on October 22nd 1936 in Dallas, Texas. During World War Two, his family moved to and settled in Oakland, California. In 1955, Searle joined the air force but received a dishonourable discharge in 1958 for insubordination and being absent without leave. When he returned to Oakland he found work as a sheet metal worker.


In an attempt to broaden his education, Searle went to night school. In 1962 he started attending Merritt College in Oakland. While at Merritt College Searle joined the Afro-American Association and it was at one of these meetings that he met Huey Newton.


Both Searle and Newton became wary about the direction the Afro-American Association was going as to both men it seemed to be achieving nothing for the African-American community in Oakland. To Searle, the AAA did a great deal of talking and analysing but did not make the effort to actually do something substantive. This they sort to change but not within the AAA.


By the mid-1960’s Malcolm X had made a marked impact on the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was someone who provoked a specific response from people – he was either admired and respected or loathed. Searle was very influenced by Malcolm X and respected his belief that if the government won’t attempt to give you something, you should grab it with both hands yourself and if that included violence, then so be it. On October 15th 1966, Searle and Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. By this time Malcolm X had been assassinated but in his memory the Black Panther’s adopted his slogan: “Freedom By Any Means Necessary”. Searle became the Black Panther’s chairman.


Against a background of anti-Vietnam War protests, Nation of Islam and growing militancy, it was to be expected that Searle attracted the attention of the FBI. They were concerned about the overt militancy of the Black Panthers and they kept Searle under surveillance.


Searle gained national fame as part of the ‘Chicago Eight’ who were arrested and charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago. The evidence against him was small but Searle was jailed for four years – not so much for the part he may have played in the Chicago riots but for the fact that he disrupted court proceedings by his frequent outbursts. He was specifically jailed for sixteen counts of contempt of court and on one occasion was bound and gagged on the orders of the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman.


While serving his sentence Searle was charged with ordering the murder of Alex Rackley, a member of the Black Panthers. Rackley was thought to be a police informant. Those who were charged with carrying out the murder turned state’s evidence and claimed that it was Searle who had ordered the killing. However, the jury failed to reach a verdict and the charge was dropped. Searle was released from prison in 1972 and renounced the use of violence.


In 1973, Searle ran for political office – Mayor of Oakland. Out of nine candidates, Searle received the second highest number of votes (43,710) but ultimately lost to the incumbent Mayor, John Reading. However, it showed the extent of the support for the Black Panther movement in Oakland at that time.


Searle left the Black Panther movement in 1974. It is said that he had a disagreement with Newton over a film that was going to be made about the Black Panthers. Both men argued over who they wanted to direct the film.


Since that time, Searle’s beliefs have moderated. He has written a cookbook with the profits going to social organisations and Searle has also appeared in television programmes that highlighted the 1960’s in America. In 2002 he joined ‘Reach!’ – a group involved in youth education and he also involved himself in community work.  


October 2011