Big Man Howard’s storied past
Elbert “Big Man” Howard lives a relatively quiet life in Forestville with his spouse, Carole Hyams-Howard, and is locally known as the radio voice behind KGGV’s Saturday night jazz show and KWTF’s Voices Behind the Walls.
But scratch the surface and his storied past springs to life. In November, he traveled to San Francisco to accept the Black Resistance Media Legacy Award for publishing the Black Panther Party Newspaper, reinvigorating his reputation as one of the six founders of the Oakland-based militant organization in 1966.
Howard, 74, spent only about eight years with the Panthers, leaving the group behind for a relatively mainstream life as a family man working in retail in Tennessee. He returned to California in 2005 and has found less radical outlets for his social activism in addition to his radio shows. He has been a volunteer DJ at 3 radio stations, lectures and speaks in schools and colleges, and is on the board as a founding member of PACH and KWTF, writes, and makes appearances for historical events related to the Black Panther Party and also has made appearances for the Pirkle Jones Foundation at opening photo exhibits.
“Educate to liberate, each one teach one,” Howard says by way of explanation. “Those are phrases repeated often by the Black Panther Party that still ring true to me these many years later.”
Howard was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1938, and lost his father before he turned 2. His mother and her extended family raised him. Although surrounded by a loving family and community, he lived in a segregated society and witnessed a Black man being whipped by the Ku Klux Klan.
Howard joined the Air Force in 1956 and spent much of his four-year enlistment in Europe before being discharged at Travis Air Force Base. While in Europe, Howard was a member of a crash rescue team. His brothers-in-arms started calling him ‘Big Man’ and that continues to be the name he goes by.
“I liked Oakland and decided to stay awhile,” says Howard. Chattanooga had no more to offer than when he enlisted, and Oakland had a thriving Black community with friendly people.
“However, the lines of segregation were clearly drawn, with the city’s storm troopers there to keep Black people in line and unable to cross it without deadly consequences,” he says. “These deadly consequences were carried out almost weekly, with white cops killing Black citizens. Without exception it was officially termed ‘justifiable homicide’ by the police and city officials.”
Howard got a job and used the G.I. Bill to enroll at Merritt (Grove Street) College, where he met fellow students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. They were all interested in Black history and started a Black organization called the Soul Students Advisory Council.
During that time he was introduced to the work of Malcolm X and his group became “interested in political science, revolutionary politics and social revolutions, ” topics that were beyond what was offered in the classroom.
Says Howard, “We would have political education classes after school. We would meet at Bobby’s mother’s house, at Huey’s apartment and at my house. We would read and discuss ‘The Red Book,’ the writings of Dr. DuBois, Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Castro and many others. We were always seeking solutions to our community situations.”
While he was in the BPP he had a job as ombudsman at the Grove Street College, which ws offered to him by the then-president of the College – Dr. Young Park – helping ex-offenders re-enter the world, working on police accountability and establishing schools and clinics.
Howard recalls one particular incident that pushed him into the Panther Party. After a night at a local club, he went for the car and then double-parked while he retrieved his date. Oakland Police officers gave him a ticket, skipping the white patrons who also were double-parked in front of and behind him.
“I took offense and asked why I was singled out for a ticket. Was it because I was Black and had a new pick-up truck? I said ‘F you white MFs’ and attempted to leave. Needless to say, I was taken to Oakland City Jail and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, threatening a police officer and other things I’d never heard of.”
Out on bail the next day, he asked Huey Newton, who “studied law and knew how the Oakland justice system worked,” to accompany him to court. “The judge said something sarcastic like, ‘He is most likely guilty, but I’m going to dismiss it.’
“Huey and I left the courthouse with me mad as hell. On the drive to Huey’s apartment, we discussed the laws regarding firearms in the city. From that day forward, I started riding around Oakland with my loaded shotgun in the rack of my pick-up truck, just like the rednecks of the day did.”
As the battle for Civil Rights raged out of control, “Malcolm X was telling us to defend ourselves,” Howard says. “If any man puts his hands on you or yours, you had a right, you had an obligation, to fix him so he would never be able to do it again. I believed in these teachings and still do. I was truly angry.”
His anger was “tempered with discipline and reasonable thought,” Howard says, but like others he agreed to follow “the rules of engagement set forth by Chairman Bobby Seale and Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton.”
When a man named “Lil Bobby” Hutton came by to borrow a shotgun, Howard remembers giving him a 12 gauge Winchester pump and asking, “Are you sure this is not for something personal?” “He said, ‘No Big Man, this is Party business.’ He told me he was going on street patrol that night. I said OK, be careful, I’ll see you later.
“The next morning, I got the news. Panthers and police in a shootout and Panther killed. I found out it was ‘Lil Bobby.’ Then the human emotions started to creep in on me.”
The “What Ifs” continue to haunt him, Howard says, “but I know that the awful feelings I get would be worse if I had not tried to arm him well to do the job he gave his life doing, protecting the community in which we lived.”
He found an outlet for his anger as the first editor of the Black Panther’s newspaper, building its circulation to 200,000 copies per week. He also traveled the world as the Panther’s deputy minister of information and international and established a community medical clinic and an educational program for ex-offenders at Merritt College.
While attending Peralta Community College, Howard organized a prisoner re-entry and peer-counseling program on campus and helped develop a free breakfast program for school children, free community health clinic, Sickle Cell screening program and free transportation program to prisons.
By 1974, however, Howard says the Justice Department, police departments, the FBI, and the CIA had all but destroyed the Black Panther Party through the use of undercover agents, trumped-up charges, impersonations of Party members, random arrests and murders.
“As far as I was concerned,” says Howard, “we were losing our credibility. The party was under pressure and could no longer perform the community work they wished to be involved in.”
And so, amidst split loyalties, fighting factions, and general chaos, Howard left the party he helped found and returned to Memphis, leaving his identity as a revolutionary behind him. He became a retail manager for a gift company called Service Merchandise and ultimately settled down as a family man.
In 2000, he wrote “Panther on the Prowl,” a memoir about his early activism, and in 2003 he became the coordinator of an ex-offender re-entry program and began channeling his skills into community activism. He joined the boards of the Muumbi Charter School and the African American Institute of Higher Learning and, after moving to Forestville added lecturer, political educator and author to his resume.
There he helped found the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline, which serves community members who have complaints about law enforcement.
As time passes, Howard also has reclaimed his role as spokesman for the Panthers, one of only three founders still alive. Huey Newton passed on in 1989, and Howard occasionally sees Bobby Seale at reunions. In 2006, he delivered a speech to high school students, saying:
“As we approach the 40th anniversary, I am convinced that I did not choose to join the Black Panther Party – the Party chose me. So to all former members, friends and community supporters, the spirits of our fallen comrades and the ancestors command us to continue to educate the uneducated and reeducate the miseducated.
“Let us join together to celebrate our history and each other and continue on. There is work for us to do.”