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Beatrice Sneed of Suisun rode a train, bus and cab to get to a Black Panther Party 47th anniversary celebration Thursday night in Santa Rosa.

A 71-year-old African-American woman who uses a wheeled walker to get around, Sneed said she was staying at a motel for the entire three-day event through Saturday at the Arlene Francis Center on Sixth Street.

"Because I love it," she said. "I love this kind of gathering."

More than 50 people attended the opening night of the event, organized and hosted by Elbert "Big Man" Howard of Santa Rosa, one of the six founding members of the Black Panthers in Oakland in 1966.

"They got a bad rap," Sneed said, referring to the Panthers' highly publicized, gun-toting protest in the state Assembly chambers in Sacramento in 1967.

"A lot of people were afraid of them," she said. "We tend to be afraid of a lot of people but we're not afraid of the right people."

Howard, 75, a burly man dressed all in black, including a leather jacket, with a white mustache and goatee, told the crowd he was "overjoyed to see you all and have you see me. It's been quite a ride to arrive at this day, this time and this hour."

Howard, who was raised in segregated Chattanooga, Tenn., where Ku Klux Klan members whipped one of his relatives, met Panther co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland after serving four years in the Air Force.

"It was a dawning of new ideas," Howard said in a documentary screened Thursday, titled "Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers."

In person, Howard described the founding of the Panthers, following the death of black activist Malcolm X, as "a group of young guys that came together and just thought they could do something about the conditions that existed."

The Panthers, who became best known for confronting Oakland police on the streets, "created programs for the survival of mankind," Howard said.

Often overlooked, Beatrice Sneed said, were the Panthers' education programs, medical clinics and breakfast programs.

Two years after its founding, the Panthers had spread to major cities from coast to coast and had a peak membership of nearly 10,000 in 1969.

Mike Smith of Sonoma, a former Santa Rosa Junior College District board member, said he knew Newton and Seale during his own anti-war activist days in the 1960s.

"It's natural that I come here," Smith said at the Panthers' anniversary event, recalling that the Black Panthers supported him as one of the "Oakland Seven," prosecuted in connection with a demonstration at the Oakland Induction Center in 1967.

"Black people were standing up proudly and asserting the same rights as other Americans," Smith said. "When they did bear arms, they did it within the law."

Howard, who served as the first Black Panther Party newspaper editor, left the organization in 1974, after it had been tattered by law enforcement and internal strife.

He returned to the South and became a retail manager and family man for 23 years, remaining silent about his Panther activities.

Finally convinced to "come out," as he put it, Howard wrote a book about his experiences, "Panther on the Prowl," self-published in 2000.

In an interview, he said the anniversary celebration was his first public event in Sonoma County, although he has lectured and started community programs.

Asked what the Black Panthers meant to the United States, Howard said: "Change. We wanted to change things and they didn't like it."

"Don't be afraid to challenge situations that are not right and are not beneficial to humanity," he advised today's activists. "Use your God-given instincts and sense and good common judgment and just go forward.

"Nobody's going to give you a road map to anything. You've got to figure it out, like we did."

Chasity Brown of San Diego said she drove to Santa Rosa on Wednesday with her husband, Michael, and their three children to attend the celebration.

The Black Panthers introduced "freedom from being scared" to American blacks, she said. "That's what it meant to me and I wasn't even born then."

"I think that still applies today," Brown said. "I think all races have come a long way, and there's still plenty to be done."

Brown said she and her husband homeschool their children using an "African-centered curriculum."

The kids know about the Black Panthers, but attending the celebration "helps bring it home.

"It was worth the drive up," she said.

The event continues today and Saturday at the Arlene Francis Center, 99 Sixth St. For a schedule of events go to www.bigmanbpp.com.You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.