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Black Panther Party co-founder Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard, 80, dies in Santa Rosa

Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the original members of the Black Panther Party during the 47th anniversary celebration of the Black Panther Party founding, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on October 17, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

CHRIS SMITH,

Elbert “Big Man” Howard, a founding member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland and for the past decade a Sonoma County human rights activist and jazz/blues radio host, died Monday in Santa Rosa.

Howard was a military veteran who helped teach fellow Black Panthers to handle guns, but in the company of armed revolutionaries was most strongly drawn to community organizing and outreach to disenfranchised and impoverished people. He was 80 and died after a lengthy illness.

In 1966, he was one of six original Black Panthers co-founders, among them Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. He was international spokesman for the group and editor of their newspaper, which at its peak distributed more than 200,000 copies per week.

In and around Oakland in the latter half of the 1960s and first half of the 70s, Howard took part in shadowing law-enforcement officers to discourage them from abusing blacks and others. And he traveled the world as an emissary for the Black Panthers, seeking support and alliances.

His work with impoverished East Bay residents included the founding of a free medical clinic for sickle cell anemia and a work-study program for jail inmates. He was a driving force, too, for a program that provided free breakfast to thousands of Oakland school kids.

“He was a beloved member,” friend and Black Panther Party archivist Billy X Jennings said of Howard. He added that people might have harbored resentment against the party’s Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver, “but nobody got a grudge against Big Man.”

Howard left the Black Panthers in 1974 as it unraveled from internal conflict, deadly shootouts and disruption tactics by the FBI, whose director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, called the Black Panthers “the single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”

Howard four decades ago packed away his radical past, returned to his home state of Tennessee and went to work in retail, becoming a Kmart manager.

He was a divorced father and grandfather when, in 2005, he heard from Carole Hyams, a nurse in Forestville he’d been close to for a time in 1969. The two of them married a decade ago and Howard moved into his wife’s home.

“He loved his time here in Sonoma County,” Hyams said. “He thrived.”

The couple moved from Forestville to Santa Rosa five years ago.

Throughout the last 10 years of his life, Howard wrote and lectured about his life and activism, and about the need for sustained vigilance against racism and other abuses.

“He just really liked young people and being able to talk about the work he’d done. And he never really stopped,” said friend and fellow activist Mary Moore of Camp Meeker.

Howard was outspoken about a Sonoma County deputy sheriff’s 2013 killing of Santa Rosa teenager Andy Lopez and was active with his wife in the now defunct Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline, or PACH.

“We need community control of police and community involvement,” Howard said at a 2015 luncheon in Santa Rosa at which the regional American Civil Liberties Union presented him and Hyams that year’s Jack Green Civil Liberties Award.

“Unless the community gets involved, they are going to be affected by what goes on with the behavior of the police,” he told the banquet’s guests.

All his life, Howard found refuge and joy in music. In recent years, the North Bay people most familiar with his voice were listeners of his jazz and blues programs on Sonoma County radio stations KRCB, KWTF, KGGF, KOWS and KBBF.

He said in 2016 that while growing up Chattanooga, Tennessee, music was ever present in the house.

“Gospel, the blues, the country blues, it was always part of life,” he told Gabe Meline of KQED. “Even had the preachers that preached sermons on the street, and they were great musicians, playing guitar and singing. All of that stuff just stayed with me.”

Howard was a teenager when he enlisted in the Air Force for an escape from the oppression of segregated Tennessee. As a kid, he’d witnessed the horsewhipping of a relative by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 260 pounds, the recruit served as firefighter, mostly in France.

At the end of his term he was honorably discharged at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield and decided to try out life in nearby Oakland.

In 1966, he was 28 and studying at Oakland’s Merritt College when he met Seale and Newton. The three of them explored a common interest in resistance to police abuse of African-Americans, politics, black history and social revolution.

The previous year, minister and human rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated in New York.

Earlier in 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King carried the civil rights movement and its message of nonviolent civil disobedience north to Chicago.

Following the June, 1966, shooting of black activist James Meredith in Mississippi early on in his March Against Fear, Stokely Carmichael told fellow marchers, “This is the 27th time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over.

“What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power.”

That October, in Oakland, Seale and Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Howard and three others — Sherwin Forte, Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton — signed on as founding members.

Howard told The Press Democrat in March of 2017 he’d had enough of police brutality committed with impunity on African-Americans.

“No results came of it, and no one came to the people’s rescue,” he said.

Initially, he and the other Black Panthers wore berets and black leather jackets as they stood in armed defiance and patrolled the streets in vigilance against police brutality.

“In the beginning,” Howard said 2002, “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. Extreme actions required extreme measures.”

Howard had much to do with the growth of the party to more than 40 chapters and several thousand members. But the group was besieged and in disarray when Howard left in 1974 and returned to his native Tennessee.

In 2002, he wrote and self-published a book, “Panther on the Prowl.” While still in Tennessee, he resumed an active role in community efforts to assist ex-offenders and provide educational opportunities for African-Americans.

When Hyams found and expressed an interest to see him in 2005, he traveled to Sonoma County, then decided to stay.

Hyams said former Black Panther Bill Jennings is helping to arrange for a celebration of her husband’s life in Oakland in a few weeks.

In addition to his wife in Santa Rosa, Howard is survived by daughter Tynisa Howard Wilson of Landover, Maryland; stepson Robert Grimes of San Pablo and five grandchildren.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.