Elbert Howard, who was a founder of the Black Panther Party and, as its spokesman, in the thick of some of the most tumultuous events of the late 1960s and early ’70s — but who was most enthusiastic about its social-service and community-organizing work — died on Monday in Santa Rosa, Calif. He was 80.
His wife, Carole Hyams, confirmed the death. She said he had been ill for some time but did not specify a cause.
Mr. Howard, widely known as Big Man because of his linebacker’s build, did not have the high profile of the Panther leaders Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton or Eldridge Cleaver as the group, which was formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1966, went national and took on issues like police brutality and racial injustice.
As the group’s deputy minister of information, Mr. Howard was often quoted when the more prominent party figures were on trial or in the news for other reasons. (The minister of information, Mr. Cleaver, was in exile overseas.)
He was the go-to Panther for comments during the 1970 trials in New Haven of Mr. Seale and other party members in a 1969 murder case, proceedings that spawned demonstrations and protests.
Later that year he often spoke for the party as it tried to hold a convention in Washington to rewrite the Constitution — symbolically, at least — to make it fairer to minorities and poor people, and he showed that he, like the party leaders, could bring the heated language when necessary. After the group and Howard University got into a dispute over the use of its campus for the event, he called university officials “a tool of this racist and fascist American government.”
But in a 2004 interview with the website of the PBS documentary series “POV,” when Mr. Howard was asked to name something people did not appreciate about the Black Panthers, he replied:
“People didn’t understand what our survival programs really meant: schoolchildren’s breakfasts, feeding the hungry. Those programs helped immediate problems. They were also organizing tools.
“The Panthers themselves weren’t the only ones in those programs,” he continued. “We got the community involved, teaching them how to become self-reliant, whereas the government wouldn’t help with problems. It was about us helping ourselves.”
Mr. Howard was born on Jan. 5, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tenn., to Anderson and Emma (Hawkshaw) Howard.
In 1956 he enlisted in the Air Force. He served four years, and when he was discharged, from Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, he decided to stay in the area.
“My hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., had no more to offer me than when I enlisted in the Air Force in 1956,” he wrote in a remembrance for It’s About Time, an archive devoted to the Black Panthers. “At least Oakland seemed to have a thriving black community with friendly people.”
Attending Merritt College in Oakland on the G.I. Bill, Mr. Howard met Mr. Newton and Mr. Seale, who were also students there and central figures in organizing the Black Panther Party.
He did not consider himself a public speaker at first, but he found himself given speaking assignments anyway. For the first one, he was sent to address an organization of San Francisco probation officers.
“They wanted to know what we thought about them and their jobs,” he wrote later. He told them, bluntly, that black people viewed them as being interested only in sending someone back to jail.
“My final question to the group,” he wrote, “was, ‘Did your college education and training teach you to deal with human beings with all their complex problems, or did your training just turn you into a tool to keep the revolving door at the penitentiary turning?’ ”
“It was not what they wanted to hear,” he added, “but I didn’t care.”
Mr. Howard edited the party’s newspaper, made several trips overseas representing the organization, and worked on the types of project that did not make headlines.
“ ‘Big Man’ Howard himself was responsible for a free medical clinic for sickle-cell anemia, and a work-study program for parolees” at Merritt, Mr. Seale wrote this week in a Facebook post commemorating Mr. Howard’s life.
Ms. Hyams said Mr. Howard had been adept at organizing, working on things like access for people with disabilities as well as programs aimed at black neighborhoods. “He connected with all manner of groups of people,” she said, “not just African-American groups.”
Mr. Howard was easy to spot in newspaper photographs. He did not realize how well known he had become until, in September 1971, he accompanied Mr. Seale into the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Inmates had seized control of the prison, and Mr. Seale led a Panther contingent trying to mediate (unsuccessfully; the riot ended disastrously).
“When it was announced that Bobby Seale and a delegation of the B.P.P. was there, the whole yard erupted with applause and yells of acknowledgment,” Mr. Howard wrote. “On our way to our seats, I shook hands with many, many inmates who said, ‘Hey, Big Man, all power to the people.’ I had no idea these guys knew me or who I was.”
The party eventually became riven by internal disputes. Mr. Howard left in 1974.
Later in life he was a retail service manager in Memphis, where he also continued to be involved in community programs, including organizing a re-entry program for former inmates. He also wrote and lectured and was a jazz disc jockey on California radio stations.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Tynisa Howard Wilson; a stepson, Robert Grimes; two grandsons; and three step-grandchildren. He lived in Santa Rosa.
Ms. Hyams, who first met Mr. Howard in the 1960s, reconnected with him years later. They married a decade ago. In a telephone interview, she said that for their celebration, Big Man did what he did best.
“He, the organizer, organized it,” she said. “He was the wedding planner. He did the greatest job.”
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