Embracing 'Black Power' and fighting injustice with a law book and a gun
This story originally aired on March 23, 2019.
When Elmer Dixon was growing up in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood in the early 1960s, the neighborhood was incredibly diverse. In the playground across the street from his house you could find every kind of kid.
“Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, black, white, Latino,” Elmer recalled.
Elmer’s parents exposed him and his siblings to all kinds of cultural experiences. They’d have Scandinavian dance parties with white friends in their living room. They’d play La bohème while their children did their chores around the house, and they’d watch the news with their kids.
Together, through the screen, they saw blacks in the south endure fire hoses, police dogs and bombs as they fought for equality. Elmer’s parents shared their own stories of being victims of discrimination, here in the Northwest.
Once when his mother applied for a job in person, she was told the opening was actually filled. Elmer said his mother later called the business from home to see if this was true, and the person on the other end of the line said the job was still open.
“They couldn’t tell she was a black woman because she didn’t speak what they thought a black woman would sound like," Elmer said. "They were caught with egg on their face.”
By the time Elmer was a teenager, his political awareness was coming into sharper focus.
On April 19, 1967, he and his older brother Aaron Dixon decided to go hear Stokely Carmichael give a speech at Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District. Carmichael was the person who popularized the phrase "black power."
In the long, rousing speech, Carmichael told African-Americans in the audience that they were conditioned by whites to associate negativity with the word black.
“A black mark on your report card, or a black mark on your job report. Angel food cake is white and devil’s food cake is black,” Elmer said, “I became aware of who I am and what it meant for me as a young black man.”
In high school, at Garfield, Elmer started to address racial disparities. He wanted to give black students at the school more of a voice by forming a Black Student Union. The principal at the time denied this request, so Elmer inspired kids to boycott classes and made a point by being silent. Students refused to say the pledge of allegiance and wouldn’t sing the national anthem.
The protests worked. Garfield became the first Black Student Union at a high school on the West Coast.
On April 4, 1968, Elmer was in his geometry class when he was asked to come out of the room. Two police officers greeted him in the hallway. They charged him with unlawful assembly and took him to juvenile detention.
Elmer was charged for demonstrations he helped organize at Franklin High School. He says black students were being disciplined more than whites, and some were being punished for having afros.
Sitting in juvenile detention, Elmer learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Elmer said his arrest was timed to get key organizers, such as himself and his brother Aaron, off the streets. “I was sitting in juvie, looking at the TV and watching America burn along with everyone else,” Elmer said.
When Elmer and his brother were let out of jail, they were mad, they were heartbroken and — like a lot people who were part of the civil rights movement — they were done with being peaceful.
Elmer and Aaron headed to Broadmoor, a wealthy gated community in Seattle. Like today, it had a lush, green golf course. Back then, Broadmoor did not welcome people of color, unless they were the hired help. Elmer and Aaron snuck into the complex through the arboretum. They set some of the golf course on fire. They burned the letter B and P into the green grass: black power.
Days later, with this new openness to being more aggressive and radical, Elmer and Aaron went to San Francisco for a conference of Black Student Union members.
This is where they met Bobby Seale, the co-founder and chairman of the Black Panther Party — a controversial political group that was considered by the FBI to be a serious threat to American Democracy.
Black Panthers fought for racial equality and they did so while carrying guns and sometimes getting into violent confrontations with police.
Elmer and Aaron happened to be in the Bay Area at the same time a funeral was held for one of the Panthers' original members: 17 year old “Little” Bobby Hutton. He was shot and killed by Oakland police.
“The church was lined inside the church walls with young men and young women in leather jackets with barrets and shotgun bandoliers across their chests, and shotguns and I was convinced it was a black army when I saw that,” Elmer said.
Despite being shot multiple times, “Little” Bobby Hutton’s casket was left open. His mother wanted people to see what had happened to her son. Elmer, who was 17, the same age as the young man laid out before him, looked at the body and thought, “That could be me laying in that coffin.”
Elmer and Aaron headed back to Seattle and opened a chapter of the Black Panther Party. It was the first chapter outside California.
During this time, Elmer made the transition from being a high school student who never had a gun, to being a well-armed college freshman at the University of Washington who traveled with bodyguards.
“I couldn’t take bodyguards on campus,” Elmer said. “So, I would carry in my briefcase, my psych book and a .357 Magnum.”
The Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party followed the organization’s order to prevent police brutality against African-Americans. Elmer and his comrades did this by patrolling the neighborhoods, and tailing police cars.
“When we confronted police we had a law book, we knew we had the right to observe them and because we were armed, we had the ability to stop them," Elmer said. "A lawbook and a gun.”
Guns weren’t always involved.The Seattle Black Panthers also started breakfast programs for kids who didn’t have much to eat at home, they fought for more affordable housing, they helped people clear out roaches and rats from their homes and they opened a medical clinic — which is still going today.
All of these efforts were called Programs Pending Revolution. The idea was to bring stability to the African-American community — food, housing, healthcare — so that they’d be ready to fight in a revolution against racial injustice.
That revolution never fully lifted off the ground. The FBI started to infiltrate the party and caused divisions and infighting. Some members were murdered by their own because they were thought to be undercover police. In separate incidents across the country, shootouts with police led to the deaths of at least three police officers and seven Black Panthers.
In the late 1970s, with membership dwindling, the Black Panther Party disbanded.
When Elmer started this journey as a teenager, he didn’t think he’d make it past the age of 22. He traded in his leather jacket and barret a long time ago for suits and ties. Today, he has his own company that helps businesses find ways to attract a more diverse workforce. Elmer is living on the side of hope.
“Women are getting into politics and winning. And they need to push some of these old, deadbeat white men out of office," he said. "I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. But I’m excited about the fact that people are beginning to wake up again.”
Elmer has a message for the next generation that’s trying to fight racism and injustice. He says that good will definitely overcome evil. He believes that extremists in this country are in the minority, and he says we must not let them turn us into who they are.