Elbert Big Man Howard is an African-American writer, lecturer, community organizer and political activist. One of the six original founding members of the Black Panther Party, and the first editor of the Black Panther Party newspaper, he currently resides in Sonoma County, California.
Mr. Howard was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on January 5th, 1938, an only child, the son of Emma and Anderson Howard. His father, having died before he turned two, Elbert was raised by his mother and extended family, in particular, his Aunt Mary and Uncle Walter. Although he was surrounded by a loving family and community, Elbert was very aware that he lived in a racist, unjust, segregated society. He witnessed daily atrocities, including the whipping of one of his relatives by the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1956, a young Howard joined the Air Force, both as a way of helping his ailing mother, and as a lucrative means of escape from the segregated south with its limited opportunities. He was soon shipped overseas and spent about four years in Europe. His experiences, both as a fire-fighter in the Air Force, and as an African-American in Europe, contributed greatly to his development and knowledge.
More than four years later, Elbert was discharged from the Air Force near Oakland, California and, since he liked it there, decided to stay.
After obtaining employment, Howard started attending Grove Street College on his GI bill. It was there that he met Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Their mutual interests in Black History, political science, revolutionary politics and social revolution made for heated discussions and meetings that soon surpassed what was being offered in the classrooms. These early exchanges of dialogue were the pivotal points for what was soon to become the Black Panther Party.
Elbert "Big Man" Howard in front of the BPP headquarters Berkeley, CA 1970. Photo courtesy of Ilka Hartmann
An activist with the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1974, Big Man (as he came to be known) held many positions and worked on numerous projects. He served as the first BPP Newspaper editor, and as the Deputy Minister of Information; he helped to develop the BPP newspaper and build it to a two hundred thousand copy per week circulation. He was a member of the BPP Central Committee, and a Coordinator of National and International Support Committees. As a Panther Party spokesman, he traveled and lectured on the conditions and treatment of African-Americans and other minorities in America. He helped build Solidarity Committees in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
As a student at Peralta Community College, Big Man organized a prisoner re-entry and peer counseling program on the campus. As a community organizer and activist, he helped to develop the first BPP Survival program: the Free Breakfast for School Children program. Howard also helped to develop a Free Community Health Clinic, a Sickle Cell Screening Program, and a Free Transportation to Prisons program.
As a teacher and mentor to young BPP members, and as a political educator, Big Man spoke at schools, colleges, union meetings, and to various Human Rights groups.
Working with the Berkeley Community Action Program, Big Man helped the Organization of Disabled Persons to pressure the government to provide wheelchair access ramps on city streets and government buildings.
In addition to the African-American community, Howard worked to unify groups from the Chicano, Native American, Asian, and European communities to combat racism and discrimination in housing, jobs, and education. He also coordinated the purchases and management of real estate owned by the Black Panther Party's forty-five chapters and branches.
By 1974, 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. And so, in 1974, amidst split loyalties, fighting factions, and general chaos, Elbert Big Man Howard left the Party.
Howard returned to the South, leaving his identity as a revolutionary behind him. He became a retail manager, traveled in this capacity, and ultimately settled down and became a family man. For twenty-three years he worked in retail management, and continued to draw upon his skills as an activist to reach out to troubled youths. He remained silent about his Panther days, with very few people, not even his family, knowing about his historical contributions and past life of activism.
Convinced upon retirement several years ago to come out, Mr. Howard was also persuaded to write about his experiences, and did so, in his self-published book, Panther on the Prowl
. While living in Memphis, Elbert Howard remained a community activist and also was an advisor to several groups working to effect change. In 2003, he served as a Coordinator for the All of Us or None Ex-offender Re-entry Program. He served, in 2004, on the Board of Directors of the Muumbi Charter School in Memphis, and also, on the Board of Directors of the African American Institute of Higher Learning. He has been a Committee Member for Millions for Reparations in Memphis.
Now living in Sonoma County, Mr. Howard has written the foreword for Curtis Austin's book Up Against the Wall
. He lectures at various schools and universities, seeking to educate young people in particular, not only about the legacy of the Black Panther Party, but also, to show them how, by example and action, what can be accomplished. He also works with a coalition against police brutality and immigrant discrimination. He is working with others on the formation of PACH, Police Accountability Clinic and Help Line in Santa Rosa, CA.
To that end, although seventy years of age, Howard is not content to be an historical icon, but remains actively involved in the struggle for human rights, with special emphasis on serving the young, poor, and the disenfranchised in his community. He calls himself a resurrected revolutionary and is currently also working on another book, his life story.
Using his life as an example, we are reminded of the power of the human spirit, how dedication and the ability to act can effect change, and also, how that potential can be realized, for it exists within each one of us.