Howard keeps an eye on police, teaches listeners about musical roots
December 1, 2008
It's 11:30 on a Saturday night, and Elbert "Big Man" Howard speaks
sweet and low into an on-air microphone. He's playing real jazz --
Coltrane, Brubeck, Miles Davis -- and he's "bridging the gap."
At almost 71, Howard recently answered a calling and became a
late-night radio host in Santa Rosa. He'd felt compelled by his
lifelong love of the music and by something else -- an old activist's
restless desire to do some social good, mix things up, fill a void.
Playing and talking about jazz for two hours on Saturday nights won't
right any great wrongs. More modestly, Howard hopes his program on
public bilingual station KBBF-FM might demonstrate to young people
that much of the hip-hop, rap and other music they love "didn't just
fall out of the sky," but has its roots in jazz.
"There is a need to kind of bridge the gap between what was in the
past and what is happening now," said the powerfully built and
deliberate two-year Forestville resident.
His "Jazz Styles" show serves also to propel his voice and views back
into the public realm in California after a lengthy absence. It was
42 years ago that he reacted to a call to action by co-founding the
Black Panther Party in Oakland, and getting militant.
In the early 1960s, Howard had completed a pre-Vietnam stint in the
Air Force and used the GI Bill to enroll in Oakland's Merritt
College. There he met and clicked with young revolutionaries Huey
Newton, Bobby Seale and others during increasingly angry campus
discussions of racist abuses, institutional injustice, black history
and the pull of radicalism.
"From a study group, we began to put some things into practice,"
Howard said. "We took some very bold steps, as I look back."
In 1966, six fed-up young black men -- Howard was then 28 -- founded
in Oakland what they originally called the Black Panther Party for
"Police brutality was one of the focal points that we addressed,"
Howard said. "We began to patrol the patrols, so to speak."
He remembers carloads of Panthers, armed with shotguns, pulling to
the curb in the East Bay on seeing the police pull over an
African-American motorist. The Panthers would stand at a distance,
sending the police a message that they were being watched.
"We had a philosophy of direct action to solve problems," said
Howard. He became the party's Deputy Minister of Information and
editor of a newspaper whose circulation would grow to 200,000 per week.
The BBP's militant defiance of the establishment and its efforts to
draw more health, food and educational services to neglected
African-American communities struck a chord in the mid to late 1960s,
the era of Vietnam protests, the Kent State killings and the
assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The movement that began with
Howard and five others in Oakland spread to 45 chapters across the
country and alliances around the world.
For eight years, Howard raced to fulfill his duties as a key
spokesman and emissary for the Black Panthers and, concurrently, as a
community organizer. Working within and outside the party, he
promoted programs that provided college re-entry and peer counseling
to former inmates, preventive health care clinics, breakfasts for
schoolchildren, sickle cell screening and advocacy for the physically disabled.
Somewhere in there, he fell in love.
Late in the '60s, a change-minded woman named Carole Hyams wrote to
the BBP national office in Berkeley and asked to become a volunteer
with the party. She was told to come in and see if she might help out
with the newspaper that Howard edited.
He recalls that it was a big surprise to see a white woman "at a desk
of the Black Panther Party." But the two of them went to work
together on the newspaper, and a romance led to them briefly living together.
Then Howard had to move on. That era, in about 1969, was a wildly
busy time, he said. "We had people being locked up left and right."
Also, the party called on him to travel extensively -- to Japan,
Europe, elsewhere -- to speak and organize. He and Hyams had no
choice but to break off.
She became a nurse in the East Bay. Howard stayed on in the party
until 1974, by which time forces internal and external had put the
Black Panthers in disarray.
He left the party, and California, and in time found himself a place
in the mainstream. He went into retail-store management in his native
Tennessee and in other Southern states.
He was living in Memphis when, in 2006, Hyams tried to find him and
did. She'd moved to Forestville in 2000 and extended a Wine Country
invitation that he accepted.
"We went wine tasting and she showed me how beautiful this area was,"
Howard recalled. They married in Forestville in September of 2007.
A spate of shootings by police in Sonoma County spurred the two
former Black Panther colleagues to resume working together as
community activists. They helped create the Police Accountability
Crisis Hotline (542-7224), a volunteer service that receives and
documents telephoned complaints of abusive conduct by officers.
"I feel like I'm fighting the same old battle again," Howard said.
He speaks on community organizing and the Panthers, and he's writing
a book. And come Saturday night, he fights to keep alive the legacy
and joy of jazz.