The man who takes the podium on the night of Sept. 18 at the Northwest African American Museum doesn’t look significantly different from his youthful portrait glaring off the cover of his book, “My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain.”
Aaron Dixon’s mustache is fuller, his hair now pulled back in a short ponytail and his left arm doesn’t move nearly as well as his right — a shotgun once exploded as he test-fired it.
He’s at the museum, formerly the Colman school in Seattle’s Central Area, to launch his book, sign some copies, give credit where credit is due and tell some stories.
The de facto leader
Dixon begins slowly and is soft-spoken. As his friends through the decades describe him, he’s never been the greatest public speaker, but he copes and he warms to the room. He tells the audience he did not sit down with the Black Panthers with any intention of becoming a leader in that organization, but that, in 1968, “Bobby [Seale, Black Panther Party chair] asked who was gonna be the captain, and everybody pointed at me.”
Seale gave authorization for the Seattle Black Panthers to proceed, forming the first chapter of the party outside the state of California. Dixon, a leader of men at age 19, was instrumental in founding the party’s Free Breakfast for Children program. He recalls that the Panthers, at first, had to get up at 6 a.m. each weekday to feed the children before they went to school.
He also helped set up the Sydney Miller Free Medical Clinic, at 20th Avenue and Spruce Street in Seattle, which opened in 1969 and continues to operate as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.
The Seattle Panthers also opened a legal clinic, a food bank and a summer-school program for kids called the Liberation School.
Dixon said this schedule wasn’t easy to keep: The Panthers awoke for business at their headquarters no later than 6 a.m., and they kept guard over their office at 34th Avenue and East Union Street through the night, in two-hour shifts.
Money was always tight, and Dixon remembers paying for Panther armaments with one of his last student-loan checks for college. Most of the Party funding came through its official newspaper, which, at its peak, had a circulation of 250,000. Panthers sold papers anywhere and any way they could.
Dixon heard that the African National Conference, fighting apartheid in South Africa, kept a cache of Panther papers.
Richard Nixon’s COINTELPRO program left the Panthers increasingly paranoid and incapacitated; they disbanded for good in 1982.
Dixon founded and worked with several nonprofit organizations, continuing the Panthers’ work with ameliorating drug and gang violence.
He ran for governor of Washington state in 2006 on the Green Party ticket, spending a short time in jail for protesting his not being invited to a candidates’ debate at KING-5 studios. He finished fourth in the race, with 21,254 votes.
The rank and file
After his presentation at the Northwest African American Museum, Dixon takes questions from the audience. Some ask what is to be done about public education, modern-day American lynchings and other issues.
While Dixon tries to sound encouraging, he stated, “I’m not a politician anymore….”
He said he is planning a trip to Palestine soon, and he recruits a friend to solicit funds from the audience.
The former Panther captain then invited his brother and colleagues and friends from his past to share the accolades. He tells the audience to remember the “rank and file” that made activism happen, and in Dixon’s underspoken, warm delivery, that does not sound dutiful — it sounds simply deep.
For more information about Aaron Dixon’s book “My People Are Rising,” visit his book publisher’s website: www.haymarketbooks.org.