Corporate Influence and the Legacy of Black Power

Bobby Seale at the Black Community Survival Conference on March 30, 1972 (Photo: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries).

My recent piece for Black Perspectives examined the relationship between Nike and Spike Lee in the wake of the company’s collaboration with Colin Kaepernick. Since writing it, I have spent more time reflecting on how major American businesses have attempted to fuse the idea—if not necessarily the practice—of Black radical activism with corporate social responsibility. This piece explores the trajectory of Black Power activist Bobby Seale, who appeared to shift from a denunciation of racialized capitalism in the 1960s to an embrace of corporate America by the 1990s.

Seale established the Black Panther Party with Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California. Initially focused on police brutality in Oakland, the Panthers rapidly expanded their organizational remit and base of support, becoming one of the era’s most dynamic forces for anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism. Seale’s lurid rhetorical style played a central role in establishing the Panthers combative public image, with his incendiary use of the term “pig” referring to “the people who systematically violate the peoples’ constitutional rights—whether they be monopoly capitalists or police.” However, intensive federal efforts to sabotage the Party, coupled with internal disputes and the incarceration and exile of key spokesmen, led to a demise in popular support. Seale was among the many Panther leaders to be targeted, and would be sentenced to four years in prison on contempt charges relating to the “Chicago Eight” trial in 1969, although his conviction would later be overturned.

During Seale’s time in prison many local Party chapters disbanded or spiraled into permanent decline. Despite such problems, Panther-led voting drives and grassroots political activism helped lay the groundwork for subsequent Black political victories such as the election of Lionel Wilson, who became Oakland’s first Black mayor in 1977. Seale himself ran for the position in 1973 after leaving prison, eventually losing a run-off to Republican incumbent John Reading. However, after his brief foray into politics Seale appeared to distance himself from the Panthers to rehabilitate his public image. Following the publication of his 1978 autobiography A Lonely Rageleading media outlets reported that Seale had “mellowed” and was carefully promoting his book “like any good capitalist.”1 By the 1980s Seale had secured a twice-weekly radio show in Colorado and had reinvented himself as a food connoisseur. In a 1987 interview with the New York Times, titled “Bobby Seale and the Pigs, 1980’s Style”, the activist declared his desire to become “the barbecue kingpin of America.”2

In the same year that A Lonely Rage hit bookstores across the country, childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened a small ice cream parlor in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Three years later, the first Ben & Jerry’s franchise opened in a Burlington suburb, and the company rapidly expanded across the northeast. From its early days, Ben and Jerry stressed a grassroots and ‘values-driven’ approach to marketing, contending that they “didn’t want to be a traditional business” but “a force for progressive social change.” This included the creation of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation in 1985, which channeled 7.5% of the company’s annual pre-tax profits into community projects. Its appeal was also based on an offbeat, anti-establishment platform, with new flavors being named after Grateful Dead guitarists (Cherry Garcia) and personalities from the Woodstock Festivals of the 1960s (Wavy Gravy). Such practices appeared to be working; in 1988 its founders were jointly named “U.S Small Business Persons of the Year” by President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony. The next step was to establish Ben & Jerry’s as the nation’s choice.

In 1994 the company unveiled its most radical ice-cream line to date; a new range of “smooth, no chunks” flavors in an explicit attempt to establish dominance over rival companies as part of what would come to be known as the “ice cream wars.” In an accompanying marketing campaign, Ben & Jerry’s assembled an eclectic cast of social and political activists to stump for their dairy-heavy treats, including folk singer Pete Seeger, labor activist Dolores Huerte, and indigenous rights campaigner Buffy Sainte-Marie. Spike Lee directed the campaign and featured in its television and magazine advertising. Bobby Seale also featured prominently in the campaign, clad in a beret and turtleneck and throwing a Black Power fist with one hand while holding a tub of vanilla Ben & Jerry’s in the other. Cohen delighted in the participation of Lee and Seale, celebrating their role as evidence that “you can make a great product, create progressive social momentum and have fun doing it,” and positioning Ben & Jerry’s as “the keepers of the 1960s flame.” In the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Goldman reported that the reward for “selling out to the establishment” was enrollment in the company’s “Free Ice Cream for Life Club.”3

As Seale posed with his carton of Ben & Jerry’s, I wonder if he thought of fellow Panther Fred Hampton, who twenty-five years earlier had received a two-to-five-year prison sentence on charges of robbing $71 worth of ice cream from a Chicago vendor. Despite Hampton’s claims that he wasn’t even in the neighborhood at the time of the alleged incident, and that while “I may be a pretty big mother…I can’t eat no 710 ice-cream bars”, a unanimous decision was handed down by circuit court Judge Sidney A. Jones. Just over a week later, Hampton was gunned down by the FBI and Chicago police officials as he slept alongside pregnant fiancée Deborah Johnson in their small apartment on West Monroe Street; a brutal resolution to a months-long intimidation campaign and one of the most flagrant examples of federal efforts to destroy the Panthers. I wonder what Seale’s response was to Cohen’s rose-tinted assertion that Ben & Jerry’s were now the “keepers of 60’s values. Ice cream is fun. It’s happy. The 60’s were a wonderful time.” I wonder what Hampton might have made of Ben & Jerry’s “radical” new flavors if he had been alive to taste them.

It is easy to criticize Seale for his apparent willingness to sell out, and perhaps we should, but he was not the only Black radical whose ideas and allegiances shifted during the post-movement years. Seale’s embrace of capitalism and the American political system was mirrored by other Panthers such as James Young (who ran as a Republican candidate for State Representative in Boston), Jerry Rubin (who enjoyed success as a stockbroker), and Eldridge Cleaver (whose range of enthusiastic business ventures included a pair of virility pants he designed to help men “assert their masculinity”). As scholars such as Tom Adam Davies and Jakobi Williams have noted, Black radical activists had to adapt to survive in the increasingly conservative and business-oriented culture of the 1970s and 1980s, and this lead to often uneasy alliances and compromises with individuals, organisations and entities they had previously placed themselves in opposition to. It is tempting to think about Black Power ahistorically—to reflect on the era’s triumphs and tragedies without considering the post-movement trajectories of its icons, or the ways in which their understanding of and relationship to capitalism and American society shifted. However, the reality is often more complicated.

In turn, this static portrayal of Black Power is connected to a broader rehabilitation and mediation of Black radical activism which occurred during the decades following the 1960s. Seale’s rehabilitation from firebrand to brand ambassador paralleled the evolving public image of figures such as Muhammad Ali, whose association with the Nation of Islam during the 1960s made many American advertisers and politicians wary, but whose appearance at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 (and subsequent role as a global brand ambassador for Coca-Cola) cemented his status as a national hero. On reflection, Seale’s collaboration with Ben & Jerry’s campaign is one of the most striking examples of how, by the 1990s, Black radicalism had been made palatable through a politics of nostalgia, and a reminder of the key role corporate America played in facilitating this transition.

  1.  Paul Hendrickson, “Revolutionary Reconsiderations”, Washington Post, 10 March 1978.
  2.  David Tuller, “Bobby Seale and the Pigs, 1980’s Style”, New York Times, 6 September 1987.
  3.  Kevin Goldman, “Ben & Jerry’s Seeks Sales Boost with Radical Dose of Nostalgia”, Wall Street Journal, 5 May 1994; Emily Denitto, “Ben & Jerry’s & Spike”, AdAge, 21 March 1994; Claudia Dreifus, “Passing The Scoop”, New York Times, 18 December 1994.
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E. James West

E. James West is a Visiting Professor and Fulbright Scholar at Elon University, and a Leverhulme Early Career Scholar at Northumbria University. His book, Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History, is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press.