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Shawn Vestal: Former Black Panther turned business consultant says change starts with voting

Elmer Dixon is a long way from his days as what he calls a “gun-toting (Black) Panther on the street, demanding truth and justice right now.”

He’s the president of Seattle-based Executive Diversity Services, Inc. His firm provides diversity consulting for corporations and other organizations all around the world, including some big ones: Fred Hutch, Clif Bar Inc., Microsoft.

A lot has changed in the half-century since Dixon and his brother founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers, but the key issues that motivate him remain essentially the same: equality, poverty, health care, housing, economic justice, police brutality.

If people want to effect change on those fronts, he says, they have to start by voting.

Dixon will be the keynote speaker at the Spokane NAACP branch’s 99th Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday. The event is a key fundraiser for the organization, and this year’s theme is “Defeat Hate – Vote!”

Dixon, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Seattle in 1961 at the age of 13, said he was first energized by the issue of voter registration before he could vote himself. He was a teenager during the front edge of the civil rights era and a time of great racial strife.

He heard a speech by Stokely Carmichael at Garfield High School in 1967. Carmichael, one of the original Freedom Riders and a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, gave a speech focused on black pride and getting out the vote.

“I was 17 years old, and that was a very powerful message,” he said. “We were ignited by Stokely’s speech.”

Dixon joined SNCC, but the following year, he and his brother, Aaron, formed Seattle’s Black Panthers chapter.

Though the Panthers were militant and controversial – arming themselves in what Dixon saw as a defensive necessity in an era of Southern church bombings and routine attacks from law enforcement on peaceful protesters – the picture of them painted by police, government officials and the media was often greatly distorted, Dixon said.

The FBI declared them an enemy of America, and worked hard to disband and erode the group – both with traditional tactics and an extensive counterintelligence operation.

“Young black men and women armed themselves to defend their community, not to attack the police,” he said in an interview this week while waiting for a ferry to his Port Orchard home. “I was of a generation that said, ‘We’re not turning the other cheek. We’re going to defend ourselves.’ ”

Seattle didn’t have some of the more violent confrontations between police and Black Panthers that occurred in other cities, but Dixon said that the possibility was always there. They believed they were engaged in a “protracted war.”

“We were consistently the target of police raids and racist hate crimes, and the party’s needs were ever-evolving as one office was shut down and another opened,” he said in an oral history with writer and activist Anisa Jackson.

He recalled a time where Seattle Panthers were bracing for a raid from federal agents, and were ready to fight.

“If they had attacked us, it would’ve been a bloody scene,” he said. “We were well-armed and well-organized.”

The Panthers received much less attention – from the FBI or the national news – for their social programs. The Seattle group started a free breakfast program for poor children, recognizing something that has become widespread understanding through the public school system: Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry.

“We fed 2,000 kids a hot breakfast every morning before they went to school,” Dixon said.

The Seattle chapter ran free buses to prisons for family visits. Most enduringly, it also started a free health clinic “long before Obamacare was even thought of,” he said.

It started as a free well-baby clinic in the Black Panthers headquarters and moved several times, including a stint in the basement of a home. While the Black Panthers disbanded long ago, the clinic lives on as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.

Of 13 clinics that were started by Black Panther chapters, it’s the only one still operating, Alondra Nelson, author of a book about the party’s health care work, “Body and Soul,” told the Seattle Times earlier this year.

The Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers moved to Oakland, California, in 1972, but Elmer stayed behind and worked to maintain the social programs for several years. These days he travels all over, helping companies evaluate their practices for unconscious bias, and giving presentations on the role of culture in health care, policing in diverse communities and other subjects.

“I have taken an evolutionary path,” he said. “But my philosophy, my beliefs and the things we stood for as Panthers are still relevant today.”