by Morris Turner III
The Sonoma County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) held its annual Jack Green Awards Luncheon on Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Santa Rosa, California. A room filled with long time activists – attorneys as well as a new generation of community minded leaders – gathered to acknowledge this year’s honorees. Included were original founding member of the Black Panther Party Elbert “Big Man” Howard and his wife, Carole Hyams-Howard, a long time human rights activist and former community worker for the Black Panther Party.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Big Man attended Merritt College in Oakland, where he met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, whom he joined in 1966 as one of the original six founding members of the Black Panther Party. He was the first editor of the Panther newspaper, served as deputy minister of information and traveled throughout the world as a spokesperson for the party.
Arriving in Sonoma County in 2005, and now 77 years of age, Big Man could easily rest on his laurels and reflect on a life filled with incredible accomplishments. Instead, he continues to organize, write, lecture and even hosts his own jazz radio show.
In 2007, impacted by the killings of Jeremiah Chess and Richard DeSantis at the hands of law enforcement, he helped to establish PACH, the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline of Sonoma County. This organization tracks and documents complaints of law enforcement misconduct.
His wife and longtime comrade, Carole Hyams-Howard, immigrated from her home in Montreal to the Seattle area, where she first met members of the Black Panther Party. In 1969 she moved to Oakland and wrote a letter to the Party and later met Big Man.
While in Oakland, Carole served as a community worker for the party and also volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic. A registered nurse by profession, Carole, like Big Man, continues to advocate for the human rights of all people. She has been active in Sonoma County with PACH as well as with community organizations responding to the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County deputy sheriff.
Noted civil rights attorney John L. Burris was the keynote speaker for the event. He focused his presentation on the many cases in which he has represented citizens who have been wrongfully killed, injured or harassed by law enforcement. He also credited the Black Panthers as being the first group to take on the issue of community policing and oversight and stated that we as citizens must be dedicated to those ends more today than ever before.
Nearly 50 years ago, who could have imagined that a member of the group deemed “the greatest threat to the security of America” by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would today be celebrated for his continuing efforts to expose and push back against the oppressive forces of this society.
Morris Turner, the father of two sons, ages 39 and 35, was a community worker with the Black Panther Party. Over the past 45 years he has worked with children and young people in a variety of settings, including as preschool teacher, career counselor, family mentor and sports coach. He is also an author and recognized researcher in the area of African American settlements in the United States, but his greatest pleasure today is learning to be a good grandpa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.