Bobby Seale still cuts a mean figure in a beret, even if his midsection now looks a little soft and the once deadly serious tone of his revolutionary rhetoric has taken on a humorous edge.

It was 30 years ago that Seale and the late Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party with radical change on their minds. The Panthers shocked the nation with their brash talk of liberation and armed self-defense. But like their revolution, the Panthers died long ago, leaving only a shadowy legacy that is attracting increasing attention from academics, activists and a new generation of young people curious about what the Panthers really were all about.

"We were not street thugs," Seale told 300 students at Georgia State University. "We were avid readers and researchers."

That's not quite what most people remember about the Black Panther Party, whose signature black berets, leather jackets and fire-breathing rhetoric came to symbolize the black militant movement. Widely regarded as the most visible of the radical organizations founded in the '60s, the Panthers are viewed by many as little more than a gun-toting band of gangsters who intimidated whites and many blacks under the banner of their ill-defined crusade. Panthers shot it out with police, waged bloody confrontations with other black militant groups and fought violent internal battles that resulted in the deaths of several members.

But others call the Panthers righteous revolutionaries who possessed both the courage to stare down brutal police officers and the social vision to provide free breakfasts, health clinics, plumbing, ambulances and other services in poor communities across the country.

"Brothers actually standing up to the police and not backing down; I found that mesmerizing," said Jahti Jackson, who joined the Panthers as a Bay Area teenager and now runs a male mentoring program in Atlanta.

Whatever their true legacy, the Panthers remain a subject of considerable interest two decades after they collapsed under the pressure of sustained law enforcement harassment and their own often violent internal rifts.

Earlier this year, Stanford University established a Black Panther Party research center, which includes 1,500 photographs, 900 cassette tapes and 200,000 pages of FBI documents that were once stored in Newton's home. In the past few years, the Panthers have inspired a movie, been the subject of several books and plays, and been lauded in rap recordings. "A Huey P. Newton Story" is currently playing at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theater. Works written by former Panthers have been re-released. And several researchers are collaborating on what is being called the first serious academic examination of the group.

Across the country, activist groups are sprouting up whose leaders claim to be inspired by the Panthers. Former Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee formed an organization that threatened to cut phone lines and burn tires on highways unless the government creates jobs, improves education and takes other steps against urban poverty. In Indianapolis, a group led by Mmoja Ajabu has demanded that the city government improve a host of social conditions, or face violence. So far, the threats have gone unfulfilled.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which patterns itself on the Panthers, was blamed by police for inciting the rioting that followed the fatal shooting of a black motorist by a white police officer in October. The group, which startled the city by calling for the execution of top city officials and the police officer cleared by a grand jury in the shooting, denies the police charge.

And in Dallas, the New Black Panther Party has disrupted school board meetings and threatened to attend the sessions fully armed to press their demands for racial equality in the school system's leadership.

"Many of these groups have adopted the Black Panther motif," said Charles E. Jones, chairman of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, who is working on a book about the Panthers to be released next spring. "They have the berets, the emphasis on weaponry, the inflammatory rhetoric."

But many former Panthers say the new organizations lack the one thing that set their group apart -- an operating philosophy and a record of direct community service.

"These new groups are not consistent with what we were about," said David Hilliard, the Panthers' former chief of staff and now executive director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a California-based group established in 1993 to preserve the group's legacy. "They are only spouting rhetoric. They are not doing any community service. In the main, they have no ideology."

The Panthers, of course, had a plan, even if it was no more than the hastily written and hopelessly expansive 10-point program hammered out by Seale and Newton. The program demanded full employment, an end to police brutality, the exemption of black men from military service, the freedom of all black prisoners until they were tried by a jury of their peers and "land, bread {and} housing" for all.

But more than their goals, what defined the Panthers was their militant style, which set a new standard even among the many radical groups of the time.

Among the Panthers' first public actions was to trail police in Oakland and stand by during arrests, guns in hand. The group received international attention in 1967, when Seale led 30 armed Panthers to the grounds of the California Assembly in Sacramento to protest legislation that would make their patrols illegal.

The shocking incident led to the arrest of the Panthers. But it also confirmed the group's place as the preeminent symbol of black militancy in America. The Panthers' approach stood in stark contrast to the nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other major civil rights leaders of the time.

The Panthers associated with communists, made loud demands and publicly carried arms -- all of which shook America to its roots.

"We aligned ourselves with the Vietnamese, Cuba, Africa -- all those elements that produce paranoia and hostility," said Kathleen Cleaver, the Panthers' former communications secretary, who teaches at Emory University Law School. "This was kind of a prescription for catastrophe."

It produced the kind of revolutionary theater that became a big factor in the Panthers' ability to attract 5,000 members in 45 states and forge alliances with white, left-wing organizations. In 1970, conductor Leonard Bernstein threw a widely chronicled bash for the Panthers at his posh Park Avenue penthouse.

But their prominence also made the Panthers a major law enforcement target. By 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had identified the Panthers as "the single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States."

In part because of the Panthers' activity, the bureau launched the infamous COINTELPRO program, which employed bureau provocateurs to undermine the black power movement and other domestic groups. Three out of four of the program's "actions" against black groups were directed at the Panthers, according to the Newton Foundation, which has reviewed the FBI's Panther files.

Even without the pressure from the FBI, the Panther organization was imperiled by the string of legal problems confronted by its leaders. In quick succession, Newton was charged with the murder of a Oakland police officer (his conviction in the case was later reversed); Seale was jailed on charges of conspiring to incite rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and Eldridge Cleaver, a leading Panther spokesman who was then married to Kathleen Cleaver, was forced into exile by charges stemming from a 1968 shootout with Oakland police.

Those problems hastened the Panthers' demise. Some party members fell into common criminal activities, and a violent rift developed in the group. The Panthers were dead as a political force by the early 1970s and the last surviving Panther program, an Oakland elementary school, graduated its final class in 1982.

Since then, the old Panther leaders have gone their separate ways. Some died. Others slid into irrelevance. And still others are struggling -- often with one another -- to define the group's legacy.

Newton, who earned a PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz, fell into a self-destructive tailspin before being shot to death by an Oakland crack dealer in 1989.

Eldridge Cleaver, who ran for president in 1968, became a clothing designer, born-again Christian and Republican. He then was charged in several petty drug busts and suffered a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He now reportedly is in California, working on a book.

Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur, was a Panther and is featured in one of the late rapper's recordings.

Hilliard, the former Panther chief of staff, and Elaine Brown, Newton's former lover who chaired the Panthers in their final days, have published memoirs that both extol Newton's revolutionary vision and expose his fatal flaws.

In "A Taste of Power," Brown recounts how Newton brutally pistol-whipped a black tailor, who emerged from the beating with skull fractures and requiring neurosurgery. Newton eventually went to prison in connection with the incident.

But Brown's description of the violent encounters and of the sexism she says was rampant within the Panthers deepened a split between Brown and some other former members. Some former leaders have attacked Brown's book as wildly inaccurate, a charge she denies.

"There is nothing inaccurate in my book," said Brown, who after years of living in Europe is attempting to establish a school in Atlanta. "He beat the tailor. I would have whipped the tailor too. The problem is we have a . . . puritanical view of what life should have been. Right now, I wish somebody would go rip off some of these drug dealers and turn that into food for people."

While Brown still bristles with the old revolutionary fervor, other Panthers have joined the establishment or mellowed with time.

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), once a leader of the Illinois Black Panthers, was elected to Congress in 1992 after nearly 10 years as a Chicago alderman.

Seale, meanwhile, has gone from full-time revolutionary to cookbook author and lecturer who travels the country from his Philadelphia base telling stories about his days as a Panther, mostly to college students who appear fascinated with the group's uncompromising image.

Before the students at Georgia State, Seale played down the Panthers' role in any violent episodes, something he says was emphasized by law enforcement officials and the news media to obscure the Panthers' true mission -- providing community food programs, medical services and decent housing.

"We were about organizing and mobilizing around people's interests," he said. But even those bent on preserving the most positive take on the Panthers dismiss that as a benign view of a group fully willing to shoot it out with police and commit other crimes to further their cause.

"The Panther Party had such a dramatic and flamboyant and confrontational style that it stood out as an organization," said Kathleen Cleaver. "It stood out then and it stands out now. That is why so many people want to know about the Panthers." CAPTION: Party co-founder Bobby Seale gives a talk at Georgia State University. CAPTION: Black Panthers rally in Oakland during 1968 trial of Huey Newton in the murder of a policeman. "Free Huey" became a rallying cry for the party. CAPTION: Bobby Seale autographs books at Georgia State University. Addressing students, he played down the Black Panthers' role in any violent episodes: "We were not street thugs." CAPTION: Bobby Seale signs books at Georgia State University. He told students the Black Panthers "were not street thugs."