Newton, Huey P.

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Newton, Huey P.

February 17, 1942
August 22, 1989

Political activist Huey Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, the youngest of seven siblings. When he was young his family moved to Oakland, California, were he attended Merritt College and participated in the groundswell of political activity erupting on college campuses nationwide. He joined the increasing number of blacks who questioned the ability of the civil rights movement to deal with the problems of housing, unemployment, poverty, and police brutality that plagued urban African Americans.

In college Newton and his friend Bobby Seale were active in the effort to diversify the curriculum at Merritt, as well as in lobbying for more black instructors. Newton joined the Afro-American Association but soon became a vocal critic of the organization's advocacy of capitalism. Instead, he sought inspiration from Robert Williams, a former head of the Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP, who advocated guerilla warfare, and from third-world revolutionaries such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, China's Mao Zedong, and Algeria's Frantz Fanon. Newton believed that blacks were an oppressed colony being exploited economically and disfranchised politically within U.S. borders and argued that blacks should launch a liberation movement for self-empowerment.

In 1966 Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Newton took on the title of minister of defense and acted as leader of the organization. Among the points raised in their initial program was the right to bear arms to defend their community from police repression.

In November 1966 Newton and Seale, armed with shotgunswhich were legal at the time as long as they were not concealedinstituted "justice patrols" to monitor the actions of the police and inform blacks of their rights when stopped by the police. The police responded with resentment and harassment. On October 28, 1967, in culmination of a year of hostile and antagonistic relations between the Panthers and the police, Newton was arrested and charged in the shooting of one police officer and the murder of another. Reports of this incident are unclear and conflicting. Newton claimed to be unconscious after being shot by one of the policemen.

Newton's arrest heightened awareness of police brutality in the black community. While in prison Newton was considered a political prisoner; rallies and speeches focused attention on his plight. His trial became a cause célèbre, and "Free Huey" became a slogan that galvanized thousands of people on the New Left. Massive rallies and demonstrations at the courthouse demanding his release were organized by BPP members.

Newton remained active in prison, issuing speeches and directives. He was convicted in September 1968 of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to two to fifteen years in prison. His conviction was overturned by the court of appeals because of procedural errors during his first trial. Newton, after being released from prison, tried to revive the BPP. However, during the early 1970s the

BPP had declined due to legal problems, internal tensions, and a factional split among BPP members on the East and West Coasts. This division was fostered by the disinformation campaign launched by the FBI, which created a climate of distrust and suspicion within the BPP. Many on the East Coast believed the ideology of Eldridge Cleaver, who had become the public spokesperson for the BPP during Newton's incarceration and who advocated politically motivated armed actions. Newton articulated the feelings of many on the West Coast by arguing that the BPP, by becoming too militant, had moved onto a plane with which average blacks could no longer identify. He wanted to focus more on community programs and political education. Newton ordered a series of purges, which debilitated the organization further.

Although Newton remained publicly identified with the BPP, many people no longer looked to him as leader. Increasingly isolated, he cultivated a small band of supporters. In 1974 Newton was accused of murdering a woman. The circumstances of this incident remain unclear. Newton fled to Cuba, feeling that he would not get a fair trial in the United States. In 1977 he returned to the United States to resume leadership of the weakened and splintering party. In his absence Elaine Brown had assumed leadership of the organization and taken it in new directions. Newton's role in the organization continued to diminish. He was retried in the 1967 killing of the policeman and convicted, but that conviction was later over-turned. He also faced trial for the murder of the woman, but the charge was dropped after two hung juries.

In 1980 Newton received a Ph.D. from the University of California. His thesis was "War Against the PanthersA Study of Repression in America." While Newton remained politically active, his visibility as a public figure was waning. He was arrested in 1985 for embezzling funds from a nutritional program he headed. Three years later, he was convicted of possessing firearms. Increasingly addicted to drugs and involved in the drug trade, he was killed in a drug-related incident on the streets of Oakland in 1989.

See also Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Cleaver, Eldridge; Seale, Bobby


Hilliard, Davis, and Weise, Donald, eds. The Huey P. Newton Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.

Newton, Huey P. To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton. 1972. Reprint, New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995.

Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979.

Pearson, Hugh. The Shadow of the Panther. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton. New York: Random House, 1970.

robyn spencer (1996)
Updated bibliography