Newton, Huey Percy
NEWTON, Huey Percy
(b. 17 February 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana; d. 22 August 1989 in Oakland, California), cofounder, with Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, in October 1966.
Newton, the youngest of seven children born to Walter and Armelia (Johnson) Newton, spent a troubled childhood in depressed neighborhoods of Oakland, California. His father worked at as many as three jobs at a time—he was a longshoreman, a handyman, a truck driver, and a Baptist preacher—but he was unable to keep his youngest son from feeling rage at the oppression he sensed all around him. Newton was expelled from various schools in the Oakland system but finally graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1959. Though his reading skills were poor, he matriculated at Oakland City College (now Merritt College), a two-year school. Eventually, through a special arrangement with the university, Newton earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, though he had no other college or university degrees.
Newton met Bobby Seale while both were students at Oakland City College (now Merritt College). Together they created the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a revolutionary organization that continues to be among the best known of the 1960s. The purpose of the Black Panther Party was complex; even the Panthers have not always agreed. Originally, their main activity was the observation of police interaction with African-American residents of Oakland, with the intent of ending police brutality. On the other hand, on the day they founded the party, Newton and Seale drew up a list of ten demands, along with the reasons for them, entitled "What We Want" and "What We Believe." Among their goals were education relevant to the lives of oppressed black people, an end to the economic exploitation of the black community by white businessmen, freedom for all black prisoners (on the grounds they had not been tried before juries of their peers), decent housing for blacks, and an end to police brutality. The founders drew a direct connection between the Ten-Point Program and street engagements with police. Newton always insisted on a holistic perception that did not permit the separation of theory from practice, the military from the theoretical. The task of changing the situation of African Americans even in the smallest degree was seen as so huge that almost any activist program could be made relevant to one of the ten points or goals. Perhaps the most remarkable facet of the Ten-Point Program is that two young men from a community college attempted such a project as part of a fully conceived, long-range plan of action that required many years to accomplish.
In February 1967 Newton and Seale met Eldridge Cleaver, who had been released from prison only three months earlier, at a neighborhood meeting of activist groups in San Francisco. In an essay entitled "Meeting the Panthers," Cleaver described his awe of the fully armed pair and their command of the attention and respect, especially of the women in the room. He almost immediately became a member of the group and accepted the responsibility of serving as chief author of its newspaper, the Black Panther, which was published from 1967 to 1970. These three men formed the triumvirate of the Black Panther Party, with Seale as chairman, Newton as defense minister, and Cleaver as minister of information. In May 1967 the party received national publicity when Seale and Cleaver, together with twenty-eight other members of the party, showed up at the California legislature in Sacramento to protest a proposed gun control law they assumed was aimed at themselves. Wearing uniforms of black leather jackets, black berets, baby blue shirts, and bandoliers, they were a menacing and fearsome sight.
As the party grew in numbers and influence, so did the hostility of the local police. In October 1967 Newton and a Panther friend were stopped by an Oakland police officer, John Frey, at approximately 4:00 a.m. Frey called for backup from an Officer Heanes. Certain that the two officers were about to kill him, Newton pulled his gun out of his jacket, fired at Frey, and wounded him. Then he took Frey's gun, shot him again, this time fatally, and spun to shoot Heanes in the right arm. Heanes, who had pulled out his own gun, switched it to his left hand and shot Newton in the abdomen. Cleaver cut the guns up with a hacksaw and scattered the pieces throughout the city so there could be no conclusive tests performed on these weapons. (Later, Newton's lawyer, Charles Garry, insisted that Frey had been killed by his partner's gun.) Newton stood three trials for the murder of Officer Frey; the first two ended in a hung jury, and the third, in a decision for involuntary manslaughter, for which he received a sentence of two to fifteen years. He spent three years in prison; the appellate court threw out his conviction because improper instructions were given to the jury. He was freed in August 1970.
Newton's own writings provide the best possible insight into the meaning of the 28 October shootout for the Black Panthers and their sympathizers. Earlier in 1967 he had written and published in the party newspaper three essays: "Fear and Doubt: May 15, 1967," and two columns under the general heading of "In Defense of Self-Defense." These two were later published in To Die for the People (1972) as "In Defense of Self-Defense, I: June 20, 1967," and "In Defense of Self-Defense, II: July 3, 1967." In these he elucidated the political and social attitudes of the person he identified in the first essay, "Fear and Doubt," as "the lower socio-economic Black male." Newton's way of dealing with his own fear was self-defense. His way of dealing with self-doubt was through Marxism and revolutionary doctrine—no black person can succeed because the system is created to serve whites and exclude blacks; but no self-respecting African American should want to succeed, because capitalism is morally corrupt anyway.
Newton elaborated on these ideas in "In Defense of Self-Defense I." The essay invokes the Declaration of Independence, which had been embraced by the Black Panther Party when Newton and Seale adopted its Preamble as the summary of their party's platform and program. Whenever citizens are dissatisfied with their government, as African Americans are with the government of the United States, he stated, they have the right to withdraw their consent and change that government.
Newton's logic is revealed quite clearly here. He wrote that the colonist decided to write this Declaration when he finally "felt he had no choice but to raise the gun to defend his welfare." Today, however, "these same" people deny the right of "the colonized Black man" to abolish "this oppressive system." It is Newton's use of the then-popular mother country–black colony dichotomy that makes this analogy possible. By insisting that the relationship between black ghettos and the government of the United States is analogous to the relationship between the colonies and that of England, Newton drew a parallel between white reluctance to alter or abolish the United States government and the refusal of King George to permit self-rule in the distant American colonies.
Youthful leftists made Newton a celebrity after his shooting and arrest in 1967, mostly as a result of the efforts of Eldridge Cleaver, who was perhaps Newton's most devoted follower. The cries "Free Huey" and "Free Huey or the sky's the limit" became political statements as well as expressions of rejection of the police and the establishment they protected.
Newton's intelligence and leadership were distorted by racism and violence; he was a classic romantic, a 1960s version of the Hero of the People—defiant, dedicated unto death to the cause he espoused, resolutely antiauthority, antiwealth, antiprivilege. He demanded respect for his intelligence; from his college years on, he could not tolerate being thought of as ignorant or brutish. On the other hand, he grew up fighting because he was small and baby-faced. He respected the iron-handed authority of Mafia dons, was severe and even authoritarian in his own judgments, and wanted above all to be admired by the streetwise youth among whom he grew up. To be admired by gang members and professors alike is a challenging and complex goal; in addition to that, to wish to be "the Soul Servant" and "Shield" of one's people is perhaps demanding more than can be accomplished. Like many 1960s activists, Newton wanted to stand for something noble, even and maybe especially if it meant he would have to die for what he believed. Martin Luther King, Jr., too moderate to be a Panther hero, had nonetheless said that a person who sees nothing worth dying for has "nothing to live for." A 1968 James Brown song, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," states that "We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees." In such an atmosphere, it was easy for an idealist like Newton to rationalize sacrifice as "revolutionary suicide," the title of Newton's autobiography.
During the Black Panther Party's years of ascendancy, Newton remained single, though he reportedly engaged in a long-term relationship with Elaine Brown, a fellow Black Panther. In 1977 he married his secretary, Gwen Fontaine, who left him in 1982. Newton married Fredericka Slaughter in 1984. Though Newton had no biological children, he adopted his first wife's two children and his second wife's son. Following Newton's murder outside an Oakland crack house in 1989, Fredericka Newton established a foundation in honor of her husband and his beliefs. Newton's funeral service was held at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland.
Although Newton suffered from alcohol and cocaine dependency and allegedly practiced embezzlement, fraud, and extortion in his later years, his dream of an African-American community whose members have opportunities equal to those of other citizens has begun to be realized. His leadership, though tragically flawed, helped pave the way for improvement in the lives of many black citizens. The tragedy of Newton is in part a result of his conflicted self-image, in part a result of his substance abuse, and in part a result of his spending the crisis years of the 1960s movements, 1968–1970, in prison and out of the action. He was a cultural icon during that time, but he had wanted to be first a leader and then a martyr, and he failed.
Newton's personal papers dating from 1968 to 1994 can be found in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives of the Stanford University Libraries. His autobiography Revolutionary Suicide (1973) discusses his early life and experiences in the 1960s. A biography is J. L. Jeffries, Huey P. Newton: Radical Theorist (2002). Bobby Seale's Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (1970) provides another view of Newton's controversial life. Newton's To Die for the People (1972) contains key documents and speeches related to the Black Panther Party. An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Aug. 1989).
Kay Kinsella Rout