Newton, Huey 1942–1989
Huey Newton 1942–1989
Civil rights activist, author
During the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, no group united the desires of a minority community while alienating those outside of it more than the Black Panther Party. To those it served, the Black Panther Party was a grass roots organization that aided the indigent in the black community, sought to protect the young and old from what its members saw as a tyrannical and insensitive government, and “represented a significant stage in the development of the movement for black political involvement,” U.S. Representative Ronald Dellums told Bill Turque in Newsweek. To many of its nonmembers, the Black Panther Party was perceived as a violent, revolutionary gang bent on achieving anarchy through destruction. Dressed in black berets and black leather jackets, their fists raised in angry defiance, its members “were more than enough to unnerve an establishment still shaky from Vietnam war protests, civil rights marches, and inflamed ghettos,” Dennis Hevesi wrote in the New York Times.
Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party and its chief theoretician, embodied the dual perceptions of the group. He was a man who overcame illiteracy and attended college, debated theories of revolution with social psychologist Erik Erikson at Yale University, gave a silent community a sociopolitical voice, and was nominated as a candidate for the U.S. Congress by the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. He was also a man stained by violence, a onetime fugitive and ex-convict who, in the last decade of his life, abused alcohol and drugs and finally died, as a Time reporter put it, “lying in a pool of blood on a sidewalk in a crack-infested Oakland [California] neighborhood with three bullets in his head.”
Growing up poor in a large family in Oakland, Newton began exhibiting antisocial behavior early in life. Hevesi related that Newton “spent his childhood in a state of war with his teachers, being suspended from school about 30 times, breaking open parking meters, and being arrested at 14 years old for gun possession.” His inattentiveness in school resulted in his being functionally illiterate even after graduation from high school. But his admiration for his older brother, who earned a master’s degree in social work, coupled with his desire to prove his school counselors wrong in their assessment of his abilities, translated
Born Huey Percy Newton, February 17, 1942, in Monroe (some sources say New Orleans), LA; died of gunshot wounds to the head, August 22,1989, in Oakland, CA; son of Walter (a sharecropper and Baptist minister) and Armelia Newton; married Fredrika Slaughter; children: Ronnie, Jessica, and Kieron. Education : Merritt College, associate’s degree, 1965; attended University of San Francisco Law School; University of California at Santa Cruz, Ph.D., 1980.
Cofounder (with Bobby Seale), minister of defense, and chief theoretician of the Black Panther Party, 1966-89; writer. Sentenced to two to 15 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter of an Oakland, CA, police officer, 1967; released on appeal, 1970; worked in a cement factory while in exile in Cuba, 1974-77; sentenced to nine months in prison for possession of a handgun, 1987; sentenced to six months in prison for misappropriation of public funds, 1989.
into a determination to learn to read and to eventually attend college.
Newton earned an associate’s degree in social science from Merritt College in Oakland, and he also took courses at the University of San Francisco Law School. Higher education, however, did not quell his street-bred anger. While attending Merritt, Newton brandished a knife during a political argument at a party and consequently served a six-month prison term. But his quick anger and disregard for authority belied his growing racial and social awareness, his concern about the treatment of his community, and what he felt was the needless impoverishment of the ghetto. These concerns were shared by fellow Merritt student Bobby Seale. Together, following the doctrines of former Chinese ruler Mao Tsetung, black scholar W. E. B. DuBois, and, especially, civil rights activist Malcolm X, Newton and Seale organized the Black Panther Party in October of 1966, with Seale as chairman and Newton as minister of defense. The name and symbol expressed the party’s notion that, like the panther, they would not attack unless attacked.
The manifesto of the party, penned by Newton, demanded the racial equality sought by other civil rights groups of the period in such areas as education, employment, and housing. Unlike the others, though, the Black Panther Party also sought the exemption of black men from military service and an end to what it viewed as police brutality. But the Party’s unwritten goal was far different from any of the other civil rights groups. Former Panther Earl Anthony, in his book Spitting in the Wind, quoted Newton as saying: “The ultimate goal of the Black Panther Party is to organize for armed revolution in America.” While he could not justify violent actions, Stanley Crouch, writing for the New Republic, empathized with the Panthers’ anger: “The actions of the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and the resolve of the federal government during the great years of the civil rights movement were so faint of heart that the alienation felt by the Black Panthers was not without reason. The contempt for the dignity and security of Negroes was unbelievably great.”
Citing a California law that allowed firearms to be carried in public, Newton and Seale sought to secure the black community against oppression. “They patrolled the Oakland streets at night, looking for public abuse of blacks,” Anthony explained. “And if they saw a policeman with a black suspect, Newton would get out of the car with a law book and armed with a sawed-off shotgun and explain the black suspect his legal rights.” As a result, the relationship between the black community and the police festered. But it was not until 30 armed Black Panthers disrupted the California state assembly in Sacramento on May 2, 1967, protesting a proposed gun control law, that the police intensified their surveillance and harassment of members of the Black Panther Party.
On October 28, 1967, returning from a party at five o’clock in the morning, Newton and a fellow passenger were stopped for a traffic check by an Oakland police officer. Soon another officer arrived. What ensued is still debated, but what resulted is known: one officer was shot dead with his own gun, and Newton and the other officer were wounded. Newton was charged with first-degree murder, and his trial soon polarized the country, radicals against the establishment. The battle cry “Free Huey!” echoed across college campuses already fraught with protest. A poster of Newton—dressed in Panther uniform, sitting on a rattan chair, holding a spear in one hand and an M-l rifle in the other—appeared everywhere. Party membership increased dramatically with new chapters forming across the nation. Thousands of demonstrators surrounded the courthouse when Newton’s trial began. But after eight weeks, he was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to two to 15 years in prison.
Two and a half years later, however, Newton’s conviction was reversed on an appeal that cited, among other technical errors, the trial judge’s failure to deliver complete instructions to the jury regarding Newton’s defense. Newton returned to the leadership of the Black Panther Party only “to find that party membership in 45 cities had dropped below 1,000, depleted by arrests, killings, and defection,” Hevesi noted. The Party was also split into rival groups that further destroyed its effectiveness. Time described the cause of this fractionalization: “One reason was that the FBI had begun a campaign of dirty tricks—counterfeit Panther documents, fake denunciations of various Panthers as police informants—in an effort to disrupt what the agency’s Washington intelligence chief called ‘the most violence prone of all the extremist groups.’”
The Party’s members were further split between the beliefs of Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, the Party’s minister of information. Cleaver, in exile in Algeria at the time to avoid criminal charges, advocated continued resistance through violent revolutionary tactics. But Newton, shortly before his release from prison, offered a softer, more mainstream approach for the group: “The Black Panther Party will now try to grow above ground as a political and social issues organization,” as quoted by Anthony. Those Panthers loyal to Newton helped him develop social programs in the black community, including a nationwide children’s breakfast program, an accredited elementary school, a bus service for relatives visiting prison inmates, and free health clinics. In Civil Rights: A Current Guide to the People, Organizations, and Events, Joan Martin Burke pointed out Newton’s desire to seek a “democratic socialist society, free of racism,” and to have the Party “participate in every community institution. We believe in intercommunalism—the relatedness of all people. We want to be part of the whole.”
But his means to achieve these ends were often illicit. As quoted by Anthony, Newton described how the Party would raise money to support their desired programs: “We will ask donations from black businesses in the [San Francisco] Bay Area to support our community programs.… But we will also ask every dealer of marijuana, pills, cocaine, and heroine, and every pimp and prostitute in the Oakland and Berkeley [California] areas to give us a percentage of their earnings or they can’t operate here.” And Newton’s behavior, Crouch asserted, became detrimental to the liberation of the black community: “The decline in the movement begun by [civil rights activist] Rosa Parks and those marvelous young men who sat at a lunch counter in North Carolina was perhaps most perfectly illustrated by the spectacle of Huey Newton [during a visit to] China, sitting in the Great Hall of the People snorting cocaine and bursting into unintelligible rants.”
“Newton’s own gifts were poisoned by violence and a streak of singular brutality,” Turque pointed out. Newton could be, as John F. Baker described him in Publishers Weekly in 1973, “the least stale and jaded political exponent you are likely to hear, because no matter how tired the ideas he is voicing, his enthusiasm and humor lend them new freshness.” But within a year Newton was charged with “fatally shooting a 17-year-old prostitute because she didn’t recognize him and with pistol-whipping a tailor who affectionately called him ‘baby,’” Turque wrote. After these charges, Newton, who previously insisted that “he would never choose exile for himself, even if he were convicted again on a retrial,” according to Burke, fled to Cuba for three years, returning in 1977 to face charges. The murder charges were dismissed after two trials ended with deadlocked juries, and the assault charge ended in acquittal after the tailor refused to testify against Newton.
Newton returned to academics, earning a doctorate degree in social philosophy from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. His dissertation was titled “War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America.” But for all practical purposes, it was simply an outline of recent history. The Panther organization, having been broken up by the FBI, was by this time insubstantial. Newton had also begun his own dissolution. According to a Time reporter, Newton “acknowledged drinking two quarts of cognac a day and abusing cocaine, heroine, and Valium.” His participation in a 1984 drug abuse program proved ineffectual, as did his attempts to stay clear of the law. He went back to prison for various offenses, including possession of a handgun and possession of narcotics paraphernalia. The most telling incident of his decline was a 1989 conviction for embezzling funds intended for a school run by the Panthers in the early 1980s. By the end of the decade, “years of drugs and alcohol, money worries and repeated jousts with the law had left the ’60s firebrand running scared, a paranoid shadow of his prime,” Turque observed.
Ironically, Newton was killed on the same streets where he began the Black Panther Party 23 years earlier, gunned down by a 25-year-old drug pusher trying to win favor and promotion in a drug-distribution gang called the Black Guerrilla Family. For many, however, Newton’s end had come much earlier. Crouch emphasized that after his social achievements, “Newton went on to become a mere extortionist, perhaps a murderer, certainly an embezzler of funds for a community school. He whiled away his last years seeking one high or another. His death, like that of his namesake Huey Long, was the death of a demagogue, not the loss of a political visionary.” And the community in which he was raised and which he sought to help offered this sad but appropriate farewell, as captured by Turque: “A small florist’s card, resting with bouquets of red gladioluses and white dahlias on a chain-link fence near the shooting scene, summed it up: ‘Huey: for the early years.’”
To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton, Random House, 1972.
Revolutionary Suicide, Harcourt, 1973.
In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton, Norton, 1973.
(With Ericka Huggins) Insights and Poems, City Lights, 1975.
Acton, Jay, Alan Le Mond, and Parker Hodges, Mug Shots: Who’s Who in the New Earth, World Publishing, 1972.
Anthony, Earl, Spitting in the Wind, Roundtable, 1990.
Burke, Joan Martin, Civil Rights: A Current Guide to the People, Organizations, and Events, second edition, Bowker, 1974.
New Republic, September 18, 1989.
Newsweek, September 4, 1989.
New York Times, March 14, 1987; August 23, 1989; August 27, 1989; August 28, 1989.
Publishers Weekly, April 23, 1973.
Time, November 13, 1978; September 4, 1989.
Huey P. Newton
Huey P. Newton
Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) founded the Afro-American Society and was a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, serving as its minister of defense during much of the 1960s. Later he turned to community service for the poor.
Huey P. Newton was born February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana. The youngest of seven children, Huey was named for former Louisiana governor Huey Pierce Long. The Newton family moved to Oakland, California, in 1945 to take advantage of the job opportunities created by World War II wartime industries. In Oakland the family moved often, and in one house Huey was compelled to sleep in the kitchen. Even though the Newtons were poor and victims of discrimination and segregation, Huey contends that he never felt deprived as a child and that he never went hungry.
Huey attended the Oakland public schools where, he claimed, he was made to feel "uncomfortable and ashamed of being black." He responded by constantly and consistently defying authority, which resulted in frequent suspensions. At the age of 14, he was arrested for gun possession and vandalism. In his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, Newton wrote, "during those long years in the Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or to question or explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process they nearly killed my urge to inquire."
According to Newton, he did not learn to read well until he had finished high school. "I actually learned to read—really read more than just 'dog' and 'cat,' which was about all I could do when I left high school—by listening to records of Vincent Price reading great poetry, and then looking up the poems to see how the words looked." In order to prove that high school counselors were wrong in saying he was not college material, Newton attended Merritt College intermittently, eventually earning an Associate of Arts degree. He also studied law at Oakland City College and at San Francisco Law School.
Newton claimed he studied law to become a better burglar. He was arrested several times for minor offenses while still a teenager and he supported himself in college by burglarizing homes in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills area and running the "short change" game. In 1964, at age 22, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to six months in the Alameda County jail. Newton spent most of this sentence in solitary confinement, including the "soul breaker"—extreme solitary confinement.
While at Oakland City College, Newton had become politically oriented and socially conscious. He joined the Afro-American Association and played a role in getting the first black history course adopted as part of the college's curriculum. He read the works of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Chairman Mao Tse-tung, and Che Guevara. A child of the ghetto and a victim of discrimination and the "system," Newton was very much aware of the plight of Oakland's African-American community. Realizing that there were few organizations to speak for or represent lower class African-Americans, Newton along with Bobby Seale organized the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966, with Seale as chairman and Newton as minister of defense. Like a wary panther that would not attack unless attacked, so too was the organization regarded.
Cop-haters since childhood, Newton and Seale decided the police must be stopped from harassing Oakland's African-Americans; in other words, to "defend the community against the aggression of the power structure, including the military and the armed might of the police." Newton was familiar with the California penal code and the state's law regarding weapons and was thus able to convince a number of African-Americans of their right to bear arms. Members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense began patrolling the Oakland police. Guns were the essential ingredient on these patrols. Newton and other Black Panther members observed police procedure, ensured that African-American citizens were not abused, advised African-Americans of their rights, and posted bail for those arrested. In addition to patrolling the police, Newton and Seale were responsible for writing the Black Panther Party Platform and Program, which called for freedom, full employment, decent housing, education, and military exemption for African-Americans. But there was a darker side to the group, described in Former Panther Earl Anthony's book, Spitting in the Wind as a party created with the goal to organize America for armed revolution. Moreover, Washington, D.C., intelligence spent many years trying to bring down what they believed to be "the most violence-prone of all the extremist groups."
Huey Newton proved to be as violent as the party he helped to create when he was thrust into the national limelight in October 1967; accused of murdering Oakland police officer John Frey. In September 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two to 15 years in prison. In May 1970 the California Appellate Court reversed Newton's conviction and ordered a new trial. After two more trials the State of California dropped its case against Newton, citing technicalities including the judge's failure to relay proper instructions to the jury.
After his release from prison Newton overhauled the Black Panther Party, revised its program, and changed its rhetoric. While he had been imprisoned, party membership had decreased significantly in several cities, and the FBI had started a campaign to disrupt and eventually bring down the Black Panthers. Abandoning its Marxist-Leninist ideology, Newton now concentrated on community survival programs. The Black Panthers sponsored a free breakfast program for children, sickle-cell anemia tests, free food and shoes, and a school, the Samuel Napier Intercommunal Youth Institute. However, as before, the Black Panthers were not without controversy. Funding for several of their programs were raised as the result of the co-operation of drug dealers and prostitution rings.
Newton tried to shed his image as a firebreathing revolutionary, but he continued to have difficulty with the police. In 1974 several assault charges were filed against him, and he was also accused of murdering a 17-year-old prostitute, Kathleen Smith. Newton failed to make his court appearance. His bail was revoked, a bench warrant issued, and his name added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted list. Newton had jumped bail and escaped to Cuba, where he spent three years in exile. In Cuba he worked as a machinist and teacher. He returned home in 1977 to face murder charges because, he said, the climate in the United States had changed and he believed he could get a fair trial. He was acquitted of the murder of Kathleen Smith after two juries were deadlocked.
In addition to organizing the Black Panther Party and serving as its minister of defense, Newton unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. In 1971, between his second and third trials for the murder of John Frey, he visited China for ten days, where he met with Premier Chou En-lai and Chiang Ch'ing, the wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. While there he was offered political asylum. Newton studied for a Ph.D. in the history of social consciousness at the University of California in 1978. In 1985 the 43-year-old Newton was arrested for embezzling state and federal funds from the Black Panthers' community education and nutrition programs. In 1989 he was convicted of embezzling funds from a school run by the Black Panthers, supposedly to support his alcohol and drug addictions. By this time the Panthers had turned to less violent activism. On August 22, 1989, Newton was gunned down by a drug dealer, ironically in the same city streets of Oakland that saw the rise of the Black Panthers 23 years ago. Bill Turque in Newsweek described a sad but appropriate farewell: "A small florist's card, resting with bouquets of red gladiolus's and white dahlias on a chain-link fence near the shooting scene, summed it up: 'Huey: for the early years."'
Huey P. Newton's Revolutionary Suicide (1973) and To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (1972) provide information on Newton's political philosophies; Gene Marine, The Black Panthers (1969); Gilbert Moore, A Special Rage (1971); and Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (1968) also provide information on the philosophies and tactics of the Black Panther Party and background information on the setting in which Newton operated; Spitting in the Wind, by Former Panther Earl Anthony takes an inside look into the Black Panther Party itself, describing the many facets of the organization's operations. □