Huey P. Newton has been largely forgotten by people in the mainstream of American culture. However, in some circles, the legacy of Huey Newton’s activism remains relevant. He once said, “The policemen or soldiers are only a gun in the establishment’s hand. They make the racist secure in his racism.” I came across this quote and instantly saw the perceived connection with today’s problem of police violence. The Huey Newton of the 1960s would hardly be surprised about today’s situation.
Huey Percy Newton was born on February 17, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana to Amelia Johnson and Walter Newton. His namesake was former Louisiana Governor Huey Long. In 1945, the Newtons decided to move away to the less racist and more prosperous San Francisco Bay Area. Huey grew up in Oakland, California and enjoyed being part of a large, close-knit family. However, he said he was made to feel ashamed of being black. During his teenage years, Newton was frequently in trouble with the law.
He graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1959, despite never being properly taught how to read. Later, the young man improved his poor reading skills by his own efforts. His first book was The Republic by Plato. In the mid-1960s, Newton decided to continue his education and enrolled at Merritt College. He “worked” his way through school by committing burglaries and petty crimes. Newton once admitted he studied law in order to become a better criminal.
While attending classes at Merritt, he met Bobby Seale. After some discussions, in October of 1966, Newton and Seale organized the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The two agreed that Seale would be the Chairman and Newton the Minister of Defense. The initial aim of their organization was to work for the right of self-defense for African Americans.
Unlike most political and social groups of the day, the Black Panthers were openly militant. The Panthers advocated the ownership of firearms by blacks. Photos of the Black Panthers often show the members brandishing guns. Newton and Seale believed that the threat of violence was necessary to bring about urgent social changes. This was mentioned in their “Ten-Point Program”.
1.We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2.We want full employment for our people.
3.We want an end to the robbery by the white men of our Black Community.
4.We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5.We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
6.We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
7.We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
8.We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9.We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10.We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
In 1967, The Black Panthers made the news and shocked the nation by their protest against a gun control bill in the California Legislature. Newton and the Black Panthers entered the capitol building in Sacramento fully armed. Newton was thus recognized as a major leader in the black power movement.
In a move that predates today’s citizen observation of arrests in progress, Black Panther members went to places where citizens were being arrested and watched for police brutality and other abuse.
Early in the morning of October 28, 1967, Newton and a friend were pulled over by Oakland policeman John Frey. The officer radioed for a backup after realizing who he had stopped. After backup officer Herbert Heanes arrived, a scuffle ensued. All
three men were wounded by gunfire. Frey died after four bullet wounds. Heanes was hospitalized with three bullet wounds. Newton suffered one wound and was driven to the hospital, where he was soon arrested for Frey’s death.
Huey Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in September of 1968 and sentenced to two to 15 years in prison. Because witnesses claimed that officers Frey and Heanes faced each other during the confrontation with Newton, the two officers shot in each others’ direction during the gunfight. The State Appellate Court reversed Newton’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Two more trials ended in hung juries. After the district attorney decided not to pursue a fourth trial, the Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the charges.
During the Black Panther party’s heyday, members often clashed with police. Party treasurer, Bobby Hutton was killed during an incident in 1968. By the early 1970s, the Black Panthers began a swift decline with top leadership leaving the party.
Newton allegedly shot 17-year-old Kathleen Smith of Oakland after an exchange of insults. The shot was fired after Smith called Newton “Baby”, a nickname he hated. Later, Newton allegedly pistol-whipped his tailor, Preston Callins, after Callins also called him “Baby”. Newton was arrested for the Callins’ assault then posted bond. He was soon arrested for the Smith murder, but posted the additional funds to secure his release before trial.
While free on bond, Newton and his future wife, Gwen Fontaine, fled to Cuba, where the couple lived until 1977. After their return to the US, Newton was tried for the Smith murder and the Callins assault. Newton was acquitted of assault in September 1978 but convicted of illegal firearms possession. After two trials with deadlocked juries, the prosecution waived a retrial in the Smith murder.
Newton graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1974. He later earned his Ph.D. in history of consciousness at the same university in 1980. His dissertation was entitled “War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America”.
August 22, 1989, a member of the rival group, Black Guerrilla Family, Tyrone Robinson reportedly shot Huey Newton, after the Black Panther leader left a crack house in West Oakland. Newton was shot after a short, verbal confrontation at a nearby street corner. Robinson was convicted of murder in 1991 and sentenced to serve in prison for 32 years to life.