Huey P. Newton
Huey Percy Newton February 17, 1942 - August 22, 1989
Huey P. Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, however his family moved to Oakland, California before he was school age. In 1959, Newton graduated from high school, but remained largely illiterate. He was relegated to teaching himself to read and he eventually became an accomplished writer, in addition to all of his monumental activist work. Newton admittedly was a below average student in K-12 who often found himself suspended for different rule violations. He was encouraged to start taking his studies seriously after observing his brother complete a Master’s degree in social work. This prompted Newton to earn his Associate’s degree from Merritt College in 1965. He later attended the University of San Francisco Law School and ultimately earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980.
Newton was no stranger to activism, as his father was an active member of the NAACP.
Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with his friend and Merritt College classmate, Bobby Seale. The Black Panther Party was a grassroots political effort to assist poverty-stricken families in the black community. They offered aid to many families that in their view were ignored or forgotten by an indifferent government, apathetic to the plight of black Americans. The Panthers instituted several community outreach programs. They are most celebrated for the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics they established. They “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.
Earl Anthony, a former Panther describes the Oakland situation in his book Spitting in the Wind: “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. 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.”
*Note: The NRA and other Guns Rights special interests groups practice revisionist history with regard to the history of gun control in America. The first attempts to strengthen regulations on gun ownership were initiated by President Reagan’s administration in an attempt to disarm Black Panther members who armed themselves in defense of their personhood.
The rallying cry, “Free Huey!” came about after Newton was arrested on suspicion of murder. Newton and a friend were pulled over on October 28, 1967 at 5am. What transpired during this traffic stop is still debated today. But the facts are, an officer was shot and killed with his own gun, while Newton and another responding officer were also shot. As a result, Newton was charged and convicted of first-degree murder. This trial created a major rift in society, but motivated thousands to join the Panther movement. Newton’s murder conviction was overturned on appeal nearly three years later because it was learned the trial judge improperly instructed the jury of Newton’s defense.
The Black Panthers had all but disappeared upon Newton’s return. Police cracked down on the movement arresting and killing assumed members at will. Many defected in fear of losing their life.
Newtown did what few were willing. He sacrificed in order to provide the voiceless a voice. And his personal struggle and story of overcoming illiteracy to college educated was an inspiration to black youth. He hoped these young men and women would find a way to transcend their environment and build a future as prosperous as their white counterparts.
Tragically this young icon was found shot to death in Oakland in 1989. Historians must suppress the urge to shadow Newton’s legacy with violence or drug abuse. His vision for Black Nationalism and defending what is most precious — life — was revolutionary and in addition to pursuing higher education, are the most critical lasting impressions of Dr. Huey Percy Newton.