“My foes have called me bum, hoodlum, criminal. Some have even called me n*****. I imagine now they’ll at least have to call me Dr. N******.” – Huey Percy Newton, Press Conference, July 1980.
On February 17, 1942, Huey Percy Newton, co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was born in Monroe, Louisiana but raised in Oakland, California. He was named after former Governor Huey P. Long who was known for his “Share Our Wealth” platform. “Long was revered by the masses as a champion of the common man and demonized by the powerful as a dangerous demagogue.” Long was assassinated in 1935. Newton’s family migrated from Louisiana to Oakland, where they lived in poverty.
As a teen growing up in Oakland, Huey P. Newton was rambunctious and highly intelligent, often getting into trouble for both. Despite his aptitude, he managed to graduated from Oakland Technical High School without having learned to read. Eventually Newton taught himself to read. While at Merritt College in Oakland, Newton met Bobby Seale, joining the Afro-American Association. In 1966, Newton and Seale organized the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with Seale as chairman and Newton as minister of defense. The organization grew with Newton (and Seale) who went on to earn three degrees, including a Ph.D. in Social Science at UC Santa Cruz (1980).
The Black Panther Party was central to the Black Power movement, reinforcing critical thinking through the work of famous scholars and philosophers, many of them Communists, and calling for self-defense against the continued aggressive government practices and policies limiting the rights of Afro-Americans. The Black Panther Party called for blacks to arm themselves in defense of a government that was empowered to kill blacks with no recourse.
In May 1967, two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill, prompting then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to comment, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the FBI, called the group “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Hoover launched a covert campaign to undermine the Panthers.
In September, 1968, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the death of a policeman John Frey and sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison. Newton maintained his innocence, saying that Frey shot him first leaving him unconscious so he was unable to shoot Frey who died from four gunshot wounds. In May, 1970, the California Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial and after two subsequent mistrials, the State of California dropped the case.
Newton was involved in a number of alleged criminal activities, fleeing to Cuba in 1977 with his then-wife to escape prosecution. In 1977, Newton returned to face charges of murder of a 17-year-old prostitute and was acquitted after two trials ended in deadlock. At this time Elaine Brown took over leadership of the organization.
Eventually Newton fell out with members of the Black Panther Party, some of whom left and joined the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). Newton, who had developed a drug habit, was fatally shot August 22, 1989 by a member of the BGF, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison for the murder.
Newton has been immortalized in popular culture from a 1972 Rolling Stone cover story to plays, movies and even cartoons. In 1996, a one man play, “A Huey P. Newton Story,” was performed on stage and then turned into an award-winning 2001 documentary film directed by Spike Lee. The character of Huey Freeman from Aaron MacGruder’s hit comic strip and adult cartoon Boondocks is named for Newton. Several biographies have been published about Newton, including “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton” (1970) and “Huey: Spirit of the Panther” (2006). His doctoral dissertation was entitled War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America.
The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.