To those of us who were alive–and sentient, the name Huey P. Newton evokes an era of mass resistance, of Black popular protest and of the rise of revolutionary organizations across the land.
To those of subsequent eras, youth in their 20s, the name is largely unknown, as is the name of its greatest creation: The Black Panther Party.
To those of us now known as ‘old heads’ and elders, such a transition from then to now seems almost unimaginable, but alas, looking out into the present is proof positive that the old saying, “History is written by the victors” has more than a grain of truth to it.
History, it seems, is many things, but kind to the oppressed, it is not.
It never has been.
It is up to the oppressed, of every generation, to plumb the depths of history, and to excavate the ore of understanding, to teach us, not what happened yesterday, but to teach us why today is like it is, so that we may learn ideas to change it.
For history belongs not so much to those who have lived it, but more so to those who have inherited it.
It is in that spirit that we examine the life of Huey P. Newton.
Huey Percy Newton was born in Louisiana in 1942, named for the populist LA Governor, Huey Pierce Long (1893-1935); know in the state as “The Kingfish”.
Like many Blacks in California, Huey would carry the rhythms of the South in his speech, and when nervous, it would rise to a disconcerting twang. Perhaps this accounted for his self-consciousness, his wariness of speaking in public.
His family, like tens of thousands of others, formed the last legs of the Great Migration, of Black flight from the Apartheid South to the North and the West.
He would enter the streets of Oakland, a slender, short, beautiful boy, and the prospect terrified him. For while his father thought the name Huey was a respectful tribute to a gifted politician, to the hard, urban streets of Oakland, it was an invitation to an ass-whipping.
A scared boy does what’s been done since the dawn of human time. He tells an older brother. Walter schooled him to attack the biggest guy in the pack, and how to prevail. Keyed by his fear, Huey would follow these directions explicitly.
He would throw his fear of the biggest guy in the bunch, in the form of his fists, for big brother Walter taught him that the biggest guy often had the biggest fear–bigger that his own. He also learned that the best defense was often a stiff offense.
The English poet, William Wordsworth (1770- 1850) wrote, “The child is father of the man.” Lessons learned in beardless youth became the matrix of the man he became.
In describing his thinking at the time, Elaine Brown, his lover and political comrade, quoted him as saying:
Every blood on that street was a potential threat, unless I knew he was a friend. After my first fights though, I recognized that they bled like me . . . by the time I became a teenager, I was challenging the first fool that looked at me wrong, and walking around with an ice pick in a paper bag. (Brown 252)
As a direct consequence of these street battles, the young Newton boy earns a rather unflattering nickname: “Crazy Huey.” One can almost hear this Greek chorus, whispered with a mix of fear and fascination: ‘Who that boy?’ “Who you talkin’ bout?” “That pretty boy, right there!” “Oh–don’t mess with him–that’s Crazy Huey.”
Thus, from his earliest youth, until adulthood, Newton was in a war footing. How could this not mold the man?
He was also a petty thief who took, to say the least, an unusual path to perfect his craft. To succeed as a thief, Newton studied the California crimes code! He would later write:
I first studied law to become a better burglar. Figuring I might get busted at any time and wanting to be ready when it happened, I bought some books on criminal law and burglary and felony and looked up as much as possible. I tried to find out what kind of evidence they needed, what things were actually considered violations of the law, what the loopholes were, and what you could do to avoid being charged at all. They had a law for everything. I studied the California Penal Code and books like California Criminal Evidence and California criminal Law by Frick and Alarcon, concentrating on those areas that were somewhat vague (Newton 25)
Newton sought such vague laws because they could more easily be overturned as void for vagueness.
Such street and legal study experiences would prove valuable in the years to come, for this was the early to middle ‘60s, a time of emergent and roiling social discontent and upheaval.
Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin L. King were names known in Black communities nationwide. Black students kicked off 1960 by sit-ins at lunch counters in the South that evoked ugly white violence. Before the year was out, over 70,000 students were engaged in sit-ins, black and white. By 1961, “Freedom Rides” rolled through Southern states in protest to racial segregation, resulting in vicious violence by white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1963, four Black girls were bombed in a Baptist church, in Birmingham (called ‘Bombingham’), Alabama. Soon, white and black civil rights workers would be murdered in Mississippi.
As these events happened, a new invention called television carried these images into millions of Black homes across America.
It especially rankled Blacks in the North, for most could remember Southern childhoods, and they knew–knew, in their bones, that, but for a chance bus ride North, or West, it could be them, their baby sister, their brothers or fathers who would’ve been brutalized, bombed or shot by the racists.
The Watts Riots tore across the Southern California area on a hot night in August 1965, the result of police mistreatment of Black drivers. For 5 nights, the ghetto burned.
The petty crimes of Newton seemed petty indeed against such a backdrop of violence and terror, and the little guy who once looked at “bloods” on the street as threats, began focusing on new threats–armed men–armed white men, clad in blue.
Cops, white cops, sneering cops. Domineering cops. Cops hired from the American South.
They rode through Oakland like gangsters in blue, harassing Blacks at will.
These forces converged to energize and radicalize Black youth throughout the community, among the two Black students at a junior college in town. Two alumni of Merritt Jr College, having read the speeches of Malcolm X and the essays of Frantz Fanon (in The Wretched of the Earth), met to build a new, radical–indeed revolutionary–organization.
Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale would found the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
From October 1st to the 15th, both men would pen the organizations 10-point program and platform. Newton was 24 years old, Seal was 30. (This was 1966)
The men hit the streets, organizing and a revolutionary movement was born.
It was pitched to Black youth, especially ghetto youth, and they joined, and the organization grew. Young men and women would join, and perhaps for the first time in their lives, study–not for a grade–but to learn about revolutionary ideas from struggles around the word: China, Cuba, Algeria, South Africa, Vietnam–and beyond.
The BPP (it would later drop the ‘self-defense’ reference) would grow from its base of Oakland, and expand to Richmond, and Los Angeles–and Seattle, Washington.
But events occurring roughly a year after its founding would catapult the organization, in effect, hydroplaning it, nationwide, exploding it, sending it into over 40 cities across America.
A hot summer evening in 1967, and a car stop by the Oakland police, would result in Huey being charged with murder, two cops shot, and Huey sent to hospital with a gunshot wound to his abdomen; it gave birth to the Free Huey Movement, and by so doing, changed the Party’s trajectory, from a small, regional group to a national one.
Offices opened in Boston, in Baton Rouge, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, Harlem, the Bronx, Winston-Salem, Omaha, Baltimore, Detroit, Jersey city, Kansas City, San Diego, and more. Where there were Black communities, there were Black militants, most moved by the masterful oratory and martyrdom of Malcolm X. These young brothers and sisters, mostly teenagers, formed the bulk of Black Panther membership.
All of these brothers and sisters, thousands, across the nation, joined, in some degree, because of their admiration, respect, and for some, veneration of the Minister of Defense.
Most, too, did not know him. They never met him. They read of him, and fell in love; some with him; some with his amazing vision: a Black Panther Party.
Because Newton was complex, so was his creation; it changed, constantly, as he changed and developed. From a Malcolmite, nationalist organization, to a revolutionary nationalist, to a revolutionary internationalist, to socialist, to Maoist, to what Newton termed an Inter-communalist.
This was Newton’s theoretical construct; that, nations were but illusions, assemblies of flags, for in the presence of a global imperial power (such as the U.S); nations were, at best, communities.
He believed that U.S economic power shattered sovereignties, for those who controlled foreign economies, actually controlled those states; the rest is subterfuge (Newton 169-170)
In 1972, Newton, using intercommunalist theory, predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. 1972.
While traditional Marxists ridiculed Newton’s ideas, the Soviet Union shuttered its doors on Dec. 26, 1991, two years after Newton’s ignoble death on a street corner by a crack dealer.
Complex, brilliant, self-taught, a Ph.D., fearless, full of fear, crazy, drug fiend, beautiful, mad–perhaps all of these epithets could, at times, describe the founder of the Black Panther Party.
If Panthers could’ve worshiped him less, and loved him more, perhaps he could’ve survived; perhaps the Party would’ve survived. Perhaps.
A memory, if you will.
The place? Death Row, PA Ca. 1996
Your speaker is in discussion with acclaimed womanist writer, Alice Walker. We are lamenting the passing of Huey. “He should’ve been at a Black college, teaching a new generation of activist”, I say.
“Are you kidding me?” she asks.
“You have no idea of the politics in academia. They’d do anything to run him out!”
“Run him out? Why? I’d think he’d be the most popular professor on campus? Why do you think they’d run him out?”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ til you’ve seen the politics in academia!”
Perhaps. But this was not to be.
Yet, who could deny Newton’s brilliance, which is all the more remarkable because up until he entered 10th grade, he was all but illiterate?
Huey tells an arresting tale of how his secret was uncovered. Like younger brothers, he looked up to his older brother, Melvin. And like most illiterates, he developed an extraordinary memory.
When Melvin came home one day, he saw Huey reciting from one of his books. At first impressed, he turned and stunned the youth by declaring him illiterate.
How had he known? The book held in Huey’s hands was upside-down.
Huey, shamed, essentially taught himself to read using the power of his will. He therefore read slowly, but deeply, draining each word of its significance (Abu-Jamal 3-5).
Oddly enough, this may have proven an advantage of Newton’s over-traditional readers, who learn their basics in kindergarten or first, second grades.
How so? Illiterates, as we’ve suggested, devote a significant amount of mental energy to memorize important data, especially to avoid the shame of discovery. This is no mean feat. One must by sheer necessity, develop a way of knowing that is based on hearing and retaining data that early writers and readers never actualize.
Moreover, illiterates must develop original ways of seeing and interpreting and categorizing the world. For unlike your literate colleagues, you are unable to relay and store data on a page; you must store data on your internal mental template–and then develop the machinery for retrieval.
Such a person seems, in a sense, a freer thinker, able to question, make sense of, and define the world in one’s own way.
And all of this must be done under the constant psychological stress and presence of discovery, which evokes shame.
This may account for Huey’s intensity, and his constant inability to speak before large audiences, which must have seemed unbearable.
By the same token, once it was discovered that Huey was illiterate, he used considerable mental energy to learn, to essentially teach himself that hidden art. Such a process must have released enormous forces that could now be devoted to belated learning, cognition and retention.
Co-founder Bobby Seale wrote that Newton read the book, The Wretched of the Earth by revolutionary psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, some 6 times (Seale 25). This text, translated from Fanon’s native French, is a difficult work for any reader. One thinks it deeply informed Newton on concepts of decolonization, anti-imperialism, Arab independence movements, torture and its resultant traumas, both upon the tortured and the torturer.
It also was a primer on revolutionary violence–how the oppressed must confront the oppressor.
How could these ideas not prove definitive in the founding and formation of the Black Panther Party? The concept of Black America as a colony and White America as the Mother Country can be explained by Fanon’s ideas of the colonial struggle against the oppressive, exploitative European imperial powers.
The book, The Wretched of the Earth, so influential to the Party’s founders, became required reading for members, and was often discussed in PE classes. As it was written by a Black man actively engaged in a North African revolutionary endeavor, it took on an added sheen and influence.
Indeed, Fanon’s masterwork was so highly regarded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that it was called ‘The Handbook of the Black Revolution’.
Newton’s mind seemed never to rest, for he read a wide range of literature to answer questions of existence. He found the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), especially his The Will to Power and Beyond Good and Evil, especially influential.
While not citing him explicitly, as early as 1971, the 5th year of the Party’s existence, Nietzsche’s influence can be seen in Newton’s article of 5 June, 1971, “Black capitalist” re-analyzed: He writes:
When we coined the expression “All power to the people”, we had in mind emphasizing the word “power” for we recognize that the will to power is the basic drive of man. But it is incorrect to seek power over people. We have been subjected to the dehumanizing power of exploitation and racism for hundreds of years; and the Black community has its will to power also. What we seek, however, is not power over people, but the power of control of our own destiny. (Newton 227)
It is hard to read such words without encountering Nietzsche whether he cites him or not, for the central theme is inescapable; “. . . the will to power is the basic drive of man.”
Newton was, at bottom, at a deep foundational level, a Nietzschean. Indeed, he was more Nietzschean than Marxist, for he often criticized Marxism as dogmatic. Marxism was a way; Nietzscheism was objective underlying the way: power.
Yet Nietzsche, unlike Fanon or Chairman Mao, was not required reading.
Elaine Brown writes that, at Huey’s behest, the Party established a school for party leadership to attempt to acquaint them with broad philosophical ideas:
Now they were wondering about his ideological institute. I saw the questions as the local leadership cadres came trooping to Oakland from as far away as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago for bi-monthly, two-day learning sessions led by Huey. Where was the stuff about the pigs, they seemed to ask, as we studied with not only Mao and Marx but Aristotle and Plato. Where was the stuff about urban guerrilla warfare? Their expressions conveyed, as Huey led us in discussions of the philosophies of Rousseau and Kant, [sic] Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, about existentialism and determinism and free will. I saw their faces when we examined and questioned the theories of capitalism and socialism and communism. Huey asking whether our systematic use of the tests of dialectical materialism meant anything. If, under a dialectical materialist analysis, nothing “stood outside” of the process, did that negate the process itself, he asked? (Brown 255-56)
Huey P. Newton was, by necessity, a man of action, but he was always also a man of ideas. He was so as an illiterate; he became more so when he began to read and added exponentially to his storehouse of ideas.
As a dialectical materialist, he knew that everything was in a state of flux; that change was the only constant. As a Nietzschean, he knew that only power could influence that change, and direct it along its desired course.
One needed the will to power.
Huey had no shortage of that quality.
When he went to prison, he knew every Panther in California, for he or Bobby had recruited him (or her). When he was freed on appeal in 1970, he emerged to a group that he neither knew, nor built. There were Panthers in Boston, Harlem, Philadelphia and Detroit.
He didn’t know these people, even if all of them were inspired by him. If you didn’t know someone, how could you trust him?
To add insult to injury, the FBI’s Cointelpro program had bogus letters sent to him, ostensibly from other Panthers, criticizing his rule, criticizing other Panthers and even threatening him.
Who were these people? he must have wondered.
So, using his mighty will, he shrunk the party, probably intending to rebuild it, in his Nietzschean image.
That was not to be.
He tried, with all his might, to change history.
But history is a cruel mistress. She loves, she caresses, and she moves on, creating new days, new possibilities, and new realities.
Dr. Huey P. Newton dared to struggle; and inspired millions to also fight against a twisted, broken, racist system. He built an organization that rattled the cages of oppressed and oppressor alike.
Then, like the true Nietzschean he was, he shattered it into a thousand pieces.
He lived. He rebelled. He inspired. He died.
But most of all, he rebelled.
That’s more than most of us can say.
Abu-Jamal (2004) We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, Cambridge MA: South End Press.
Brown, E. (1992) A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. New York. Archer.
Newton, H.P. (2002) The Huey P. Newton Reader. David Hilliard and Donald Weise, eds. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Seale, B. (1970) Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Vintage.