Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, on the "Slave Trail" at the Manchester Docks on the James River in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: Ana Edwards), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Lessons From the Life of Huey P. Newton (1942-1989)
The Struggle Continues For Self-Determination and Against Political Repression
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Dr. Huey Percy Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was born in Monroe, Louisiana on February 17, 1942. He was the youngest of seven children born to Walter Newton and Armelia Johnson.
Walter Newton was a hardworking southern African American often holding several jobs at one time. According to Huey, “During those years in Louisiana he worked in a gravel pit, a carbon plant, in sugar cane mills, and sawmills. This pattern did not change when we moved to Oakland.” (Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, p. 12, 1973)
Huey continued pointing out that “As a youngster, I well remember my father leaving one job in the afternoon, coming home for a while, then going to the other. In spite of this, he always found time for his family. It was always high-quality time when he was home.”
Huey also mentioned that his father was a Baptist minister in Louisiana and in Oakland, California where the family settled when Huey was three-years-old. Oakland was a center of African American migration during the period of the 1940s when war production opened up new employment opportunities for the working class.
Growing up in the Oakland public school system Newton became alienated from his teachers and the educational administrators. He spent a lot of time rebelling on a personal level through fighting and defying his instructors.
By the time Newton was in his last year of high school he admits that he was functionally illiterate. It was through the intervention of his older brother Melvin that he began to develop an interest in reading.
He began to study Plato and Aristotle and soon became a ferocious reader. After completing high school he attended Oakland City College where he took an interest in sociology and law.
Nonetheless, despite his interest in intellectual pursuits, he continued to be attracted to the street life of criminals. He became involved in petty hustling to raise money and so that he could have leisure time to read books and enjoy time free from work.
Eventually he landed in Alameda County Jail in 1964. In 1965 when he got out of jail he began to hang out with Bobby Seale whom he had met earlier.
Both Newton and Seale had become involved in the Afro-American Association, an early Black nationalist organization that was based on the Bay Area campuses. Seale would become a member for a brief period with the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and its student wing called the Soul Students’ Advisory Council (SSAC).
Becoming disenchanted with these groups they would soon look to forming an organization that would rely on the most oppressed segments in the African American community. Newton wrote that “None of the groups were able to recruit and involve the very people they professed to represent—the poor people in the community who never went to college, probably were not even able to finish high school.” (Revolutionary Suicide, p. 107)
Origins of the Black Panther Party
The concept of the Black Panther Party grew out of the civil rights struggles in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965-66. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) was founded after the Selma to Montgomery March of March 1965 and would make an attempt to form an independent Black-led political party in opposition to both the Democrats and Republicans.
LCFO was started by local activists in the county working in cooperation with organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Stokely Carmichael and other activists were instrumental in formulating the tactics and strategy of the LCFO.
The concept would spread to other parts of the state and by 1966 the Alabama Black Panther Party had been established. The organization took up arms in defense of the right of African Americans to organize and to vote.
The presence of armed African Americans caught the imagination of youth around the country. Soon Black Panther organizations would be established in various cities throughout the United States.
In the state of California at least three different groups were organizing around the Black Panther symbol by early 1967. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale would found the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966.
It was during this period that the prevailing philosophy of nonviolent resistance would come under ideological attack within the African American community. Rebellions erupted in numerous cities between 1963 and 1968.
In a complicated set of historical circumstances that extend beyond the scope of this article, the most well-known and predominant group within the Black Panther movement became centered around Newton and Seale during 1968.
On October 28, 1967, Huey P. Newton, then Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, was involved in a shoot-out with police where one officer was killed and another was wounded. Newton was also seriously wounded in the altercation and would spend nearly three years in the California prison system.
The Growth and Decline of the Black Panther Party
It was during the period of incarceration of Huey P. Newton between 1967 and 1970 that the Black Panther Party (BPP) would grow into a national organization encompassing the most militant men and women with its headquarters in Oakland. At the same time the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the administrations of both Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, in cooperation with local law-enforcement agencies, would declare war on the Panthers and other revolutionary organizations in the African American community.
Hundreds of members of the Panthers were arrested and framed-up on fabricated criminal charges as well as driven underground and into exile. Dozens of others were killed and wounded in attacks by local police coordinated by the FBI.
Such pressure from the federal government would result in several major political splits within the organization in between 1969 and 1971. In 1969, Stokely Carmichael would resign along with many of his supporters and later in 1971, there was a split between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver and their respective supporters.
These developments would occur simultaneously with the major restructuring of the labor force in the United States. Production facilities which had employed African Americans during the post-World War II period began to relocate to areas outside the urban communities in small towns and in other developing states.
It is within this context that the tragic death of Huey P. Newton must be viewed. Newton, who had been hounded for years by the authorities in Oakland, would be killed in that same city on August 22, 1989. His death was the result of his involvement with crack cocaine drug usage which had devastated the African American community throughout the country during the late 1980s.
However, the contribution of the Black Panther Party remains a high point in the overall struggle against national and class oppression. The impact of the Panthers and their uncompromising challenges to the system of capitalist exploitation influenced other oppressed nations including Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans and radical whites.
Today, the need for revolutionary organizations is just as important, if not more so, as the period of the 1960s and 1970s. With the decline in wages and the rise of social misery among the working class and impoverished, it is only through the fundamental transformation of U.S. society that the majority of people inside the country and internationally will be totally liberated.