Black Panther newspaper depiction of Huey P. Newton, co-founder and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Feb. 17 was the 66th anniversary of his birth.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
Originally Published: 10.26.2007
It is easy to write with admiration of the life and contributions of the late Dr. Huey P. Newton, even when some of my former colleagues, ex-members of the Black Panther Party, may disagree.
Writing (especially from this site) is a lonely art. One need not seek wide agreement to give voice to the rumblings of the mind, or the soul.
I've written in other venues about Huey. While I was undoubtedly critical, I was also sensitive, and tried to be insightful of the limitations of the man.
He was, and remains, a brilliant revolutionary, who learned how to pierce the rock-hard psyches of our people - especially our young brothers and sisters.
They love him fiercely and perhaps too much so.
At one point (I believe in 1970), the Party newspaper, The Black Panther, began referring to him, not as the Minister of Defense, but as the Supreme Commander. I believe that fashion began after Huey and several of his cohorts traveled to China and North Korea.
With titles such as these, where is there room for the fallible human behind them?
Huey was many things, brilliant, mercurial, driven, determined - yes; but he was also human. He made mistakes. He made both political and personal errors.
But if you are Supreme Commander, how can you admit your mistakes? With such a vainglorious title, what is there to do but obey?
It is my opinion that while Huey was indeed fallible and made serious, and indeed grievous mistakes, it is also true that many of us allowed those mistakes to be made.
That's because we elevated him to the status of a god - or, at the very least, a messiah for his oppressed people. And the fate of a messiah is, of course, crucifixion.
Huey needed people around him who could check his excesses and not those who blindly voted to support his every whim.
Every Panther read and studied the book, "The Quotations of Chairman Mao," known as the Red Book. The Red Book was a kind of shorthand of Mao's dictums and insights gleaned after decades of revolutionary practice in China. But because it's a short version, much of his writing is missing.
Many years ago, a fellow Panther named Pink (OK - that was his nickname) loaned me a thick book called "The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung." When I could, I sat down and read it, and it was far more informative than the Red Book.
The reader will hopefully forgive me for not citing the exact source data or having the quote at hand - for, despite common belief, I have no access to the internet or other such resources - but Mao warned of old revolutionaries who lose their zeal and fire after many years of struggle. Mao added that it was the youth who make the revolution.
Again, this is a hard lesson learned after many years of struggle in the history of the Chinese Revolution. Mao must've seen quite a few comrades go off the rails.
Like Huey. Like Eldridge. And like a number of brothers and sisters who come to terms with life in a country where the counter-revolution was in the ascendancy.
So, I remember Huey as the man who used his brilliance and his zeal and his fighting spirit to form the Party. Of Huey, I wrote in "We Want Freedom":
"It is beyond dispute that Huey P. Newton was a man of signal brilliance and remarkable courage. In many ways, the Black Panther Party came into being because of his will, and his strength. While those are positive attributes, they also had negative aspects. Huey, while nominally ranked beneath the Chairman, was, in fact and in our consciousness, the first Panther, the de-facto Leader. Thus he was the first among unequals. He was a model that all Panthers aspired to" (p. 219).
Being human, he was, in some ways, a flawed model. He was a powerful example, but also a powerful lesson of what could happen when all the safety nets are gone.
That a man such as this could die so ignobly, in the streets, begging a dealer for a hit of crack, is worse than a tragedy; it is a social, communal crime.
The inspired California poet and playwright, Dr. M - the artist formerly known as Marvin X - wrote tellingly and lovingly of his own struggles with the crack demon and, after he left the Death House, his loving recollection of the outspoken Dr. Khalid Muhammad. In his essay "Artists as Crack Heads," found in his book, "In the Crazy House called America," he writes:
"Could anybody stop me? No. Say what you want about the late Dr. Khalid Muhammad, but I will forever love the brother for searching the streets of Oakland for Huey Newton and myself, trying to save us from the crack demon" (p. 34).
Perhaps if Dr. Khalid had found him, we would have lived another history. But that did not happen.
While I believe that quite a few people tried, I'm certain that none would succeed.
He should be seen fully, in all of his brilliance, and his faults. He should be seen fully, as a fallible human.
He should be seen fully, as a man who tried to free our people by - in Malcolm's immortal words - "any means necessary."
Seen in his fullness, we will remember him for his contributions, his courage and his shortcomings.
Years ago, the Party's Field Marshal, D.C., came to Philadelphia and told a rapt roomful of young Panthers that Huey was the only Black leader who could march across the country, and millions would follow him.
That may have been true, for a brief, heady period. But, like most things in life, that moment passed.
That it existed, if only for one delicious moment, is testament to the power and impact of his revolutionary example.
Copyright 2007 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia's latest book, "We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party," winner of the 2005 People's Choice Award, available from South End Press, www.southendpress.org or (800) 533-8478. Keep updated by reading Action Alerts at http://www.mumia.org and http://www.moveorg.net .
To download Mp3s of Mumia's commentaries, visit http://www.prisonradio.org or http://www.fsrn.org .
Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia's commentaries to inspire progressive movement and help call attention to his case. Send our brotha some love and light at: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Greene, 175 Progress Dr., Waynesburg PA 15370.
Huey P. Newton Biography
Huey Newton, the youngest of seven children, was born in Monroe, on 17th February, 1942. His father, who named his son after the radical politcian, Huey P. Long, was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
At Merritt College in Oakland, California, Newton met Bobby Seale and in 1966 they formed the Black Panther Party. Initially established to protect local communities from police brutality and racism, it eventually developed into a Marxist revolutionary group. The Black Panthers also ran medical clinics and provided free food to school children. Other important members included Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Fred Hampton, Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver.
The activities of the Black Panthers came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover described the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and in November 1968 ordered the FBI to employ "hard-hitting counter-intelligence measures to cripple the Black Panthers".
The Black Panthers had chapters in several major cities and had a membership of over 2,000. Harassed by the police, members became involved in several shoot-outs. This included an exchange of fire between Panthers and the police at Oakland on 28th October, 1967. Newton was wounded and while in hospital was charged with killing a police officer. The following year he was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
After being released from prison Newton renounced political violence. Over a six year period 24 Black Panthers had been killed in gun fights with the police. Another member, George Jackson, was killed while in San Quentin prison in August, 1971.
Newton now concentrated on socialist community programs including free breakfasts for children, free medical clinics and helping the homeless. The Panthers also became involved in conventional politics and in 1973 Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and came second out of nine candidates with 43,710 votes (40 per cent of votes cast).
Newton published his book, Revolutionary Suicide in 1973. The following year he was arrested and charged with murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Released on bail, Newton fled to Cuba but in 1977 he returned to the United States and was freed after two hung juries.
Newton returned to his studies at the University of California and in 1980 he received a Ph.D. in social philosophy. His dissertation was entitled: War Against the Panthers: A Study in Repression in America. Huey Newton was shot dead on 22nd August, 1989, while walking along a street in Oakland.