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HUEY P. NEWTON

Cofounder of the Black Panther Party (1942-1989)

An illiterate high-school graduate, Newton taught himself how to read before attending Merritt College in Oakland, California and the San Francisco School of Law, where he met Bobby Seale.  In Oakland during 1966 Heuy Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense on October 22, 1966.  "Peaceful demonstrators all over America are being brutalized," Seale recently explained.  "We decided to take the stand Malcolm X told us to and defend ourselves."  Six months later, Newton was one of about 40 Panthers who startled the country when they entered the California state capitol carrying loaded weapons. 

That incident is still highlighted as evidence of the Panther's "gangsterism."  Actually, the Panther's campaign against police brutality and repression was a far cry from "gangsterism," and rapidly gained support in the black community.  The Panthers began to build an organization of a new type; it was one that held great promise.  Other militant Black organizations that had come out of the civil rights struggle, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), saw themselves as small bands of "specialists."  The Panthers, on the other hand, set out to build a large membership organization in which masses of people could get involved in the struggle.  During the next two years, hundreds of Black youth around the country including college and high school students flocked into Panther chapters in their areas. 

The Panthers published a Ten Point Program that incorporated demands coming out of the struggle of the Black community, but unfortunately they never seriously attempted to build a movement around those demands.  They generally refused to make a common cause with other groups in united-front type action coalitions.  Readers of the Panther's newspaper were exhorted to build a "Marxist-Leninist Vanguard."  At the same time though the Panthers gave support to Black politicians who were up and coming in the ruling-class Democratic Party.  This contradiction, and empty jargon like "Off the Pigs!" did nothing to educate the Panther cadre and only cut them off from movement in the Black community and campuses.  The pronouncements, fists, and decrees made by Newton and other top leaders came forth with little discussion by the membership. 

Those who disagreed were denounced as "pigs" and "counter revolutionaries" and purged from the party.  Such undemocratic functioning only helped pave the way for disruption by the FBI and the police.  In the early 1970s, soon after Newton was released from jail on his manslaughter conviction (he was later cleared of all charges), the Black Panther Party split into two.  One faction of the party, led by Newton, opted for "Black capitalist" strategy.  Another faction, led by Eldridge Cleaver, kept up the old" pick up the gun" rhetoric.   From time to time during the next few years, Black and White supporters of the Panthers continued to haunt the fringes of protest demonstrations, hawking the "Panther Paper" and admonishing the crowd with their slogans.  The Panthers though were about to go the way of the saber-tooth tiger into extinction, but the Panthers have not been forgotten.  A new generation is awakening in the Black communities.  These young people will fulfill the promise shown by Huey Newton and his comrades when, for a brief instant, they electrified the nation.

Revised: July 18, 2013.