Biography of Huey Newton, Co-Founder of the Black Panthers

photo of Huey Newton in a holding cell
Huey Newton, in a holding cell awaiting a trial verdict.

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Huey Newton was an African American political activist who co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966. When Newton was convicted for the fatal shooting of a police officer, his imprisonment became a common cause among activists in the United States. The slogan "Free Huey" appeared on banners and buttons at protests across the country. He was later released after two re-trials resulted in hung juries.

Fast Facts: Huey Newton

  • Known For: Co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense
  • Born: February 17, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana
  • Died: August 23, 1989 in Oakland, California
  • Education: Merritt College (A.A.), University of California at Santa Cruz (B.A., Ph.D.), Oakland City College (law classes, no degree), San Francisco Law School (law classes, no degree)
  • Notable Quote: "Political power comes through the barrel of a gun."

Early Life and Education

Huey P. Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 17, 1942. He was named after Huey P. Long, the former governor of Louisiana who became notorious as a radical populist in the early 1930s. In 1945, Newton's family moved to California, drawn by the job opportunities that arose in the Bay Area as a result of the wartime industrial boom. They struggled financially and moved around often throughout Newton's life.

He completed high school—which he later described as an experience that "nearly killed [his] urge to inquire"—without being able to read (he later taught himself). After high school, he earned an A.A. degree from Merritt College and took law school classes at Oakland City College.

Starting in his teen years and continuing through college, Newton was arrested for crimes like mostly petty crimes such as vandalism and burglary. In 1965, when he was 22 years old, Newton was arrested and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to six months in jail. Most of his sentence was served in solitary confinement.

Founding the Black Panther Party

During his time at Oakland City College, Newton joined the Afro-American Association, which inspired him to become politically and socially conscious. He later said that his Oakland public education had made him feel "ashamed of being black," but that his shame began to transform into pride once he encountered black activists. He also began reading radical activist literature, including works by Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

Newton soon realized that there were few organizations advocating for lower class African Americans in Oakland. In October 1966, he joined up with Bobby Seale to form a new group, which they called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The organization was focused on fighting police brutality in Oakland and San Francisco.

With Seale as chairman and Newton as "minister of defense," the Black Panthers quickly assembled a membership and began patrolling Oakland neighborhoods. When police were spotted interacting with black citizens, the Panthers would approach and inform the civilians of their constitutional rights. Newton took part in such actions, sometimes while brandishing a law book.

The organization adopted a uniform of black leather jackets, black berets, and sunglasses. This distinct uniform, as well as their prominent display of guns and bandoliers of shotgun shells, made the Black Panthers highly noticeable. By the spring of 1967, stories about Newton and the Black Panthers began appearing in major publications.

Guns and Political Power

The Black Panthers encouraged black citizens of Oakland to begin carrying firearms, citing their Constitutional right under the Second Amendment, and tensions between police and the Black Panthers continued to grow.

An article published in the New York Times on May 3, 1967 described an incident in which Newton, Seale, and about 30 other Black Panthers strode into the California capitol in Sacramento with their weapons prominently displayed. The story was headlined "Armed Negroes Protest Gun Bill." The Black Panthers had arrived in dramatic fashion to voice their opposition to a proposed law against carrying firearms. It seemed the law had been drafted specifically to curtail their activities.

Weeks later, in another article in the New York Times, Newton was described as being surrounded by armed followers in an apartment in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Newton was quoted as saying, "Political power comes through the barrel of a gun."

Arrest and Conviction

About a year after the Black Panthers first rose to prominence, Newton became entangled in a high-profile legal case. The case centered around the death of John Frey, who died after pulling over Huey Newton and a friend for a traffic stop. Newton was arrested at the scene. In September 1968, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received a sentence of two to 15 years in prison.

Newton's incarceration became a major cause among young radicals and activists. "Free Huey" buttons and banners could be seen at protests and anti-war rallies nationwide, and rallies for Newton's release were held in numerous American cities. At the time, police actions against Black Panthers in other cities made headlines.

In May 1970, Newton was granted a new trial. After two trials were held and both resulted in hung juries, the case was dropped and Newton was released. The specific events, as well as Newton's potential culpability, surrounding John Frey's death remain uncertain.

Later Life

Following his release from prison in 1970, Newton resumed leadership of the Black Panthers and began studying at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he earned a B.A. in 1974. After a period of relative quiet, Newton was charged with the murder of a teenage sex worker named Kathleen Smith. He was also arrested for assaulting his tailor. Newton fled to Cuba, where he lived in exile for three years.

In 1977, Newton returned to California, asserting that the political climate in the United States had changed enough that he could receive a fair trial. After juries were deadlocked, Newton was acquitted of the murder of Kathleen Smith. He returned to the Black Panther organization, and also returned to college. In 1980, he received a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He wrote a thesis about the repression of the Black Panthers.

Death and Legacy

In the 1980s, Newton grappled with drug addiction and alcohol abuse. He remained involved with neighborhood programs pioneered by the Black Panthers. However, in 1985, he was arrested for embezzling funds. He was later arrested on a weapons charge, and was also suspected of being involved in the drug trade.

In the early hours of August 23, 1989, Newton was shot and killed on a street in Oakland, California. His killing was reported on the front page of the New York Times. Tyrone Robinson confessed to the murder, and it was concluded that the killing was connected to Newton's significant debt caused by his cocaine addiction.

Today, Newton's legacy is one of leadership within the Black Panther Party, as well as his controversial convictions and allegations of violence.

Sources

  • Nagel, Rob. "Newton, Huey 1942–1989." Contemporary Black Biography, edited by Barbara Carlisle Bigelow, vol. 2, Gale, 1992, pp. 177-180. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Huey P. Newton." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 11, Gale, 2004, pp. 367-369. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Spencer, Robyn. "Newton, Huey P." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Colin A. Palmer, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, pp. 1649-1651. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Associated Press. "Huey Newton Killed; Was a Co-Founder Of Black Panthers." New York Times, 23 August 1989, p. A1.
  • Buursma, Bruce. "Newton Slain In Drug Dispute, Police Say." Chicago Tribune, 27 August 1989.