“If you stop struggling, then you stop life.”
Huey P. Newton was born on February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to the Bay Area of California in 1945, where he grew up being made to feel ashamed of his blackness. He came from a close-knit family, and never went without adequate food or shelter. He graduated high school in 1959. Despite not knowing how to read, he taught himself, showing the struggling spirit that would be an omen for things to come for Newton in the decade to come.
He enrolled at Merritt College in Oakland, California. He became a well-known figure on campus due to his key role in the Afro-American association, a black fraternity, and working to get a Black history class on campus. He also read voraciously, devouring works by Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Malcolm X, Émile Durkheim, Frantz Fanon, and other revolutionary figures. This knowledge would go on to become the ideological basis of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which he founded with friend and fellow Merritt student, Bobby Seale, in October 1966.
The Black Panther Party came from Newton and Seale’s desire to defend their community in Oakland from police abuses and wanton violence. He began visiting gambling dens, pool halls, bars, and other locations where members of the black unemployed and working class were massed, and eventually acquired a substantial base for the organization. Newton also worked hard to address issues of poverty in the community by organizing food pantries, schools, and free health clinics to fill gaps that the capitalist state left behind.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense grew rapidly and acquired a respected position within the community. Branches were opened in several major cities around the country, ranging from Denver to New York City to Chicago to Atlanta. From the very beginning, the Party attracted substantial monitoring and harassment from local, state, and eventually, federal law enforcement agencies. Police officers and FBI agents routinely beat Panthers, broke into and illegally searched for materials from their offices and residences, and provoked other organizations to murder members. In 1969, Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins were slain at the UCLA campus during one such incident. Law enforcement officials also conducted a myriad of other illegal activities under the auspices of the COINTELPRO program, which disrupted and destroyed the activities of revolutionary groups that were seen as a threat to the capitalist dominance and “good order” of the United States.
Huey Newton was charged with murdering police officer John Frey, a well-known racist, on the morning of October 28, 1967, in an incident in which he also was wounded. Newton was taken to the hospital, where he suffered further extensive injuries at the hands of vengeful police officers. Eventually, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1968 and was sentenced to two to fifteen years in prison. However, a massive “Free Huey” campaign invigorated the Black Panther Party, raised large amounts of money, and produced extreme amounts of publicity regarding his case. Newton was freed after his conviction was overturned in May of 1970.
Newton became an international cause célebre. He was welcomed to the People’s Republic of China in September 1971, where he met with Tanzanian and North Vietnamese delegations, Premier Chou En-lai, and Jiang Qing, who was Mao Zedong’s wife. Crowds in Tienanmen Square held banners and posters welcoming Newton to China and expressing solidarity and support for the Black Panthers’ struggle.
Newton was also a serious scholar, obtaining a B.A. in 1974 and a PhD in 1980. By 1980, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was a shell of what it was 10 years before, and officially had disbanded by 1983. Newton developed addiction problems and suffered massive psychological and emotional trauma resulting from the decline of the Black Panther Party, and was shot and killed by a drug dealer on August 22, 1989.
Despite this sad and untimely death, Huey Newton and the organization that he helped found played a major role in helping the African-American nation increase its knowledge of and pride in self. Huey Newton dreamed and worked to make his dream of national liberation for the Black people of the United States and oppressed people around the world a reality, and should be remembered as a Black national hero.