Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Man of the Week’ profiles. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure that embodies what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to activist, author, revolutionary, political theorist, founder of the Black Panther Party, and controversial Oakland legend, Dr. Huey P. Newton.
Here Newton speaks about the Black Panther’s role being inspiring to poor and oppressed black peoples to combat racism and white supremacy:
Huey P. Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 17, 1942, and named after former governor Huey P. Long. In 1966, Newton and Bobby Seale founded the left-wing Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California. During his teen years, he taught himself how to read thanks to inspiration from his older brother. He enrolled in junior college and studied criminology. This was not to become a lawyer but the intention to become a better criminal.
“I got myself together as a young adult and went on to law school, which made my parents very happy cause they figured that I would graduate from law school, take the bar, pass the bar and make a lot of money. And of course, I dropped out which disappointed them greatly. They saw it as a form of ingratitude after all they had sacrificed for me. But to tell you the truth, the only reason I started studying the law in the first place was so that I could become a better burglar. Its true the first college course I ever signed up for back in junior college was a course in criminology because I wanted to be a criminal, but I didn’t know which type so I figured I would take a course in criminology, maybe that would help me make up my mind. I was a big-time fool; that’s why I have confidence in knowing what a big-time fool is.”
In the mid-1960s, Newton decided to pursue his education at Merritt College. During that time, he received a months-long prison term for a knife assault, and later attended the University of San Francisco School of Law. It was at Merritt, where he met Bobby Seale. The two were briefly involved with political groups at the school before they set out to create one of their own. Founded in 1966, they called their group the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Unlike many of the other social and political organizers of the time, they took a more militant stance on the plight of black communities in America. Especially in regards to police brutality and mass incarceration, issues that still plague poor and low-income black communities today. A famous photograph shows Newton—the group’s minister of defense—holding a gun in one hand and a spear in the other.
The group set forth its political goals in a document entitled the Ten-Point Program, which called for better housing, jobs, and education for African Americans. It also called for an end to the economic exploitation of black communities, along with military exemption. The organization itself was not afraid to punctuate its message with dramatic appearances. For example, to protest a gun bill in 1967, members of the Panthers entered the California Legislature armed. (Newton actually wasn’t present at the demonstration.) The action was a shocking one that made news across the country, and Newton emerged as a leading figure in the black militant movement.
“The Black Panther Party, which is a revolutionary group of black people, realizes that we have to have an identity. We have to realize our black heritage in order to give us strength to move on and progress. But as far as returning to the old African culture, it’s unnecessary and it’s not advantageous in many respects. We believe that culture itself will not liberate us. We’re going to need some stronger stuff.”
In the 1970s, Newton aimed to take the Panthers in a new direction that emphasized democratic socialism, community interconnectedness, and services for the poor, including items like free lunch programs and urban clinics. But the Panthers began to fall apart due to factionalism. Following allegations surfacing that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, was clandestinely involved in the organization’s unraveling. Key members left while Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s minister of information, split ways.
By mid-decade, Newton faced more criminal charges when he was accused of murdering a 17-year-old sex worker and assaulting a tailor. To avoid prosecution, he fled to Cuba in 1974 but returned to the U.S. three years later. The murder case was eventually dismissed after two trials ended with deadlocked juries, while the tailor refused to testify in court about assault charges.
“The Black Panther Party was forced to draw a line of demarcation. We are for all of those who are for the promotion of the interests of the black have-nots, which represents about 98% of blacks here in America. We’re not controlled by the white mother country radicals nor are we controlled by the black bourgeois. We have a mind of our own and if the black bourgeoisie cannot align itself with our complete program, then the black bourgeoisie sets itself up as or enemy. And they will be attacked and treated as such.”
Newton received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1974. In 1978, while in prison, Newton met evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers after Newton applied to do a reading course with Trivers as part of a graduate degree in History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Newton earned a Ph.D. in social philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1980. His doctoral dissertation entitled War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America “analyzes certain features of the Party and incidents that are significant in its development.” Among these are how the United States federal government responded to the BPP, in addition to the assassinations of Fred Hampton, Bunchy Carter, and John Huggins. Sources for the material used to support the dissertation include two federal civil rights lawsuits. One suit was against the FBI and other government officials, while the other was initially against the City of Chicago.
In his final years, however, he suffered from significant drug/alcohol problems and faced more prison time for weapons possession, financial misappropriations, and parole violations. The once famous revolutionary died on August 22, 1989, in Oakland, California, after being shot dead on the street.
“Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death. We will have to be driven out with a stick.”
His legacy still stands today for being one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures of the Black Power movement. He co-founded an organization that inspired people across diverse backgrounds in the global quest for justice and liberation. On the other hand, the Panthers and Huey also drew scorn from the media and met violent repression from the U.S. Government and multiple law enforcement agencies (mainly the FBI). They worked hard to destroy the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement.
Huey P. Newton became a figure that was both inspirational and tragic. A man who was seen by his detractors as a violent sociopath and a revolutionary messiah by his admirers. The reality paints a much more complicated portrait of the man. No doubt that Huey P. Newton made his mark on not only black history but American history. From petty criminal to black revolutionary icon to drug addict to professor, Newton was a man who lived many lives. The historical documentaries A Huey P. Newton Story and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution both spotlight the life and death of Huey P. Newton and for better or worse his impact on Black Power movement. Today, we honor Huey P. Newton as our Evolved Man of the Week.