Huey Percy Newton (February 17, 1942 – August 22, 1989) was an American political and urban activist who, along with Bobby Seale, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, the youngest of seven children to Armelia Johnson and Walter Newton, a sharecropper and Baptist lay preacher. His parents named him after former Governor of Louisiana Huey Long. In 1945, the family settled in Oakland, California. The Newton family was quite poor and often relocated throughout the San Francisco Bay Area during Newton's childhood. Despite this, he contended that his family was close-knit and that he never went without food and shelter as a child. Growing up in Oakland, Newton stated that "he was made to feel ashamed of being black." In his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide, he wrote, "During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or to question or to explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire."
Although he graduated at Oakland Technical High School in 1960, Newton was illiterate. However, he went on to teach himself to read. He struggled to read The Republic by Plato at first, finally reading it five times to better understand it, and it was this success that inspired him to become a political leader.
As a teenager, he was arrested several times for minor offenses, and by age 14, had been arrested for gun possession and vandalism. Newton supported himself in college by burglarizing homes in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills areas, and committing other petty crimes. Newton once said that he studied law to become a better criminal.
Founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense
As a student at Merritt College in Oakland, Newton became involved in politics in the Bay Area. He joined the Afro-American Association, became a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, Beta Tau chapter, and played a role in getting the first African-American history course adopted as part of the college's curriculum. He read the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara. It was during his time at Merritt College that Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966. Based on a coin toss, Seale became Chairman and Newton became Minister of Defense.
The Black Panther Party was an African-American left-wing organization working for the right of self-defense for African-Americans in the United States. The Party achieved national and international impact and renown through their deep involvement in the Black Power movement and in politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The group's "provocative rhetoric, militant posture, and cultural and political flourishes permanently altered the contours of American Identity."
Newton adopted what he termed "revolutionary humanism". Although he had earlier visited Nation of Islam mosques, he wrote that "I had had enough of religion and could not bring myself to adopt another one. I needed a more concrete understanding of social conditions. References to God or Allah did not satisfy my stubborn thirst for answers." Later, however, he stated that "As far as I am concerned, when all of the questions are not answered, when the extraordinary is not explained, when the unknown is not known, then there is room for God because the unexplained and the unknown is God."
Newton and the Panthers started a number of social programs in Oakland, including founding the Oakland Community School, which provided high-level education to 150 children from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Other Panther programs included the Free Breakfast for Children Program and others that offered dances for teenagers and training in martial arts. According to Oakland County Supervisor John George: "Huey could take street-gang types and give them a social consciousness." Newton was later accused of embezzling $600,000 of state funds from the Oakland Community School; the charges were reduced to a single count of cashing a $15,000 check for personal use, and Newton was sentenced to six months in jail and 18 months probation.
Fatal shooting of John Frey
One of the The Black Panther Party's most influential and widely known programs was its armed citizens' patrols to evaluate the behavior of police officers and prevent police brutality. Oakland Police Department officer John Frey had stopped Newton before dawn on October 28, 1967, an attempt to disarm and discourage Panther patrols. After fellow officer Herbert Heanes arrived for backup, shots were fired, and all three were wounded. Heanes testified that the shooting began after Newton was under arrest, and one witness testified that Newton shot Frey with Frey's own gun as they wrestled. No gun on either Frey or Newton was found. Newton stated that Frey shot him first, which made him lose consciousness during the incident. Frey was shot four times and died within the hour, while Heanes was left in serious condition with three bullet wounds. With a bullet wound to the abdomen, Newton staggered into the Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He was admitted, but was alarmed to find himself handcuffed to his bed. Newton was convicted in September 1968 of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Frey and was sentenced to 2–15 years in prison. In May 1970, the California Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. After two subsequent mistrials, the California Supreme Court dropped the case. In his autobiography, "Revolutionary Suicide", Newton wrote that Heanes and Frey were opposite each other and shooting in each others' direction during the shootout. According to journalist Hugh Pearson, Newton boasted to close friend and sociobiologist Robert Trivers that he deliberately killed John Frey and never regretted it.
Around this time Newton wrote several collections of essays, poems, songs and oral history, some published by the Black Panther Party (see Books, articles, and oral histories, below).
Murder of Kathleen Smith, assault of Preston Callins, attempted murder of Crystal Gray
On August 6, 1974, Kathleen Smith, a 17-year-old Oakland prostitute was shot; she died three months later. According to the prosecutor handling the case and other sources Newton shot Smith after a casual exchange on the street during which she referred to him as "Baby", a childhood nickname he hated. He was arrested on murder charges, then released for lack of evidence.
Similarly, Newton assaulted his tailor, Preston Callins, after Callins called him "Baby". After posting bond on an arrest for pistol whipping Callins, Newton was again arrested for the murder of Smith but was able to post an $80,000 bond and was released again. Newton and his girlfriend Gwen Fountaine, fled to Havana, Cuba to avoid prosecution for the charges, living there until 1977. Elaine Brown took over as chairperson of the Black Panther Party in his absence. Newton returned to the United States in 1977 to stand trial for the murder of Smith and the assault on Callins.
In October 1977 three Black Panthers attempted to assassinate Crystal Gray, one of the prostitutes present the day of Kathleen Smith’s murder and a key prosecution witness in Newton's upcoming trial. Unbeknownst to the assailants, they attacked the wrong house and the occupant returned fire. During the shootout one of the Panthers, Louis Johnson, was killed and the other two assailants escaped. One of the two surviving assassins, Flores Forbes, fled to Las Vegas, Nevada with the help of Panther paramedic Nelson Malloy. Fearing that Malloy would discover the truth behind the botched assassination attempt, Newton allegedly ordered a “house cleaning”, and Malloy was shot and buried alive in the desert. Malloy miraculously recovered from the assault and told police that fellow Panthers Rollin Reid and Allen Lewis were behind his attempted murder. Newton denied any involvement or knowledge and said the events “might have been the result of overzealous party members”.
During Newton's trial for assaulting Preston Callins, Callins changed his testimony several times and eventually told the jury that he did not know who assaulted him. Newton was acquitted of the assault in September 1978 but convicted on two counts of firearm possession.
After two trials and two deadlocked juries, the prosecution decided not to retry Newton for Smith’s murder.
In January 1977, Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones visited Newton in Havana. After Jones fled to Jonestown, Guyana, Newton spoke to Temple members in Jonestown via telephone patch supporting Jones during one of the Temple's earliest "White Nights." Newton's cousin, Stanley Clayton, was one of the few residents of Jonestown to escape the 1978 tragedy, during which more than 900 Temple members were ordered by Jones to commit suicide.
Newton earned a bachelor's degree from UC Santa Cruz in 1974. He was enrolled as a graduate student in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz in 1978, when he arranged to take a reading course from famed evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, while in prison. He and Trivers became close friends. Trivers and Newton published an influential analysis of the role of flight crew self-deception in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.
Newton earned a Ph.D. in social philosophy at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. His doctoral dissertation was entitled War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America. Later, Newton's widow, Frederika Newton, would discuss her husband's often-ignored academic leanings on C-SPAN's "American Perspectives" program on February 18, 2006.
Relations between Newton and factions within the Black Guerilla Family had been strained for nearly two decades. Former Black Panther members who became BGF members in jail had become disenchanted with Newton for his perceived abandonment of imprisoned Black Panther members and allegations of Newton's fratricide within the party.
On August 22, 1989, Newton was fatally shot on the 1400 block of 9th street in West Oakland by 24-year-old BGF member Tyrone Robinson. Robinson was convicted of the murder in August 1991 and sentenced to 32 years in prison for the crime.
Robinson said that Newton pulled a gun when the two met at a street corner in the neighborhood but the police found no evidence that Newton was armed. The murder occurred in a neighborhood where Newton, as minister of defense for the Black Panthers, once organized social programs that helped destitute African Americans, such as feeding poor, young children in the community before they headed off to school.
Newton's last words, as he stood facing his killer, were, "You can kill my body, but you can't kill my soul. My soul will live forever!" He was then shot three times in the face by Robinson.
He was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland.
Photograph was hand oil tinted by artist, Margaret A. Rogers.