Newton, Huey Percy

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Newton, Huey Percy

Huey Percy Newton was a cofounder and leader of the black panther party for self-defense, a group formed in 1966 in Oakland to organize African Americans against police brutality and racism. Convicted or charged with several murders and assaults during his life, Newton was shot and killed in 1989 in the same poor Oakland neighborhood where he had begun mobilizing African Americans to arm themselves in Self-Defense more than twenty years earlier.

"I suggested that we use the panther as our symbol …[because] the panther is a fierce animal, but he will not attack until he is backed into a corner; then he will strike out."

Newton was born on February 17, 1942, in New Orleans, the son of a sharecropper who was once nearly lynched for talking back to his white bosses. When Newton was one year old, his family moved to Oakland. By the time he was fourteen, Newton had been arrested for gun possession. He was illiterate when he graduated from high school, but he taught himself to read before attending Merritt College in Oakland and the San Francisco School of Law. In 1966 while at Merritt he met bobby seale, with whom he formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in response to Malcolm X's call to African Americans to take up arms to defend themselves against the police. The armed and uniformed Panthers patrolled Oakland streets, interrupting arrests and other police activities when they believed that African Americans were being mistreated. Newton was designated minister of defense and was a spokesperson for the party. The party drew national attention in May 1967, when six armed Panthers and about twenty supporters burst into the California Assembly at Sacramento to protest its plan to ban possession of loaded firearms within city limits. Though Newton did not participate in that event, the Oakland police increased their surveillance on him and his fellow Panthers.

On October 28, 1967, a scuffle during a routine traffic check escalated into a gun battle that left Newton with a bullet wound in his stomach, one police officer dead, and another wounded. Newton was convicted in 1968 of voluntary Manslaughter, but the California Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1970 because of the omission of key jury instructions. Newton's second and third trials ended in hung juries, and the charges were dismissed in 1972.

Newton's political agenda for the Black Panthers had moved beyond issues of police brutality to a Marxist revolutionary call for change in U.S. society. Newton called for the release of all African Americans from jail and for the payment of compensation to African Americans for centuries of economic exploitation by white America.

When Newton was released from prison in 1972 following his successful appeal of the manslaughter charge, Black Panther Party membership in forty-five cities had fallen to fewer than one thousand people. j. edgar hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had targeted the Panthers as a dangerous, politically subversive group. The FBI used informants and fake documents and letters to undermine the party. Panthers in many cities were subjected to local police harassment as well. In addition, Newton became embroiled in a dispute over the direction of the party with eldridge cleaver, the party's minister of information.

By the mid-1970s, the Black Panthers had abandoned their violent image and had begun community service programs, including free health clinics, a children's breakfast program, and drug abuse counseling. By the early 1980s, however, the Black Panthers had effectively disbanded.

Newton's role in the Black Panthers gradually diminished in the 1970s, as he had to contend with new criminal charges. In 1974 he was charged with murdering a seventeen-year-old girl and later with pistol-whipping a tailor. He fled to Cuba to avoid prosecution but returned in 1977. His two murder trials ended in hung juries, and the assault case was dropped when the tailor refused to testify.

Newton was found guilty in 1978 of being an ex-felon in possession of a handgun and was found guilty of a second count of the same charge in 1979. During this period he worked on the completion of his doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1980 for his work, "War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America." After lengthy appeals Newton was sentenced in 1981. He was charged with additional weapons violations in 1985 but was acquitted by a jury in 1986. After being paroled on the earlier weapons charges, he was returned to prison twice for violation of Parole following arrests for possession of narcotics paraphernalia and failure to submit to required drug testing.

Newton's downward spiral continued. In March 1989 he was sentenced to six months in jail after Pleading no contest to a charge of cashing for his own use a $15,000 state aid check earmarked for the Oakland Community School, which the Black Panther party operated. The school had been closed in 1982 in the face of allegations that federal and state funds had been misused.

Newton was found shot dead on an Oakland street on August 22, 1989.

Further readings

Jeffries, Judson L. 2002. Huey P. Newton: The Radical Theorist. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Newton, Huey P. 1996. War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America. New York: Writers and Readers.

PBS. 2002. "A Huey P. Newton Story." Available online at <> (accessed January 20, 2004).

Pearson, Hugh. 1994. The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.