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First Years of the Black Panther Party, 1966-68

Some young blacks in California were saying that "whitey's" promises were no good and that Martin Luther King's praying and marching would "not get it." Some described Stokely Carmichael and another SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) activist, H. Rap Brown, as creating something new and better than King's movement. Some described the Watts incident in Los Angeles as the greatest uprising in modern times, and young men who had taken part in the rising were looked upon as heroic fighters for freedom.

Among the many young blacks listening to those who were hostile toward King's movement was Huey P. Newton, who had been attending Junior College in Oakland, California. Newton said that King's movement was too slow and too tame. Like other young people, Newton had been impressed by Malcolm X, and like other young people he did not want to wait ten or twenty years for the world to get better; he wanted a better world immediately. To a fellow student, Bobby Seale, he said it was a waste for people to be contributing money to King's movement. He said that there were already enough laws on the books to benefit blacks, that the problem was that laws already on the books were not being enforced. in 1966, responding to what they saw as the inadequacy of King's movement and the inadequacy of other groups in the Oakland area devoted to African-American interests, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded a new organization: the Black Panther Political Party.

The Black Panther Party platform called for freedom, which it described as the power of the black community to determine its own destiny: to establish full employment for black people; to either provide a guaranteed income or to confiscate the means of production; to end capitalist robbery of the black community; to provide decent housing and an education that exposes the true nature of "decadent American society." The party's platform called for exemption from military service for all black men; an immediate end to police brutality and murder; the release of all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails; blacks to be tried by black juries; and a plebiscite among blacks supervised by the United Nations to determine the will of black people as to "national destiny."

Newton been attending book discussion groups, and he was reading the works of some who were popular on the Left: the Algerian Franz Fannon, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. Newton viewed the struggle for freedom as a class struggle rather than a struggle between the races – which set him apart from the black nationalists around him with whom he frequently argued. In his book Revolutionary Suicide, published in 1973, Newton would quote not only Mao but two nineteenth century thinkers that Marx detested: the French socialist Pierre Proudhon, who wrote that property is theft, and Bakunin, who wrote that "the brigand... is the true and only revolutionary." Newton also quoted Frederick Douglas and Paul Robeson, and he quoted Melvin Van Peebles as having stated that black was "fast, classy... and ass-kicking."

Newton had grown up well-mannered. He was the seventh child born into a caring family that had moved from Louisiana when Huey was three. His father had been a Baptist Minister and in Oakland had remained active in Church affairs. Huey (named after Huey Long) remained close to his parents, describing his father as proud, strong and protective, and describing his mother as loving and joyful. His father believed very much in work, but his parents had never been able to lift themselves above what Newton saw as poverty. They had given him an upbringing that included learning the piano, and his parents expected their children would be professionals – maybe doctors, lawyers, builders or airplane pilots.

But Huey had performed poorly in high school. While remaining close to his parents he rebelled against the world outside his home. He was breaking into homes in the affluent Berkeley hills neighborhoods, believing that he was outsmarting the affluent. He had a friendly disposition, but, according to Bobby Seale, although he was only 5'10" and less than 160 pounds, he had made a reputation for himself as someone to respect.  He was quick with his fists if challenged by the bad manners of others.

Newton had feelings of camaraderie with blacks less intellectual than he. Newton had been ridiculed by movement blacks while trying to learn, and he vowed to treat "the brothers" entering the Panthers not with ridicule when they displayed ignorance but with patience and encouragement.

Political Action – Carrying Guns and Monitoring the Police

Newton saw the police not as protectors of the community but as the military arm of the oppressors. Newton and his Panthers began driving behind the police, to keep a community watch on them. On these patrols the Panthers carried guns with them that were legally displayed, and they wore black berets and black leather jackets. Whenever they saw the police questioning "a sister or a brother," the Panthers would get out of their cars, with guns in hand, and observe from a distance that could not be deemed as interference. Some policemen felt stress and let their emotions run. In response to taunts from a policeman, Newton might accuse the officer of being a migrant from the South and a "cracker." A more common epithet that the Panthers and others were using was "pig," while some officers were sponsoring the slogan that "pigs are beautiful."

In late October, 1967, Huey Newton started the evening driving his girlfriend's Volkswagen. He visited his favorite bar and was happy to be with friends. Around four in the morning he and a friend, Gene McKinney, went for food, and while looking for a parking place they were pulled over by a policeman, John Frey, who had a reputation in black neighborhoods for his toughness. Frey waited in his car for a minute and then approached Newton. Frey put his head to the window, six inches from Newton's face and, according to Newton, said "Well, well, well, the great Huey P. Newton."

Another patrolman drove up, and the two patrolmen hassled Newton concerning his identity and who owned the car. Frey asked Newton to get out of the car. Newton asked if he was being put under arrest. Frey told him no. Frey put Newton against the car and patted him down. Newton had his small law notebook in his hand. After the search, Frey told Newton he wanted to talk to him, and he pulled and pushed Newton back to the second police car. Gene McKinney was out of the car and being looked after by the second policeman. Frey brought Newton to an abrupt halt. Newton opened his law book and told Frey that he had no reasonable cause to arrest him. Frey, according to Newton, called him a nigger, told him to shove his law book and then struck Newton with his fist. Newton wrote in his book Revolutionary Suicide that he stumbled back a few feet and went down on one knee, still holding his law book. He wrote that he saw Frey draw his revolver, and that Frey fired as he, Newton, was rising, that the bullet hit him in his stomach, which, he said, seemed to explode. Then, according to Newton, "the world went hazy" and he heard a rapid volley of shots.

Attacking Newton was Frey's last pleasure. He died at the scene of his confrontation with Newton. Exactly how he died is unclear. Soon after, Newton was on a gurney at Kaiser Hospital. The police burst in and handcuffed Newton to the gurney, stretching his stomach and causing him more pain. According to Newton they cursed him for having killed a fellow officer. They threatened his life, one officer pointing a shotgun at him and telling Newton that it might go off accidentally. And according to Newton, they spat on him and he spat back.

The Oakland District Attorney's Office was ignoring Frey's abuses. It was eager to convict Newton and believed there were grounds for a grand jury inquiry. The grand jury estimated that seven shots had been fired, one hitting Frey in the thigh, another hitting him in the back, three bullets having struck the second officer at the scene and one other bullet lodging in the door of the Volkswagen. The only weapon found at the scene belonged to the second patrolman. The charges against Newton were first-degree murder and kidnapping. Newton had been driven from the scene of the killing by another black man, and Newton was accused of having kidnapped him. Newton was tried before a judge alleged to be sympathetic toward the prosecution. But he had a skilled attorney: Charles Gerry.

"Free Huey" became a rallying cry across the nation. The popularity of the Black Panthers skyrocketed, and small organizations calling themselves Panthers arose in various cities, aligning themselves with and subordinating themselves to the Black Panther Party in Oakland.

In September 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Feeling cheated, soon after the verdict a couple of police officers in Oakland shot up the Panther headquarters from their police cars. Neighbors called police headquarters, and the two officers were apprehended.

Newton was sent to a new prison, the penal colony at Vacaville in California.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.