Huey Percy Newton (b. 1942–d. 1989) is a singular figure in African American history. Born in Monroe, Louisiana to Armelia Johnson and Walter Newton, he joined the Great Migration as a child when his family relocated to Oakland, California. He graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1959, but forever claimed that school failed him, notably in the fact that he graduated without learning to read. Alongside self-directed learning, he then studied at Merritt College in Oakland, one of the city’s hotbeds of political discussion and activism. After joining, and becoming disillusioned by, a sequence of campus organizations, in October 1966 he formed the Black Panther Party (BPP) with his friend and fellow student Bobby Seale, who credits Newton as the principal architect of the BPP’s political philosophy and the driving force behind its early activism. The BPP initially focused on protesting police brutality in Oakland, most importantly through a sequence of patrols of police officers, which involved armed Panthers observing police activities in Oakland, informing local citizens of their legal rights during any arrest procedure and ensuring that the police conducted their duties lawfully and respectfully; and the May 1967 protest at the California State Capitol, one of the central events of the 1960s (although Newton was absent from the latter due to probation restrictions). On 28 October 1967 he was charged with the murder of Oakland police officer John Frey. The subsequent trial transformed the BPP and Newton into international phenomena. Despite a fervent “Free Huey” campaign and a bravura defense from his attorney, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. He served two years in prison, being released after his appeal revealed that the presiding judge of his original trial twice incorrectly instructed the jury and allowed disputed evidence to be presented to the jury. Two further retrials led to deadlocked juries. Returning in August 1970 to a transformed BPP, Newton struggled to cope with the fame and expectations placed upon him. Just as important was an extensive FBI campaign of disinformation, surveillance, infiltration, and occasional violence. Newton’s long-term use of cocaine did little to help. In 1974 he fled the United States for Cuba, fearing prosecution for the murder of a teenager, Kathleen Smith. He returned in 1977 to face the charges, which were eventually dropped. Following the collapse of the BPP amid accusations of financial impropriety, Newton essentially disappeared from public life. He was shot and killed in West Oakland by Tyrone Robinson, a local gang member, following an altercation over a drug deal.
Works by Newton
As the leading intellectual light of the BPP, Newton’s pronouncements received considerable attention. His early writings include the still startling “In Defense of Self-Defense” and “Executive Mandate Number One,” which not only established the BPP’s theory of armed self-defense, but also positioned the party within a worldwide, centuries-long liberation struggle. In addition, there was the BPP’s Ten Point Platform and Program, which outlined the BPP’s cogent analysis of American racism. These all remain essential documents of the radical 1960s and were first published in The Black Panther newspaper. His enforced seclusion, first in prison and then in his apartment, led to a broadening of his vision that drew on the work of numerous revolutionaries whose work owes a debt to Marxism and Marxism-Leninism, most notably Frantz Fanon. Various publications collect these works. Of them, Morrison 1972 remains the authoritative source. Foner 1995 (first published 1970) offers a partial selection but is essential for an overview of the intellectual ferment of the BPP in the period between 1966 and 1970; Hilliard and Weise 2002 expands the chronology but overlooks some key documents. Erikson and Newton 1973 is a compelling read, although more for the atmosphere of the debates it transcribes than for its intellectual qualities. Like many other key figures in the BPP, Newton published an autobiography, Newton and Blake 1973, that wove his personal history into that of the BPP. Later, he enrolled in UC Santa Cruz’s famed History of Consciousness program; his 1980 thesis was published as Newton 1996.
The Black Panther.
Newton’s writings were published and often republished in the BPP’s house newspaper (initially titled The Black Panther Black Community News Service and later The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service). An essential source for understanding the BPP, Black Power, and African American radicalism in a wider sense, The Black Panther offers an unparalleled view into the local, national, and international perspectives of members. Newton’s writings appeared most frequently in the period prior to his conviction, at a time when the newspaper was published irregularly. Partial collections are available online.
Erikson, Erik H., and Huey P. Newton. In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton. New York: Norton, 1973.
Heavily edited from the lengthy transcriptions of a three-day seminar at Yale conducted in 1971, and a further meeting in Oakland, at a time when Newton was outlining his theory of intercommunalism, this volume reveals Newton’s keenness to be taken seriously as an intellectual, and hints at his rhetorical obtuseness.
Foner, Philip S., ed. The Black Panthers Speak. New York: Da Capo, 1995.
A classic collection of material culled from The Black Panther, first published in 1970, with a fine introduction from Clayborne Carson in its later editions; includes a limited selection of Newton’s writings prior to 1970.
Hilliard, David, and Donald Weise, eds. The Huey P. Newton Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
In chronological terms a more capacious selection than Morrison 1972, this volume highlights Newton’s later writings and thus offers a useful primer on both the development and decline of Newton’s thought in the 1970s.
Morrison, Toni, ed. To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1972.
Edited by Toni Morrison, this was the first collection of Newton’s writings, and contains his most important theoretical contributions to Black Power, but take note of Blake 2012 (cited under African American Incarceration). The collection traces the broadening of Newton’s thought, from his early entreaties to BPP members to his early-1970s inquisitions into black capitalism, intercommunalism, and his long exegesis of Melvin van Peebles’s film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The collection is essential for an understanding of Newton’s thought.
Newton, Huey P. War against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America. New York: Harlem River Press, 1996.
Newton’s PhD thesis, awarded by the University of California in 1980, is a curious read, combining autoethnography with traditional historical archival research to construct an account of the FBI’s counterintelligence operation against the BPP. Subsequent works such as Ward Churchill’s entry in Cleaver and Katsiaficas 2001 (cited under BPP Organizational Histories) offer a more authoritative and carefully evidenced view.
Newton, Huey P., with J. Herman Blake. Revolutionary Suicide. London: Penguin, 1973.
Written with the assistance of J. Herman Blake, much in the style of Alex Haley’s work on Malcolm X’s autobiography—which Revolutionary Suicide almost self-consciously echoes—this is best read alongside Seale 1970 (cited under Black Panther Party Participant-Observer Accounts). It offers a chronology of Newton’s life, with some particularly harrowing recollections of his time in prison.
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