Huey Newton, 1942-1989
One night in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a group of white boys drove alongside my drop-top 1963 Chevy Impala, called me a nigger, and threw empty beer cans at my ride. I chased them down a darkened street. They stopped and got out the car, smiling like they was going to kick some black ass. I got out, went to the truck, and pulled out my 300 Savage semiautomatic rifle. I fired a couple of rounds with the intent, but not the nerve, to kill. They jumped back in their car and fled.
Sweating and shaking with fear and adrenalin, I got back into my Impala laughing, convinced that Huey Newton was right when he said political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
Just a year before that incident I had never really thought much about where political power came from. I was into processes or ‘dos, black-and-white shoes, and big cars. But when the media brought Huey along, I immediately dug him because he scared the shit out of redneck peck-a-woods. I came to hate them at an early age. I hated them for attacking children with dogs in the South and for their false generosity in the North. I hated them for denying economic survival to a people who asked for little more. I knew that the last thing white folks really wanted to see was a pissed-off black man heavily armed and intellectually dangerous. But as far as African Americans were concerned, Huey and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a name taken from the Lowndes County, Alabama, chapter of the SNCC, came along just at the right time. We had had enough — enough police brutality, enough intimidation, enough racism.
So when I heard that Huey had been gunned down in a possible dope deal in the early morning hours in West Oakland, I really felt the loss. Sure, he was a wild man, and I won’t try to excuse that. But who wouldn’t be after living for years under constant and intense pressure from The Man’s Thought-Cops Division. They were after him because he was a symbol. Huey, in the days before his madness, represented a revolutionary alternative for those without an ounce of faith in this country’s social, political, and economic order. He was our David taking on a ruthless, big, white giant from the West.
Even those African Americans who disagreed with his tactics sympathized with his goals in the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program, which included: an end to robbery by the white man of our black community; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people; and more bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.
The program attracted a lot of people in the ’60s and it seems, especially in light of the Howard Beach and Bensonburst crimes, long overdue today.
After seeing a poster of Huey and Bobby Seale decked out in berets and black leather jackets and toting pieces, I went right out and bought my rifle. To quiet my hustler’s instincts, I replaced my back-pocket copy of Iceberg Slim’s The Pimp with a copy of Mao Ze-dong’s Little Red Book.
I enjoyed reading Huey’s articles in the BPP newspaper. He was the first person to persuade me to dull the edge and eventually conquer my homophobia. He got me to thinking about women’s liberation and liberation struggles in Third World countries. I listened and learned from his sermons of love and internationalism. There was much Huey did and said that I didn’t agree with, but I owe him thanks for forcing me to think about so much.
Because there was no Black Panther Party in my hometown, Lansing, Michigan, I didn’t join the BPP. Since we could not be real Panthers, a group of us, high school students, Vietnam vets, and factory workers, got together in 1968 and started a breakfast program for children. I often looked into the faces of those children and wanted to cry.
We didn’t have the resources to open health care centers and legal defense offices like the BPP, but we were all sure that when the revolution came, when we seized the power, we’d have all the resources we needed.
But I had real trouble with the Jimi Hendrix aspects of Huey. It was electric and bigger than life. It was the side that reached out to whites to form alliances. For my money, white folks could go straight to hell. I was that angry. I figured that if they did join in our struggle they would eventually sell us out. But looking back now, through the prism of Jesse Jackson’s coalition-building presidential campaigns and my own years of experience in the struggle, I see that Huey, like Jimi, was ahead of his time and true to his roots. That’s probably what shook both of them so tragically out of control.
Was Huey P. Newton right when he called on the people to arm themselves? So far, history hasn’t proved anything about Huey’s strategy. The only thing we know for sure is that the BPP’s demands have not been met, which proves that the beast we progressive-minded people struggle against cannot be defeated with one strategy; neither the ballot nor the bullet alone. And no matter what strategy we do decide to use, history has already shown us that there will be casualties, and that’s what Huey was, a casualty of war. Another niggah, from The Man’s point of view, dead of low-intensity warfare. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 14, 2020