Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Free Huey!"


Huey P. Newton was born on this day in 1942 in New Orleans.

A former San Francisco Law student, in 1966 Newton joined forces with an acquaintance from Alcoholics Anonymous, Bobby Seale, to establish the "Black Panther Party for Self-Defense." In addition to coordinating food programs and protests, the Panthers conducted armed patrols on Bay Area streets in response to Malcolm X's call for black America to defend itself from what he saw as the systematic government-sponsored violence against African-Americans -- including those engaged in peaceful protest.

In May 1967, the Black Panthers made national headlines when about 40 of them, dressed in leather jackets, marched into the California state capitol carrying loaded weapons as a protest against a bill being considered by the California legislature which would prevent citizens from carrying weapons; the bill quickly became law. Not long afterward, Newton was accused of murdering an Oakland police officer, which encouraged the predominant impression of white America that the Panthers were violent Marxist insurrectionists, a powder keg waiting to explode. Clearly, Newton and his cohorts had intended to scare white America, but their pre-fab image also served to obscure the community assistance missions of the Party.

Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after an 8-week trial in a courthouse surrounded by a couple of thousand protesters chanting "Free Huey!," and was sent to prison. The conviction was later overturned and Newton publicly renounced violence, but he was soon arrested and charged with another murder, and he fled the country to Cuba for several years before returning and getting acquitted of all charges.

After his return to the Panther leadership in 1977, even as the popularity of the Panthers among urban blacks declined, Newton continued to carry the Panther banner, although adopting a capitalist, "within-the-system" tone, while fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver retained the Panthers' original Marxist stance.

In 1980, Newton received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of California with a thesis (later published) on the FBI's tactics against the Panthers, War Against Panthers: Study of Repression in America. Even after this, Newton could not stay out of trouble: in 1985 he was charged with embezzlement of public funds in connection with an education program, and in 1987 he was convicted of illegal possession of firearms. A drug and alcohol addict for a number of years, he was shot and killed in a dispute with a small-time drug dealer on August 22, 1989 in Oakland, California.

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