- Founder of the Black Panther Party
- Drug dealer, rapist, and murderer
- Murdered an Oakland police officer in 1967
- Murdered a 17-year-old prostitute in 1974
- Was killed by a drug dealer he had failed to pay
Born the youngest of seven children on February 17, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana, Huey P. Newton turned his Oakland, California street gang into the Black Panther Party (BPP) -- originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense -- in 1966. Because of its obsession with guns and “self defense,” the organization caught the political fancy of Sixties radicals who considered themselves to be at war with the United States. The Panthers were termed “America’s Vietcong” by Tom Hayden. As onetime Panther Eldridge Cleaver would acknowledge in a 1998 Sixty Minutes interview: “If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country.”
As a teenager and into his twenties, Newton worked as a pimp, committed armed robberies, burglarized homes in Berkeley Hills, and ran short-change scams. In 1962 he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to six months in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. Fellow Panther Bobby Seale later recounted how Newton would often lurk outside the emergency room of an Oakland hospital, and when patients were taken inside for treatment, Newton would steal from the vehicles in which they had been transported.
Newton justified such actions as follows: “I felt that white people were criminals,” explained Newton, “because they plundered the world. . . . [T]o take what the white criminals called theirs gave me a feeling of real freedom.”
Newton intermittently attended Merritt College, where in 1964 he joined the Merritt College Afro American Association (MCAAA). During a heated argument with a fellow MCAAA member named Odell Lee over an issue involving cultural nationalism, Newton stabbed Lee in the head with a steak knife. At his subsequent trial, Newton’s defense was that he had acted in preemptive self-defense. Unable to persuade the jury by this theory, Newton was sentenced to a prison term of two-and-a-half years, of which he would serve six months before being paroled.
Newton immersed himself in the works of Malcolm X, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara. He also studied law at Oakland City College and San Francisco Law School, claiming that he was motivated to do so by his desire to “learn to be a better burglar.”
In October 1966, Newton formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, whose raison d'etre was to harass the police under the mask of a “political” program. Newton endeavored to establish a reputation as an icon of protest against “police brutality” and America’s allegedly racist power structure.
To define his organization’s mission, Newton wrote a ten-point program which stated, among other things, that “the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income”; that “this racist government has robbed us [blacks], and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules”; that “if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people”; that education should “expos[e] the true nature of this decadent American society”; that “Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us”; that “all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial”; and that “all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”
The “self defense” part of the Program involved appearing in public places heavily armed. While the anti-police (“pig”) rhetoric captured the attention of radicals who were beginning to flirt with “revolutionary violence,” the reality was that Newton was engaging in warfare against the police rather than “defending the people” against them. As Eldridge Cleaver told Reason magazine in 1986: "We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence."
Exemplifying the temper of the times, the Panthers became a national phenomenon by the late 1960s, displacing Martin Luther King (“Uncle Martin”) and other traditional civil rights leaders. But while they were radical icons by day, by night the Panthers grew into a criminal organization that engaged in drug dealing, pimping, extortion, assault, and murder; its members and former members would kill at least 15 law-enforcement officers and would injure dozens more.
Among his fellow Black Panthers, Newton enforced obedience to his will by means of beatings and torture. One of his many female lovers in the Party, Elaine Brown, would later reveal that one of Newton’s preferred methods of punishing errant members was stomping, a practice she employed herself: “The floor was rumbling, as though a platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood was everywhere. [The victim’s] face disappeared.”
On February 21, 1967, Newton provided an armed escort for Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, during a Bay Area speaking engagement. When newsmen tried to get closer to Shabazz than the Panthers wished to allow, police tried to enforce order with their nightsticks. In response, Newton and the other Panthers loaded shells into their shotguns. After a tense standoff of several minutes, both sides backed off. Newton, however, gloated that the Panthers had “won” as a result of their “superior firepower.”
On May 2, 1967, some thirty Party members armed with rifles and shotguns marched into the California State Assembly at Sacramento to protest a proposed arms-control law. Though Newton was not among them, the incident propelled the organization to national prominence.
In October 1967 Newton shot and killed Oakland police officer John Frey. The facts of the case were beyond dispute: Newton had been present at the scene (and had threatened to kill a policeman in the past), the physical and forensic evidence was compelling, and there was even a black eyewitness to the crime. But Newton’s attorney, Charles Garry, alleged that because the American justice system, from the police through the courts, was thoroughly infested with racism, it would be impossible for a young black like Newton to get a fair trial anywhere in the country. “The system,” Garry claimed, was responsible for putting so many innocent black males in jeopardy.
During his trial for Frey’s killing, Newton became what Eldridge Cleaver called “the baddest motherf---er who ever set foot inside history.” Newton appeared on a famous poster showing him sitting on a rattan throne holding a Zulu shield in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He also became a national hero to New Leftists like Tom Hayden, who, as noted earlier, celebrated the Panthers as “America’s Vietcong,” proudly likening them to the Communist guerrillas who were killing U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. Newton’s (and the Panthers’) contention that blacks constituted an “internal colony” in America and could only be liberated by armed revolution, became standard rhetoric for the Left.
In December 1967 the Black Panther Party formed a coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was composed mostly of young whites who opposed the Vietnam War. Out of this coalition, the “Free Huey” movement was created by leftists sympathetic to Newton’s effort to fight back against a satanic United States.
In 1968 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the Frey killing, and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In May 1970 the California Appellate Court reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial, on grounds that the judge had erred by not giving jurors the option of convicting Newton of involuntary manslaughter. After two more trials that ended with hung juries, the State of California dropped its case against Newton.
In 1971 Newton traveled to China and met Chou En-Lai. When he returned to the U.S., he ordered all Black Panther Party chapters across the country to close their offices and consolidate their efforts by relocating to Oakland. He revamped the organization, saying it was time to “put away the gun” and, quoting Mao, to “serve the people.” The Panthers thereafter initiated a “free breakfasts for children” program which they claimed was responsible for serving a thousand meals each day to students in San Francisco schools. When one journalist checked the veracity of this figure, however, he found that the actual number of meals served was no more than fifty. Moreover, the food was usually extorted from local businessmen. It should be noted further that the Panthers’ “free breakfasts” were political, not charitable, endeavors. The serving of meals was accompanied by question-and-answer recitation drills for the young recipients, drills that characterized the police as “pigs,” and described “the capitalists” as “the pigs who control the country” and “steal from the poor.”
In 1973 Newton published his book Revolutionary Suicide. The following year, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz. On those comparatively infrequent occasions when he actually attended his classes, Newton would commonly arrive in a limousine, donning a white pimp suit and slouch hat, surrounded by bodyguards and women attired like prostitutes -- a spectacle that, according to one of his professors, both embarrassed and frightened onlookers on campus. Newton’s degree was widely perceived to be a “courtesy” B.A., as his attendance record was poor and he was known to hand in research papers that varied so dramatically in terms of their style and quality, that they unquestionably had been written by someone other than himself.
On August 6, 1974, Newton shot and killed a 17-year-old prostitute named Kathleen Smith. Not long afterward, he summoned his tailor, Preston Callins, to his apartment for a fitting. During the course of their meeting, Newton became abusive. When the tailor replied, “Oh, baby, don’t feel that way,” Newton screamed, “Nobody calls me no damn baby!” and he pistol-whipped Callins with a .357 magnum, inflicting four skull fractures that required surgery.
Around this time, pimps throughout the Bay Area, angry at Newton for having killed one of their breadwinners, put a bounty on Newton’s head, prompting him to disappear from public sight. When Newton failed to show up for his arraignment for the Smith murder charges, he was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. It was later learned that Newton was in Cuba, where he would remain for approximately three years. During that period, young Elaine Brown, who Newton had groomed (by means of instruction and violent beatings) to be one of his closest lieutenants, assumed control of the Party’s day-to-day activities. It was Newton, however, who maintained ultimate authority from his base in Cuba, relaying his orders to Brown via daily telephone calls.
In 1974 a 42-year-old white woman named Betty Van Patter, who had recently been hired to keep the financial books of an Oakland-based Panther “Learning Center,” found something wrong with the Panthers’ record books and informed Brown. Van Patter was unaware that the Panthers were in fact using the Center as a vehicle by which to embezzle millions of dollars in California education funds. Nor did she know that the Center also served as the pretext for a Panther shakedown operation of “after hours” clubs whose owners were required to “donate” weekly sums, on pain of death if they refused. On Newton’s orders, Brown oversaw the Panthers’ kidnap (on December 13, 1974), rape, and murder of Mrs. Van Patter. On January 13, 1975, the victim’s corpse, with the head caved in, would be found floating in San Francisco Bay.
Newton, who was unhappy living in exile, returned to the United States in the spring of 1977. Though he knew he would have to face charges for the killing of Kathleen Smith, Newton was optimistic about his chances for acquittal. He was well aware that the aftershocks of Watergate had put the FBI on the defensive and would lend credibility to defense attorney Charles Garry’s propaganda vis a vis America’s allegedly racist justice system.
When he arrived in the U.S., Newton was given a hero’s welcome by the local Left, culminating in a ceremony and “citizenship award” presented to him by Assemblyman Tom Bates, whose wife Loni Hancock was the radical mayor of Berkeley, California.
Newton was tried twice for Kathleen Smith’s murder; both juries deadlocked and Newton was never convicted. In a moment of candor in 1980, however, he would tell UC Santa Cruz professor Bob Trivers, “You know, I’ve killed more men than women.” When Trivers delicately broached the subject of Smith, Newton declared the topic off limits and said, “Look, the statute of limitations on murder never runs out.”
In 1978 Newton enrolled in the UC Santa Cruz “History of Consciousness” program, which was created for him by historian Page Smith. Two years later Newton received a Ph.D. with his dissertation titled War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America, a political tract depicting the Panthers as victims of government persecution. Asked about the doctorate that was awarded to Newton, Professor Smith, who was well known for his disdain of graduate education, explained that he had created the program “to demonstrate that the Ph.D. is fraud.”
In 1980 Newton hired a new principal for the Panthers’ school in Oakland; this principal soon discovered that Newton was embezzling school funds to pay for his bodyguards, and the school was shut down. Soon thereafter, Newton’s wife left him. The radical moment in America having passed, Newton, by now a crack addict who, with increasing frequency, went on drug and alcohol binges, began to drift into petty crime, political irrelevance, and frequent visits to the criminal justice system.
In 1987 Newton was convicted for a 1974 gun-possession charge and was sent to Jamestown prison camp for one year. Soon after his release, he was arrested on several drunk-driving charges and was placed on probation. In 1988 he was finally ordered to face trial on the aforementioned embezzling charges. A month later he was jailed for six weeks for driving under the influence of drugs. Half a year after that, he was sentenced to six months in San Quentin after he had been found basing rock cocaine with a prostitute in a motel. In early 1989 he was convicted of embezzlement when, from the confines of his prison cell, he pleaded no contest to the charge and was ordered to pay restitution. He was released from prison in early 1989.
On August 22 of that year, a destitute, chronically stoned Newton was murdered by a black drug dealer he had failed to pay.