Huey P. Newton’s Political Activism

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   Huey P. Newton: An Argument Against “The System”

 Historical evidence brandishes the massive dilemma of the unresolved and unjustifiable lynching of innocent victims, uncalled for police brutality, and sociopolitical oppressions that Blacks in America had to face and eventually overcome to receive any semblance of freedom and equality in this nation. Revolutionary philosopher, black leader, and government adversary Huey P. Newton knew the strife of the modern-day impoverished black man all too well and at an early age developed a strong revulsion for “the system” and the immoral practices of the government on Black communities during mid-20th century America. Newton wanted to create a platform that would serve his community and concurrently address the political mistruths and social injustices that were being propagated and reinforced by the government, particularly through police force; and as a result, he created the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966 with Bobby Seale. Newton branded himself a “Revolutionary Suicide” after years of intimate and unfavorable relationships with the police and after years of studying the law and interpreting the works of Fredrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong.

When looking at the life of Huey P. Newton, there must be an effort to made to contextualize the life experience, philosophies, socioeconomic, and political circumstances that contributed to Newton’s thought process; which directly impacted the formation, expansion, and the eventual fractalization of the Black Panther Party that he has become synonymous with. Newton’s philosophical approach of “dialectical materialism”[1] to address our nation’s dilemma of racism and class issues has secured him with the title of a “sophisticated thinker and tactician” [2]. As a result of his headstrong philosophy and fearless leadership, many of his community-oriented programs such as the implementation of the free breakfast program, public health services, and armed street patrol led to direct action from the government causing them to create government-funded free lunch program, a citizen’s complaint board for police brutality, and brought an overall increase in societal awareness of the widespread existence of poverty and hunger in the United States, especially for African-Americans.[3]

Detailed in his autobiography “Revolutionary Suicide”, Newton grew up as the youngest son of seven children in an impoverished neighborhood near Oakland, California.  As a child, Newton struggled with his identity because he did not believe he had the freedom or resources to flourish in the segregated education system and later would go on to say that Blacks idea of freedom was “abstract terms borrowed from politicians, and that did not help the people on the block at all” (pg.110). He goes on to raise the question as to how young black men in a segregated nation are able to achieve a sense of identity in a society that denies them their most basic of rights?[4] However, he did declare that his father instilled a strong sense of self-pride and self-respect for what a man should be; this attributed as the source for his rebellion in school and against “the system” and the formation of his subsequent identity. His acute awareness and acknowledgment of the societal realities he and his peers faced can be summarized by this quote from Newton “Many youth graduates from high school were just as illiterate as I was, [and] headed for the social trash heap” (pg.145). Newton felt trapped in a situation that only had one apparent and systemic outcome that he witnessed countless times over; a path towards systematic poverty, and he wanted a way out.

 Newton had serious qualms with the system and he wanted them to be addressed immediately. From his experience around “the block”, his community, Newton witnessed that the individuals who were not born into the upper or middle class, or gifted with incredible IQs, would be forced to live in the same economic situation for a lifetime, often in the same residential area they grew up in,  and he deemed it an “urban plantation.”; Newton elaborated on this by stating that it was like a “modern-day sharecropping. You worked hard, brought in your crop, and you were always in debt to the landholder” (pg. 74).[5]  Furthermore, Newton made it a central tenant in his ideology to bring awareness to his community that he nor should they stand complacent and watch while “the police murder us outright and call it justifiable homicide. They always cook up a story, but simple investigation will expose their lies” (pg. 147). He was a revolutionary by being one of the first men to implement the use of Black armed vigilantes to walk the streets of Oakland to protect residents from police harassment.[6]As stated by his wife Fredrika Newton, he used the “revolutionary platform of armed self-defense after traditional forms of nonviolent protest proved ineffective and disappointing to them.”[7]

Newton speaks upon the fact that since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, black individuals have been violently subjugated to live within the confines of the law, the capitalist power structure, and the changing societal constructs that the American political system has created. Essentially, Blacks had to create economic and social independence for themselves, and future generations, within a nation that saw them as subordinate and were willing to use government mandated force to keep them subordinate. The correct “approach” to create societal value from these series of oppressed generations, who have been historically cemented as “property”, have been philosophically argued since the minds of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey entered the political arena in the early 20th century; however, no definitive consensus has ever been met and political stagnation and restlessness resulted in the subsequent rise of interracial tension.

As time went on and political agitation arose globally (with international conflicts arising in numerous foreign theatres i.e. the World Wars, The Vietnam war, and The Korean War) concerning the implementation and expansion of oppressive and immoral power structures, many citizens, particularly oppressed minorities, quickly started to develop their own opinions about what was ethical and lawful governing. As decades progressed, the American economic structure greatly shifted from the hands of powerful Whites to opportunistic and intelligent minorities, including women and people of color. However, the political power structure largely remained in the hands of those that wrote history and those who maintained control over populations, the hands on the influential Whites. Newton would go to state that fear was the principle reason as to why “blacks have not risen up en masse” before and he held the belief that “blacks have been brainwashed to believe that they were powerless, that there was nothing blacks could do for themselves to bring about the liberation of their people.” [8],[9]

The detection of systematic government oppression and political inequality from highly-educated minority scholars and the consequent public outcry from afflicted groups forced the government to confront their blatant endorsement of unequal rights and immoral treatment of people of color, women, and sexual difference. This created massive amounts of tension between the oppressed and the oppressor, in terms of race and suffrage, and ultimately served as the backstory for the genesis of the civil rights movement.  Newton was a part of the generation of Black radicals, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elijah Muhammad [10] who were highly educated and hyper aware of the risk they took advocating for the use of mass resistance against government oppression to push a countercurrent agenda. Newton believed that a revolutionary had to be fearless; he would go on to state that the “black men and women who refuse to live under oppression are dangerous to white society because they become symbols of hope to their brothers and sisters, inspiring them to follow their example” (pg. 172).

In Newton’s autobiography (1973), he details his struggle, torn between pursuing the ways of the streets or an education; he saw the attractiveness of both lifestyles, for distinctly different reasons, perhaps unironically becoming intimately familiar with both. He admired his contemporaries such as Malcolm X for “Here was a man who combined the world of the streets and the world of the scholar” (pg.71).  Newton would further go on to say that that the Black Panther Party Platform was an homage to Malcolm’s life work. Newton frankly and articulately created essential points that he deemed necessary for the “survival of Black and oppressed people in the United States ” (pg. 121). He created a 10-point program that summarized what he demanded from the government and what he sought to achieve with the Black Panther Party. With its inception, these 10 points addressed the  social, economic, and political repressions that Blacks and other tyrannized individuals have received from “the oppressor” and , ultimately, Newton sought to instill security and pride within his community.[11] Newton made emphasis to enforce Point 7 which stated: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.”[12]

In the absolute sense, Newton was a fearless freedom fighter. He intensely studied the law and philosophy to form dialectical arguments against his adversaries; and if that failed to maintain respect, he would quickly brandish a shotgun or use his fists to secure the respect he desired.[13] He sought to achieve and maintain freedom for those who have been oppressed by the government by creating written literature for self-defense against police harassment, liberating the previously untapped pride within his community with Black Nationalist media, created survival programs that protected and fed his neighbors[14], and used an emphatically practical implementation of his interpretation of the Marx-Leninist socialist tradition[15] to create “systemic changes in the criminal justice system and economic system of the United States”[16].  In his autobiography he goes on to state that “many community people could not believe at first that we had only their interest at heart. Nobody had ever given them any support or assistance when the police harassed them, but here we were, proud Black men, armed with guns and knowledge of the law” (pg. 128).

Newton was an avid reader of philosophy and understood that “thought had been shaped by language” (pg. 174) in the sense that words can be used as labels and society creates constructs to define individuals. He makes note of the fact that connotations change throughout time giving the example of the word “Black” and how its meaning evolved in parallel to societal acceptance of what it meant to be Black in society. As a result of this thought experiment, he sought to create a term that made the oppressors “defect from their own ranks” and “inflict a new consciousness on the ruling circle.” (pg175), Consequently, to characterize the police in a publication of The Black Panther newspaper, he coined the term “pig” in reference to the police, and the term started to circulate in common language.[17] Newton used this word in particular because he wanted to create a neutral term that would be understood across all societal classes that have experienced police brutality or harassment. Jefferies (2002) acknowledges the fact that the Black Panther Party’s “inflammatory rhetoric directed at the white power structure may have erroneously contributed to the perception that the party was a black supremacist organization.” However, it must be noted that media rhetoric greatly exacerbated the violent portrayal of the Black Panther Party as racists or as individuals who perpetrated violence[18]; this is not the case. While acting as the Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party, Newton stated that “we must never take a stand just because it is popular. We must analyze the situation objectively and take the logically correct position, even though it may be unpopular. If we are right in the dialectics of the situation, our position will prevail” (pg. 65). Regardless, the Black Panther Party served as a vehicle to enforce human-equality at all class levels and to protect the individuals in Newton’s own community.

An oversimplified analysis of Newton’s actions to create the Black Panther Party can stem from his unremitting belief, which happened to be continuously solidified by his life experiences, that freedom for the black man did not exist in the current state of power between Whites and minorities. In Newton’s autobiography ‘Revolutionary Suicide’, he goes to state that “The police have never been our protectors. Instead, they act as the military arm of our oppressors and continually brutalize us” (pg. 127).  Many influential people in the government were not happy for the ubiquitous call for action regarding equality and global ethics, through tactical and careful examination of the law, that proud Blacks and other minority groups, politically or racially, incessantly encouraged during this era. Newton took advantage of the fact that “white youths on college campuses began to understand what the police were really like when their heads were broken open during demonstrations against the draft and the Vietnam war” (pg.176). The Black Panther Party quickly aligned themselves with white activists (including women, gays, those opposed to the draft, and those against police brutality) because they all stood for the common purpose of equality and humanity; they had a common antagonist, the government.

A prime example of the reactionary political climate in the late 60s is the creation and passing of the Mulford Act, also known as the, “Panther Bill”. Crafted by Donald Mulford, a conservative assemblyman, he sought to introduce a bill into the state legislature that would make it illegal for the Black Panther Party to patrol with their weapons.[19] Newton went to criticize this as a “logical response of the system” and drew on the double standard against Blacks in this country.[20] In his autobiography, he details how groups such as “minutemen and the Ranger in Richmond were known to have arsenals, but nobody introduced bills against them” (pg. 154). It would be easy to claim that Newton and the Black Panther Party were paranoid or restless individuals who wanted to create political unrest for the sake of agitation. However, it would be difficult to make the argument of fictional government oppression when FBI documents of the COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist Hate Groups Programs are considered.  This is a well-documented series of events by the government to “destroy African-American leadership and replace them with neo-colonist puppets”[21] that is detailed on the Black Panther history website “It’s About Time”. J Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, released a memo entailing the goals of preventing: “black nationalist groups from gaining respectability…the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement…etc”.[22] Hoerl, K., & Ortiz, E. (2015), detailed the fact that Hoover used undercover FBI agents and many other government resources, without congressional permission or knowledge, to direct and guide field agents on how to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of Black activist organizations. (Director to All Offices, August 25, 1967).[23] Furthermore, with the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of the Smith Act, the FBI could no longer arrest individuals for the advocation of violent overthrow of the government, as it was protected in their constitutional rights; this led to the FBI efforts of creating distrust and factionalism within their targeted groups.[24]  

With all this in consideration, it is important to summarize why Newton pushed so aggressively against “the system” through the careful scrutinization of law, philosophy, and political agendas. Newton sought to create a real-world platform to create socioeconomic advancements based off theory, refined through execution, and applicable to impoverished communities across our nation. Newton was aware that the economic boom of colonial America was a direct result of the blood and labor that was spilled by generations of enslaved Blacks who reaped none of the economic rewards. He understood that our nation’s tenants rest within the foundation of a democracy; however, for centuries, our nation’s foundational laws have been sponsored through capitalist business and enforced through imperialist actions, which are the same actions that oppressed Blacks for generations and subjugated them historical horrors that have not been addressed or counteracted by our nation. The societal repercussions and lessons learned from Newton’s radical, and notoriously effective, approach to create societal change have served to inspire subsequent generations of individuals to be proud of who they are and to forcefully resist and speak out against the unfair, illegal, and immoral policies our government practices. His wife, Fredricka Newton, states in the introduction of his autobiography that Huey understood that a revolutionary was a “domed man”. Further elaborating that a revolutionary fighter “by definition struggles against the power imbalance of the establishment, and the cost of this struggle is often paid with one’s own life.” Newton, as did our Founding Fathers, recognized that power should lie with the people and believed that this principle was worth dying for because he saw “power to the people” as the principal pillar in the creation of freedom and equality.

Notes


[1]  Huey P. Newton (2009). On the defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black community. In M. Marable & L. Mullings (Eds.), Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology (Second edition, p. 445). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

[2] Judson L. Jeffries. (2002). Huey P. Newton : The Radical Theorist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 120

[3] Joshua Anderson. (2012). A Tension in the Political Thought of Huey P. Newton. Journal of African American Studies, (2), 249. Retrieved from http://lp.hscl.ufl.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43526691&site=eds-live

[4] Huey P. Newton. (1973). Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com, p. 41

[5] Huey P.. Newton . (1973). Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

[6] Marable, M., & Mullings, L. (2009). Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In M. Marable & L. Mullings (Eds.), Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology (Second edition, p.445. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[7] Fredrika Newton. (1973). Introduction to Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

[8] Judson L. Jeffries. (2002). Huey P. Newton : The Radical Theorist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 120

[9] Huey P. Newton, “In Defense of Self-Defense,” Black Panther, June 20, 1967.

[10]  Paul Wolf. (2004) .Marshall “Eddie” Conway—Political Prisoner—COINTELPRO, et al retrieved from http://itsabouttimebpp.com/Cointelpro/Eddie_Conway_Political_Prisoner_et_al.html

[11] Huey P. Newton,  (2009). Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party for Self-defense. In M. Marable & L. Mullings (Eds.), ****get page # from book(might be from black panther party not huey******

[12] Huey P. Newton. (1973). Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

[13] Ibid

[14] Marable, M., & Mullings, L. (2009). Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In M. Marable & L. Mullings (Eds.), Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology (Second edition, p.445. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[15] Joshua Anderson. (2012). A Tension in the Political Thought of Huey P. Newton. Journal of African American Studies, (2), p. 250

[16] Huey P. Newton (1996). War against the panthers: A study of repression in America. New York: Harlem River Press. (119-122)

[17] Huey P. Newton (1973). Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

[19] Newton, Huey P. (1973). Revolutionary Suicide [ Kindle DX Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com p. 153

[20] Ibid

[21] Paul Wolf. (2004) .Marshall “Eddie” Conway—Political Prisoner—COINTELPRO, et al retrieved from http://itsabouttimebpp.com/Cointelpro/Eddie_Conway_Political_Prisoner_et_al.html

[22] Ibid

[23] Hoerl, K., & Ortiz, E. (2015). Organizational Secrecy and the FBI’s COINTELPRO–Black Nationalist Hate Groups Program, 1967-1971.

[24] Ibid

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