A Sheltered Suburban White Kid Remembers Huey P Newton

When I was 10, my parents got me a boombox with a tape recorder and a stack of blank cassette tapes for my birthday. I used to beg them almost daily to call into the radio station and request songs for me (I’m pretty sure they were just sick of my continual and persistent requests to hear “Tubthumping,”), and this gift was their way of not only giving me the opportunity to have some control over what music I listened to, but also to give themselves a well-needed respite from my perpetual radio neediness. I have children now around that age; I get it.

In any case, I got their money’s worth out of that boombox. Dozens of cassette tapes filled with songs, recorded and recorded over with the mix-tape whimsy's of a white 10-year old growing up in the suburbs of Flint. I still have those tapes somewhere; of course, I haven’t played them in ages, but I can still remember the songs that received a lot of repetitious play: “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly (Space Jam, cinematic masterpiece that it was, was in theaters the year prior); “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind; or “Every Time I Close My Eyes” by Babyface.

It was a year later when I first heard “Changes” by 2Pac. I remember hiding myself away in my room with my boombox, cassette tape at the ready, just waiting for it to come on the radio again. I eventually got a recording, and I listened to this song so frequently that I could go along with every single word of the radio edit. Hell, I still can.

Even though I’d given the song hundreds of plays by the time I was a teenager, sheltered suburban white kid as I was, I was yet to understand the full meaning of its message. That wouldn’t happen for another 5 years, when the song was played over the barracks intercom several weeks into Navy bootcamp:

It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead

My rackmate, a black kid from Chicago (unfortunately, I do not remember his name), responded to those lyrics with, “Dammit man, Huey was a legend. R.I.P.” Me, sheltered suburban white boy as I was, responded with, “Who is Huey?”

Come to find out, it wasn’t just “Changes” where Huey’s name is mentioned:

· Flobots, “Same Thing”

Somewhere between prayer and revolution
Between Jesus and Huey P. Newton

· Kendrick Lamar, “Mortal Man”

How many leaders you said you needed then left ’em for dead?
Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?

· Anderson.Paak, “The Dreamer”

More like a panther, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale
Word to the free lunch. Who knew what we would become?

“Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister of Defense.” Photograph by Blair Stapp. Public Domain.

“Who is Huey?”

Huey P. Newton, if anything, is a controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Co-founder of the Black Panther Party alongside Bobby Seale, Newton’s legacy is often remembered by the violence associated with the Party, which sits in stark contrast to how we remember the non-violent movement of Dr. King. When looking back at the history of the civil rights movement, it’s important to remember that the calls for equality were not all being made under the same voice — the “movement” was made up of a plenitude of much smaller movements, distinct from one another in many ways: geographically, ideologically, in praxis, etc., all supplying their own weight of importance to the work being done. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. was distinct from the work of Malcom X, for example. Both exist in the backdrop of the civil rights movement, but were taking different directions to address the same problem. Much the same is the Black Panther Party.

The party was formed in 1966 in Oakland County, CA, just one year after the infamous Watts neighborhood uprising. What’s more, Oakland County — and Los Angeles specifically — were well-known for their political and police corruption and both the local government and the police were actively and openly hostile to black and poor communities. The police chief at the time lamented the Los Angeles racial minorities as “barely civilized people.” Around the same time of the Black Panther’s formation, included in the historical and contextual backdrop were the East L.A. walkouts, as well as the newly-formed LAPD vice squad, who was terrorizing minority communities (and was especially well-known for their active contempt against gay communities). 30 years later, this is the same police department that was complicit in the brutal beating of Rodney King.

In short, the Black Panther Party’s history is mired in nuance, and while yes, they engaged in violence, it was in response to political and police violence against racial minorities that had already been occurring for decades, and while much could be said in an attempt to detangle the complexities of its history (for this, the book “Black Against Empire,” listed below in the additional resources, is an authoritative source), my focus here is not to be critical, but to highlight the much overshadowed good works the BPP was engaged in.

Often forgotten, Newton was an academic. With a PhD from the University of California, Newton was a prolific writer with at least 7 original writings to his name, including what is considered his most important work, Revolutionary Suicide. Under Newton’s vison and leadership, the Black Panther party undertook an aggressive approach to the development of support programs for struggling working-class people in their communities. In all, Newton and the BPP launched over 60 different programs, the most famous of which was their free breakfast program, improving the living standards of thousands of African American families in Oakland, CA. Newton also implemented child development centers, community health classes, a free community pantry, employment referral services, a free pest control service, free clothing and shoes program, legal clinics and workshops, screening programs for STDs, a free housing program, and many, many more. The testing program implemented by the Party’s Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation was one of the nation’s first, and their weekly newspaper became one of the country’s most widely-distributed African American publications. The Party developed a 10-point program that guided their efforts, which included efforts on employment, housing, police brutality, education, and more. Newton’s vision and efforts were adopted and recreated in cities across the nation; in Chicago, for instance, under Fred Hampton’s leadership.

Even still, while much good works were being done for the Oakland communities and beyond, because the Party walked the militaristic path instead of one of non-violence, they immediately became political targets. Interestingly, that targeting seems to have less to do with their militarism and more to do with their revolutionary mindset — similar to Dr. King’s revolutionary mindset — as the FBI’s COINTELPRO program targeted both Dr. Newton and Dr. King during their tenures. To that end, it almost doesn’t matter that the Party engaged in violence; as either way they would have been targeted. In any case, 16 years after its founding, the Party was dissolved, and in 1989 Newton was killed by a member of the Black Guerilla Family, an Oakland gang that had been warring with the Panthers since the Party’s inception.

It is true, Newton’s legacy is complicated. But it is also true that his movement was engaged in multiple activities that served and benefitted their local communities and, even more, became the model for nationwide community endeavors that are still alive and thriving to this day. While it’s easy to write off Newton and the Panthers as violent activists, doing so would limit our understandings of their history and the context from which they arose and would cause us to overlook their legacy within the Civil Rights movement. It is this legacy that is remembered by the people it inspired, and this legacy is carried on through new and continuing social movements, and yes, in song. Many thanks to 2Pac to planting the seed in this sheltered suburban white kids’ mind, as I may never have come to know the legacy of Huey P Newton otherwise.

It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead

I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere
Unless we share with each other

We gotta start makin’ changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers

Additional resources:

Article — The Guardian — Erased from utopia: the hidden history of LA’s black and brown resistance

Book — Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties

Book — Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

Book — The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs

Article/Documentary — PBS — A Huey P Newton Story

Movie — HBO Max — Judas and the Black Messiah

Article — New York Times — F.B.I. Sought Doom of Panther Party (1976)

Link — Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture: All Power to the People!