Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, the seventh and youngest child in his family, from Armelia and Walter Newton, a sharecropper and Baptist minister. He was named after Louisiana governor Huey Long. Newton's family moved to Oakland, California when he was three. Despite "completing" his secondary education at Oakland Technical High School, Newton still did not know how to read. During his course of self-study, he struggled to read Plato's Republic, which he believed he understood after persistently reading it through five times. This success, he told an interviewer, was the spark that caused him to become a reader.
Watch a film clip of an interview with Huey Newton in the Alameda County Jail, free from the University of California, Berkeley.
Celebrate Black History Month with The Courier Founding of the Black Panthers
While at Oakland City College, Newton had become involved in politics in the Bay Area. He joined the Afro-American Association, became a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and played a role in getting the first black history course adopted as part of the college's curriculum. He read the works of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Mao Tse-tung, and Che Guevara. It was during his time at Oakland City College that Newton, along with Bobby Seale, organized the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966. Bobby Seale assumed the role of Chairman, while Huey P. Newton became Minister of Defense
Huey and the Black Panthers
Newton and Seale decided early on that the police abuse of power in Oakland against African-Americans 'must be stopped'. From his college study of law, Newton understood the California penal code and the state's law regarding weapons and was thus able to persuade a number of African-Americans to exercise their legal right to openly bear arms (concealed firearms were illegal). Members of the Black Panther Party carrying rifles and shotguns began patrolling areas where the Oakland police were said to commit racially-motivated crimes against the community's black citizens, in order to stop such crimes.
This program was widely supported in the local African-American community. In addition to patrolling, Newton and Seale were responsible for writing the Black Panther Party Platform and Program, which drew largely upon Newton’s Maoist influences. Newton was also instrumental in the creation of a breakfast program that fed hundreds of children of the local communities before they went to school each day. Former Panther Earl Anthony (black panther) said the party was created with the goal to organize America for an armed Maoist revolution to change the social situation to help black people. For Black Panthers this meant the realignment of economic policies in the United States to benefit everyone (including other races) who were being crushed under the weight of American big-business capitalism.
Accusation of Murder
In the predawn hours of October 28, 1967, Newton was stopped by Oakland police officer John Frey who attempted to disarm and discourage the patrols. But, after fellow officer Herbert Heanes arrived for backup, shots were fired, with all three individuals wounded. Frey was hit four times and died within an hour, while Heanes was in serious condition with three bullet wounds. Newton, also being hit by gunfire, but apparently not as seriously wounded, staggered into the city's Kaiser Hospital. He was admitted, but shocked to find himself chained to his bed. Within moments the police arrived where, even while he bled profusely from his bullet wound in the abdomen, the policemen continued to beat him into unconsciousness.
Accused of murdering Frey, Newton was convicted in September, 1968 of "voluntary manslaughter", and was sentenced from 2 to 15 years in prison. In May, 1970, the California Appellate Court reversed Newton's conviction, and ordered a new trial. The State of California dropped its case against Newton after two subsequent mistrials.
While Newton had been imprisoned, party membership had declined significantly in several cities. The FBI had been actively involved in a campaign to eliminate the Black Panthers' 'community outreach' programs such as free breakfasts for children, sickle-cell disease tests, and free food and shoes. Funding for several of their programs was raised as the result of the co-operation with the only independent commerce in the area: drug dealers and prostitution-ring leaders. Bobby Seale later wrote about his belief in Newton’s involvement and attempted takeover of the Oakland drug trade. Seale further claimed Newton attempted to 'shake down' pimps and drug dealers, and as a result, a contract was taken out on Newton’s life.
This story, however, was never proven. It is suggested that this mutual paranoia between long-time friends and party co-founders, Seale and Newton, was created by Hoover and the FBI. The FBI sent numerous "brown" letters to Panther leaders causing great alarm. The letters would have a false name, acting as if a Panther member had written and sent the letter; they often included death threats. This fear caused a fall-off in number of members and eventually the failure of the Party. However, it can be said that the Panthers did not really fail in that these actions reveal a sad story in the formation of the US government.
In 1974, several charges were filed against Newton, and he was also accused of murdering a 17 year-old prostitute, Kathleen Smith. Newton failed to make his court appearance. His bail was revoked, a bench warrant was issued, and Newton's name was added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 'most wanted' list. Newton had jumped bail and escaped to Cuba, where he spent three years in exile. He returned home in 1977 to face murder charges because, he said, the 'climate' in the United States had changed, and he believed he could get a 'fair trial'. Because the evidence was largely circumstantial and not solid beyond hearsay, Newton was acquitted of the murder of Kathleen Smith after two trials were deadlocked.
Newton earned a bachelor's degree from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1974. He was enrolled as a graduate student in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz in 1978, when he arranged (while in prison) to take a reading course from famed evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. He and Trivers became close friends. Trivers and Newton published an influential analysis of the role of flight crew self-deception in crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Newton's widow, Frederika Newton, discussed her husband's often-ignored academic leanings on C-SPAN's "American Perspectives" program on February 18, 2006, mentioning that Newton earned a Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz in 1980.
In 1985, Newton was charged with embezzling state and federal funds from the Black Panthers' community education and nutrition programs. He was convicted in 1989. It was later rumored that Newton had embezzled the money to support an alcohol and drug addiction. By this time, however, the Panthers had toned down its image and activism in order to get and maintain government grants.
On August 22, 1989, Newton was shot and killed. Official accounts claim the killer was a man known for drug dealing in Oakland. The media theorized Newton had become involved in drug dealing and was shot during a 'drug deal gone sour.'