Family  /  Book Excerpt

How Huey P. Newton’s Early Intellectual Life Led Him To Activism

The role of family in Huey P. Newton's educational journey.

From his older brother Walter Jr., meanwhile, Newton learned to use his fists. As early as kindergarten, students had started taunting Newton for his “too pretty to be a boy” baby face, and for the middle initial he included when announcing his name. “Huey Pee Newton,” they chanted. “Huey Pee goes wee, wee, wee.” At first, Newton responded to the bullying by pretending to be sick so he wouldn’t have to go to school.

But the Newton family had a tradition that older children looked after younger ones, and Newton was “given” to Walter Jr., the second born, known to everyone as Sonny Man. Sonny Man started taking his little brother to school—and teaching him how to fight back when he was picked on. By elementary school, Newton had “the fastest hands on the block,” he recalled. He became champion of the pretend prizefights that Black boys staged on Oakland street corners, boxing with towel-wrapped hands while winos placed nickel bets and rewarded the last one standing with a box of Cracker Jack.

Walter Jr. was also a hustler—a pool shark, gambler, petty thief, and ladies’ man who took the lesson from his father’s struggles that honest work was a sucker’s game. By the end of junior high, Newton began to take after Sonny Man in that respect, too. He joined a dice-playing, parking-meter-cracking gang called “The Brotherhood” and, at age fourteen, spent a month in Juvenile Hall after an arrest for carrying a gun.

For high school, Newton went to Oakland Tech, an imposing institution on the city’s north side with large white columns and a distinguished roster of white and Black graduates that would include film star Clint Eastwood, baseball great Curt Flood, and Ron Dellums, the city’s future mayor and U.S. congressman.

Because of his struggles with reading, however, Newton scored only a 78 on a Stanford-Binet IQ test, the intelligence exam schools used to track students. He was placed in “slow” classes whose teachers made no effort to relate coursework to the lives of inner-city teenagers. “My high school diploma was a farce,” Newton recalled. “When my friends and I graduated, we were ill-equipped to function in society, except at the bottom, even though the system said we were educated.”

Fortunately, Newton had another older brother who exerted a more positive influence. Melvin Newton was the second youngest child in the family, four years older than Huey, and the most studious. It was Melvin who introduced Huey to poetry, and taught him hypnosis, a skill that Huey used to impress his friends by putting them into trances and making them bark like dogs.