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The Misunderstood Visionary Behind the Black Panther Party

Huey P. Newton has been mythologized and maligned since his murder 34 years ago. His family and friends offer an intimate look inside his life and mind.

On August 11, 1965, a 21-year-old driver in the Black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts failed a sobriety test. As crowds gathered, a white policeman struck the Black driver across the face with a baton. Enraged neighbors responded by hurling rocks and chunks of concrete. Over the course of six days, the residents of Watts burned buildings and smashed cars, destroying their own community.

Huey and Seale spent hours unpacking what had happened and discussing how no existing movement seemed to have the solution. They admired Malcolm X, but he’d been killed in February 1965 without leaving any clear plan of action. As for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he’d come to Watts and tried to talk to the people, but the encounter left him grappling with the limits of his own nonviolent philosophy. “Urban riots are a special form of violence,” King explained at a 1967 conference of the American Psychological Association. “They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. … Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.”

In October 1966, Seale received a pamphlet in the mail from a voting rights campaign in Lowndes County, Alabama, that featured a drawing of a black panther. Huey liked the symbolism. “The panther is a fierce animal,” the burgeoning activist explained in his autobiography, “but he will not attack until he is backed into a corner; then he will strike out.”

Huey and Seale decided to start their own group: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. They quickly drafted a ten-point program, making demands for fair housing, employment and education. Other points were more radical, like a call to release all Black prisoners and exempt Black men from military service. The tenth point quoted the first portion of the Declaration of Independence word for word.

With their agenda in place, the two college friends hit the streets. “The Panthers were about doing,” says Stephen Shames, a white photojournalist who took thousands of photos of the group between 1967 and 1973. “A lot of the lefty white groups were always about talking. I’d go to meetings, and people would have arguments about who should run the tractor factory after the revolution. The Panthers were like, ‘Why are you talking about after the revolution? We need to do something now!’”

Huey and Seale started following the police and supervising their arrests. At the time, Huey was taking classes at the San Francisco Law School, and though he never graduated, Shames says “he knew the law backward and forward.” When the police ordered the Black Panthers to leave, Huey would read the legal code that protected a citizen’s right to watch an arrest, quoting the exact distance away a citizen was allowed to stand. When an officer asked if his gun was loaded, Huey asserted his legal right to carry a loaded weapon.