African-American History Month: Huey Newton
He was taking the gun from my head.”
When I saw the Roger Guenveur Smith portrayal of Huey P. Newton in A Huey P. Newton Story (2002), I was not only blown away; I was stirred–to the very core of me. Until I watched the movie, I admittedly had no idea who Huey Newton was; I had never heard of him or understood the love he had for his fellow African-Americans. There are reports, of course, that he was “crazy”, and, in his later years, both drug and alcohol addicted. In the movie, directed by Spike Lee and recorded live during Smith’s off-Broadway production, Huey chain smokes throughout the entire set. While it is clear that the man was not only amazingly talented and wildly intelligent, it is left to the audience to determine if Newton was plagued by paranoia or some form of schizophrenia as he describes his issues with and philosophies about the American system. Either way, the body of work is profound and is most assuredly a must-see. (You can find the full film on YouTube here.)
Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther organization in 1966-7, is recorded as a militant, gun-toting barbarian, set to correcting injustices in Oakland, CA by force and resistance of local law enforcement. As we all know now, the movement spread like wildfire across the country, many government leaders and factions depicting its members as a threat to national security. While their doctrine can indeed be viewed as extremist, every operation with an expectancy for change is inspired by the social injustices derived by one’s environment. California, at the time, had its own violent Birmingham occurring in its streets; and, while method can certainly be questioned in this instance, it took the same courage for Newton to resist violently as it did for Martin Luther King to resist peacefully. There was equal threat in pursuing equality–although on different paths, both Martin and Huey met with the explosive end of a bullet.
“Sometimes if you want to get rid of the gun, you have to pick the gun up.”
Following Huey’s release from jail, he was able to revamp the focus of the Black Panther party to include and incorporate programs that actually assisted the black community. He began programs like Children’s Free Breakfast which fed the African-American children in the community before school. Still others provided testing for sickle cell anemia, free coats for those who needed them, and housing programs that attempted to get equal opportunity housing for black Americans in inner cities. The party even established a school, the Samuel Napier Intercommunal Youth Institute. However, the Black Panthers, and Huey, were never without controversy.
Huey P. Newton’s history is laden with accusation of murder, assault, and malice–whether or not he actually did these things is merely a deflection to what he really stood for: the freedom, education, and equality of all African-Americans, that the institution upon which America stood remove its oppressive hand from those suffocating beneath it. And without his strides and the movement that followed, our lungs would still be begging for air.