Huey Newton's imprisonment and upcoming trial (in which he faced a possible death sentence) became a cause celebre within the growing Black Nationalist Movement and white radical community. As Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther's Minister of Information, framed the issue, Newton personified racial injustice by white authority. He would either become a martyr to police brutality or, upon his release, inspire African Americans to rise up and achieve power through armed revolution. Buttons with the logo "Free Huey" and an image of a black panther were as popular among the growing number of '60s-era radicals as the peace symbol was to hippies. In 1968, Newton was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.
Newton and his fellow Merritt College classmate, Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panthers in 1966, having grown frustrated with the slow pace of progress generated by the nonviolent organizing strategies of the civil rights movement. One of their inspirations was Malcolm X, who articulated a militant stance of black resistance and black pride as the leading spokesman for Elijiah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, shock waves swept through the African American community.
The Black Panthers, as conceived by Newton and Seale, called for the immediate end of police harassment and brutality in African American neighborhoods and ghettos. They issued a ten-point program that called for armed protection against police oppression, and other radical changes in America's capitalist system. At the same time, they began a breakfast program for children, a food bank, and other social services to empower the poorest lower-class residents of Oakland.
But violence-whether implied or realized-was a key component of their party platform. Newton led a march by the Black Panthers to the state capitol in Sacramento in 1967 to protest passage of the Mulford Act (an anti-gun law). The Panthers all arrived wearing their standard uniform of guns, black berets, and black leather jackets. They also made sure to call television news stations before their arrival, resulting in national media coverage. The Panthers organized armed patrols of Oakland's poorest neighborhoods. They photographed themselves with guns. Eldridge Cleaver created the iconic photograph of Huey Newton as the American Che Guevara, in which Newton sat on a whicker chair with a rifle in one hand, African spear in the other, and bandoleers across his chest.
During the "Free Huey" Movement, Stokely Carmichael-president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and famous for coining the phrase "Black Power"-left the SNCC and joined the Black Panthers. That event was the apex of the Black Panthers and the Black Nationalist movement. Both unraveled in the face of police retaliation, FBI infiltration, legal challenges, and continued violence. Some, such as Eldridge Cleaver, left the country rather than face court challenges. Newton wrote two books after his release from prison (To Die for the People and Revolutionary Suicide) and fled to Cuba to escape murder charges (he was later acquitted). In 1980, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Newton was killed by a small-time drug dealer outside a crack house in West Oakland in 1989.
- Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.