THE BLACK Panther Party for Self-Defense was a powerful expression of the radicalization among Black Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The party grew explosively from a small Oakland-based formation into a national organization with thousands of members in just a few years. By 1970, the Black Panther newspaper reached a weekly circulation of 150,000. Eventually, the party also brought radical politics into the electoral arena. In Oakland, party member Bobby Seale received 43,000 votes in the 1973 mayoral race.
Huey: Spirit of the Panther is a powerful new biography that sheds light on these dynamics. The book’s author, David Hilliard, was chief of staff of the party for several years, and has already written his own excellent autobiography, This Side of Glory. The Panthers had a dramatic impact on U.S. society, but have yet to receive a single thorough and sympathetic treatment by academic historians. This is testament to the desire of the U.S. establishment to bury this historic moment—one in which Blacks moved en masse toward revolutionary politics and activity.
Hilliard’s narrative immerses the reader in the social world of the early Panthers. We read about their early political influences, which range from Malcolm X and the African revolutionary Frantz Fanon to the Cuban revolution and Mao Zedong. In the aftermath of McCarthyism, the Panthers attempted to craft a set of revolutionary politics against a background in which such ideas had been largely erased from the American scene. McCarthyism had driven socialists and communists from the center of the U.S. labor movement to its margins.
The Panthers leapt to prominence through a series of high-profile confrontations with police and state authorites. Party members led armed patrols on the streets of Oakland to watch the police and force them to obey the letter of the law. The patrols captured the imagination of an entire generation that was coming to terms with the powerful grip of institutionalized racism outside of the Jim Crow South. The party grew—and police violence dropped dramatically.
The ruthlessness with which the state attacked the Panthers is legendary. Through the FBI’s counterintelligence program, baseless arrests and brutal assassinations plagued the organization during the 1970s. Countless forged letters sowed dissent among Panther leaders in an operation that involved deception on a truly epic scale.
Huey Newton himself was framed for the murder of a police officer after a confrontation in which Newton was shot in the stomach. Arrested on a gurney in a local hospital, Newton remembered the chilling words of one officer. “If you don’t die in the gas chamber, then if you are sent to prison, we are going to have you killed in prison. And if you are acquitted, we’ll kill you in the streets.”
The campaign to free Huey drew together radicals from across the political spectrum. Huey seized every opportunity in court and in the press to use his trial as a means of exposing the racism of the police and emphasizing the issues around which the Panthers organized. Huey pushed the party to reach out to white radicals. He even put forward a statement in solidarity with the gay liberation movement which was coming into its own during the early 1970s.
Because of the book’s biographical focus, Hilliard does not examine the relationships between the Panthers and other forces on the left in great detail. One great strength of the Black Panther Party was that it demonstrated that those who bore the brunt of racism and class inequality could be among the most valiant fighters to challenge those conditions—from organizing the urban poor, to recruiting radicals like George Jackson inside the prison system.
Yet while the party had a working-class following, it did not attempt to organize workers at the point of production. Here, its strategy differed from that of the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the national League of Revolutionary Black Workers. While these groups also proved short-lived, their power in the workplace was a powerful counterweight to the threat of state repression. Knowing Newton’s views on such questions would have brought greater depth to Hilliard’s narrative.
Huey also examines the personal tragedy of Huey P. Newton. From the heights of political influence and dynamism that the party reached, Newton ultimately succumbed to chronic substance abuse and psychological instability. Throughout his political life, periods of intense productivity and intellectual expansiveness would be followed by bouts of paralyzing depression. In August of 1989, the former Panther leader was killed in a drug deal gone awry. In the final chapter, Hilliard tells us that Newton was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depression, which, sadly, were never treated.
In a way, Newton’s personal tragedy serves as a metaphor for the history of the Black Panthers as an organization. The party grew explosively in its early years only to decline rapidly under the weight of state repression and the rightward shift in U.S. politics that began in the mid-1970s. The Panthers made a heroic attempt to rebuild the politics of revolutionary socialism. Had genuine models of that project been on offer, either domestically or internationally, the fate and direction of the party itself might have been radically different.