Spirit of the Panther


By David Hilliard

With Keith Zimmerman

With Kent Zimmerman

Foreword by Fredrika Newton

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Huey P. Newton remains one of the most misunderstood political figures of the twentieth century. As cofounder and leader of the Black Panther Party for more than twenty years, Newton (1942-1989) was at the forefront of the radical political activism of the 1960s and ’70s. Raised in poverty in Oakland, California, and named for corrupt Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, Newton embodied both the passions and the contradictions of the civil rights movement he sought to advance. In this first authorized biography, Newton’s former chief of staff David Hilliard teams up with best-selling authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman to tell the whole story of the man behind the organization that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover infamously dubbed “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”




On October 18, 1967, Bobby Seale sat in jail. Five months earlier, the Sacramento state legislature had been visited by a group of gun-toting members of the Black Panther Party. Bobby was still locked up on gun charges after a compromise enabled the remaining members arrested in Sacramento to go free. Sacramento put the Black Panther Party on the map, just as Huey had planned. Immediately afterward, we were deluged with publicity and press from all over the world. Black Panther Party memberships came rolling in from all across the country. We went from being a small neighborhood Oakland organization to a nationwide phenomenon. Huey’s plan had worked beautifully. Sacramento was the “colossal event” that sent shock waves throughout the country; black men and women in forty cities were prepared to defend their own people with their lives.

When Bobby Seale and Huey came together to form the Black Panther Party, they observed many political groups. Many seemed steeped in rhetoric, withdrawn from reality, with no practical programs for the people. The actions the BPP engaged in were purely strategic for political purposes designed to mobilize the community.

The situation was desperate, and some of our rhetoric became as inflamed as that used against us by politicians and media. The press painted us as wild, gun-toting animals. We had picked up the gun, now we could not put it down; the media froze us in this agonizing posture.

Bobby, the cofounder of the Black Panther Party, was incarcerated, and Huey wanted him out of the Santa Rita Jail. Huey didn’t have a job. Today marked the end of his probation. I had a job and a car, a family, and very little money. The young Black Panther Party was experiencing one of its very first lows.

I would go over to Huey’s house, and it might be two o’clock in the afternoon. He’d still be lying in his bed, reading a magazine or a book. Thinking. Huey was always thinking, and I knew what was on his mind. I could see the wheels turning. How were we going to raise the bail to get Bobby out of Santa Rita? How were we going to top Sacramento in terms of another “colossal event”?

A windfall came our way in the form of a paid speaking engagement across the Bay at San Francisco State College. Like many colleges and universities, San Francisco State was already a hotbed of debate and radical politics. A year later the college would be the site of student riots, tear gas, strikes, and demonstrations under the tumultuous administration of S. I. Hayakawa, a conservative and feisty semantics professor–turned–campus president and later a Republican U.S. senator.

Huey and I jumped into my car and rode over to the campus, on the foggy side of San Francisco, to the student union, where Huey was scheduled to speak that day. After the speech, we looked at one another. Five hundred dollars. It was enough money, I figured. Now we could maybe parlay it into something bigger to help get Bobby out. At the very least, we’d have ourselves a small reserve.

“What do you think we should do?” Huey asked me.

Before I had started my job at the longshoreman union hall, my best way of making money came from the street. I knew that weed was one of the easiest commodities to buy and sell quickly.

“I know these guys who’ve got bricks,” I suggested to Huey. “Let’s buy a couple, break them down, and sell them. I’ll bet we can triple our money.” I knew people who sold large quantities of weed. I figured we could break the stuff down and sell matchboxes full of it for five bucks apiece to raise money for Bobby’s bail.

Gene McKinney had been my junior high school friend since the eighth grade. We grew up together in West Oakland, along with his four brothers and two sisters. A couple of those brothers were basketball players. Another brother, Bull McKinney, was built like a football player. They were all tough guys. Gene’s father held gambling parties at his house, and Gene’s mother would cook up a mountain of fried chicken and ribs and bake cakes. Gene was my big-brother, right-hand partner. The events of October 1967 brought Gene into the inner circle of the Black Panther Party.

Gene was a ladies’ man, a handsome guy. All the girls liked him. Plus, he was a good street fighter. He came out of the Codornices Village housing projects in Berkeley along with Bobby Seale.

“We’ve got to get Gene involved in this,” I said to Huey.

Gene was an asset. Just about anytime during the week, you could go over to Gene’s house, especially during the weekends, and Gene’s daddy would be running his gambling parties, the biggest in West Oakland. My idea was that we would throw our own gambling party and raise enough money to bail Bobby out of Santa Rita.

Gene and my brother June agreed to help Huey and me out. Later, after we broke down the weed, we still had a few dollars left to buy food, hamburgers, and chicken for our party. June agreed to cook. We would “pay the house.” That meant the house could take a piece of all the gambling action. That way everybody wins. Players would pay us to come to the house and play. With the weed, food, and our gambling cut, we’d all make money, Bobby would be out of Santa Rita, and we might even have enough left over for a three-hundred-dollar reserve. It was all set. Our gambling fund-raiser would be held at my house on Thirty-second Street and Magnolia. By two in the morning, we were doing all right. My place was packed. The house was jumping with winners and losers.

Then Huey had an idea. About a week earlier, he and I had been riding down Seventh Street. Seventh Street in Oakland was where all the street action was. We called it the “Hoe Stroll.” Huey recalled seeing a pretty young girl standing on the street with a pad of paper and a clipboard. She said she was conducting a sociology study for her college class. Huey liked what he saw.

“I’d like to be your student,” Huey mused.

“Here,” the girl says, handing him the clipboard. “Sign your name on this.”

I had already forgotten about the girl, but apparently Huey hadn’t. Now, here it was, two in the morning, and Huey turned to Gene.

“I think I want to go down to Seventh Street and find my fine little sociology student.”

“Huey,” I said, “I really think that girl was a student. Besides, it’s two AM.”

“I think she’s a prostitute,” he said, “and I’m going to go out and look for her.”

As Huey and Gene left the house, I was thinking, “Man, they’re wasting their time; the girl was a legitimate student.” But Huey was convinced she was running a game. That was how Huey typically thought. Everybody had his or her game. Besides looking for the girl, Huey went out to get more food, some barbecue. Huey loved to eat.

“We’ve got plenty of food in the house,” I said. Besides, the place was still jumping, crowded with gamblers, and our food and weed supply were still holding up. Nevertheless Huey and Gene split.

An hour later, there was a loud banging at the door. Everybody froze. The room turned dead silent. Somebody opened the door and Huey fell crumpled onto the floor, a huge gaping hole in his stomach. He hit the floor with a thud, unconscious. Gene was out of breath, hollering, saying something about the cops and how they shot Huey. One cop was dead. The other was shot. Thanks to Sacramento, every man in blue knew Huey and who he was, and what organization he stood for: the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The guys suddenly grew nervous about being in the same house with Huey. Huey was lying on the floor, a massive hole in his gut, bleeding like a dog. Everybody broke for the door, and the house immediately emptied.

I was frantic.

“What are we going to do?”

Huey came to, long enough to ask the same question.

“I’m going to take you to the hospital,” I decided.

Huey protested. “Let me die right here. All they’re going to do is give me the gas chamber. They’re going to kill me anyway, so let me die right here.”

“I can’t,” I stammered. “I can’t do that.”

I ran frantically around the house, gathering towels to soak up the blood streaming from Huey’s stomach. Then we lifted Huey into my car. June, Huey, and I raced down MacArthur Boulevard toward Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center. As we drove up onto the emergency-room ramp, I assumed Huey was already dead. I blew my horn and revved up the engine. June jumped out and opened the car door. We now had Huey by both legs. I saw a nurse run out of the emergency room toward us just as we set Huey down on the hard concrete ramp.

“He’s shot, he’s shot, he’s shot,” I yelled out to the nurses as I headed back to my car.

As the nurse ran back inside to grab a gurney, June and I took off in the car. I burned rubber, and in seconds we’d gotten the hell out of there.

The next day, Huey stared back at me from the front page of the Oakland Tribune. In fact, he was on the front page of almost every metro newspaper across the country. He was not dead after all. In the press photo, Huey is wounded and manacled to a gurney in the Kaiser Oakland emergency room. In the forefront of the picture a fat Oakland cop stares sternly into the camera lens. Huey is lying on his back in the ER, his hands cuffed to the gurney. He is stretched out, in an oddly Christlike position, a man about to be executed.



I first met Huey when we moved from West Oakland to North Oakland in the fifties. Every morning we’d hurry off together to Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, a racially mixed school where black students were in the minority. Huey and I were the same age, same grade, and would attend many of the same schools, although we never shared a single class.

While neither of us played sports, Huey admired the boxers. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber. Kid Gavilan. Sugar Ray Robinson. Jersey Joe Walcott. Athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson instilled pride and courage.

Huey’s physical appearance was always tidy. His face was oiled and shined; he looked like a piece of jade. He was compulsive about cleanliness and brushed his teeth incessantly, several times a day. Huey loved classical music. His mother had furnished him with piano lessons, so he introduced me to the music of Tchaikovsky. He loved the Nutcracker. One of his favorite songs was Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Huey was shy and introverted. He couldn’t talk much to the girls. The way he’d get their attention was to recite poetry. Although Huey had learning and reading disabilities in the classroom, he had no problems memorizing epic poems. “The Bells” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Macbeth were all part of his spoken repertoire. That was how he impressed the girls.

Huey’s father, Walter Newton, was born in Alabama. His mother, Armelia Johnson, was born in Louisiana. The couple lived in Arkansas for seven years before moving to Louisiana, where Walter held jobs in a gravel pit, carbon plant, sugarcane mill, and sawmill, and served briefly as a brakeman. A deeply religious man, he preached regularly at the Bethel Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana. When Walter decided to pull up stakes and eventually settle in Oakland in 1944, he sought work at the naval air station in Alameda County. By 1945 the entire family had relocated westward. Walter Newton worked multiple jobs to see to it his family never went hungry. Walter strictly forbade his wife to take on a job, particularly as a domestic worker for any of the white Oakland households.

Huey P. Newton, the youngest child of the Newton family, was born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 17, 1942, the last of seven children. Lee Edward, the eldest son, was old enough to be Huey’s father. After Lee was Walter Jr. (nicknamed Sonny Man), whose innate street sense would later have a tremendous impact on Huey while growing up. Next came Melvin. There were three sisters: Myrtle, Leola, and Doris. To his mother and sisters, Huey was the little prince. He was named after Louisiana governor Huey Pierce Long, a politician Walter admired because of Long’s talent to cleverly and simultaneously cater to the area’s white patricians while passing programs that also helped Louisiana’s black communities through the back door.

Huey struggled as a boy and as a young student. He hid his learning disabilities by constantly behaving in ways that got him kicked out of class. Because his mother always insisted on Huey using the initial “P” in his name, some of the kids at school made fun (“Huey P. goes wee, wee, wee”), which only sharpened and honed his fighting skills on the playground.

When we first met, Huey was attending sixth grade at Santa Fe Elementary. I lived on Forty-seventh and West, while Huey lived around the corner on Forty-seventh Street. Our neighborhood was working class and integrated. Soon the Newton family spread out. Nearly all the daughters had grown and moved away, as did the older sons. Lee Edward moved to the San Francisco Peninsula, toward Menlo Park. Walter Jr., Sonny Man, was in Southern California. That left four Newtons in the household—Walter, Armelia, Melvin, and Huey.

While growing up, Huey was greatly influenced by four strong male role models. He would eventually become an amalgam of all four figures. Walter, the strict disciplinarian, had a strong sense of moral character and was deeply rooted in Old Testament values. Oldest brother, Lee Edward, was the first of the family to see the inside of the Oakland County Jail, and he taught Huey the meaning of standing up and holding his ground, even if it meant a fight. Walter Jr. represented the excitement of the street to Huey. Hanging out at the racetrack or being kept by a woman made Sonny Man a player in Huey’s eyes. For the rest of his life, a part of Huey would always emulate Sonny Man. Melvin would influence Huey on the importance of education. Melvin steered away from any trouble on the streets with the police. Instead, he studiously attended Oakland City College. It was Melvin who tutored Huey when Huey was ready to settle down and apply himself scholastically. Throughout his life, Huey maintained a delicate balance of all four figureheads—Walter’s values, brother Lee’s strength, Sonny Man’s street smarts, and Melvin’s intellectual prowess.

The tenth grade at Oakland Technical High School was a tough year for Huey. He rarely got along with his teachers and was constantly thrown out of class for challenging their authority. But he continued to memorize literary passages from books and LP records. “I remember Huey in the eleventh or twelfth grade,” Melvin Newton recalled. “He brings me this notebook and says, ‘Help me.’ Then he says, ‘Turn the page.’ He knew everything on the page, verbatim. I was shocked.”1

Besides his studies, Huey picked up another talent from Melvin: hypnosis. Huey was able to hypnotize people into various deep and comical trances. His subjects barked like dogs or ate grass on command.

By the summer of 1959, after Huey graduated from Oakland Technical High School, he began to admire certain political figures. First it was blacklisted actor and orator Paul Robeson, then Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

After Oakland Tech, Huey grew increasingly restless and confused about the course of his life. He had suffered the sting of being labeled an illiterate in high school with an IQ of 79, and he had not yet developed full confidence in his own intellectual abilities. He also witnessed with disdain his father working two and three jobs. The man rarely enjoyed any time off. Huey loathed the fact that Walter Sr. could barely pay the interest on his bills, let alone the principal.

By the fall of 1959, while I worked on the docks, Huey enrolled as a freshman in Oakland City College. Like a few young black males during that time period, he was casually drawn to the bohemian tenets of the Beat Generation. He grew a short, stubbly beard. His unkempt appearance caused havoc and loud arguments in the Newton household. Finally, in his stubbornness and rage, Huey left the family’s house and moved out on his own.

During his first semester at Oakland City College (now called Merritt College), Huey moved into a flat near the campus with a friend named William Brumfield. Brumfield had plans to write three books about his avid philosophies of love and sex and changed his name to Richard Thorne. To Thorne, men and women had no need to “own” each other and permanently bond in traditional fashion. Marriage was a rigid tool of bourgeois society. Thorne was later to become a major proponent of the prehippie, “Free Love” movement that grew out of the Bay Area and went on to cofound the Sexual Freedom League. Although Huey found Thorne’s ideas controversial and radical (and they certainly were at the time), he was much more impressed that Thorne usually kept a small stable of adoring and attractive females and college coeds around the house at all hours.

The Free Speech Movement and other human potential groups were taking shape just across the city line in Berkeley and would soon spread into Oakland. Huey delved deeply into the writings of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and Booker T. Washington. Volumes like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and French novelists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre made a deep impression. The early 1960s proved to be a fertile period for Huey. College made him less insecure, and his learning processes unfolded at a rapid pace.

It was during this time frame when the lexicon of Afro-American (and later Afro-centrism) threaded their way through the campus social set. Subjects like institutional racism, civil disobedience, and civil rights became fair-game topics of dialogue in the classrooms, fraternities, and student lounges. Huey was among the first dozen charter members of the Afro-American Association (AAA). The association discussed various works by notable black authors of the time and regularly sponsored rallies on the Oakland City College campus in order to promote black awareness and various other causes.

Through Afro-American Association rallies and events, Huey applied some of the viewpoints and beliefs he had accumulated and sharpened his skills as a street-corner debater. He had a talent to captivate his fellow students. The more Huey read and learned, the greater his powers of observation, analysis, and discourse.

Unlike most college students, Huey lived a double life, both as an academic and a petty criminal. He maintained ties among a lot of our lumpen friends for extra cash. He scammed pocket money as a quick-change artist. Huey and his burglar friends also cruised the wealthier neighborhoods in broad daylight and sold stolen merchandise picked up through stolen credit card transactions. Unlocked cars that held valuables were fair game for Huey and his friends. Throughout his life, Huey would maintain close contact with the street. Whether he excelled as an academic, a leader, or a philosopher, he would not stray far from the people and the streets.

In the spring semester of 1962, Richard Thorne met up with a past family acquaintance, a twenty-six-year-old City College engineering student who had just finished a four-year hitch in the air force. His name was Bobby Seale. Seale lived in his parents’ house on nearby Fifty-seventh Street, a stone’s throw from the four-block City College campus. Toting his drafting board, an armload of books, and precision drawing instruments, Seale approached an impromptu rally sponsored by the Afro-American Association.

Thorne introduced Seale to members of the Afro-American Association. He motioned over toward Huey, who at the time was engaged in a deep discussion with a young lady who seemed as taken with Huey’s good looks as she was with the rhetoric he was laying down. “Bobby,” Richard said, interrupting Huey’s rap, “this is Huey Newton. Huey’s a good friend of mine.”

A few weeks later, Seale saw Huey a second time. He was debating intensely with another campus colleague. Huey was articulating various passages from a book by E. Franklin Frazier called Black Bourgeoisie. Seale watched in amazement as Huey’s opponent pointed out certain general passages in the book, only to be corrected by Huey, who then referred verbatim to the actual page numbers and paragraphs of the points made in Frazier’s book. Seale was astounded by Huey’s disarming debating skills.

As the two walked down the street together, Huey told Bobby about a scuffle he had had with a character outside a nearby liquor store over a bottle of wine. The matter had turned into fisticuffs.

“Well, if it had been me,” Bobby said matter-of-factly, “I would have shot that dude.”

Huey’s eyes lit up again. “You got a gun?”

“I’ve got three or four guns. C’mon, I’ll show them to you.” Seale led Huey through the back door of his house only a block away. In Seale’s bedroom, posters of a B-52 bomber and a Gemini missile hung alongside placards of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“I thought you had a pistol,” Huey said to Bobby. Seale proudly showed Huey a .38 pistol housed in a tooled leather holster.

Upon leaving Seale’s house, Huey invited Bobby to a party he planned to attend that night. Seale turned him down, citing a prior commitment. A few days later, Huey showed up at the doorway of one of Seale’s engineering classes.

“What’s up?”

“Remember that party I invited you to?”


“Well, I was at the party and, uh, I had to defend myself.”

“What do you mean?”

“This guy threatened to kill me. So I wanted to know, could I borrow your pistol?”2

Bobby arranged for Huey to meet him back at his house later, but on the way, Huey was picked up and handcuffed by the police.

The incident evolved from an altercation Huey had at the party with a dude named Odell Lee. The two exchanged heated words at the party, and Lee challenged Huey’s views on Afro-Americans. After Huey turned his back, Lee grabbed Huey and a fight ensued. Huey stabbed Lee repeatedly with a steak knife.

Sonny Man came up from Los Angeles and raised Huey’s bail after he was arrested. After the trial a couple of months later, Huey was convicted of felonious assault.

Huey would spend the next six months in the Santa Rita Jail, a long way from the comforts of academia. Prior to being dispatched to Santa Rita, Huey was housed in the Alameda County Jail and was sent into solitary confinement after taking part in a food strike. At the age of twenty-two, Huey spent nearly three weeks in solitary in a four-by-six-foot cell that had been nicknamed “the soul-breaker” by the other inmates.

After Huey was moved to Santa Rita, he incited another skirmish in the mess hall by bashing a steel tray over a food worker’s head. Already a veteran of the soul-breaker, Huey was taken to Greystone in Santa Rita’s nearby “cooler” section. It was then that Huey learned through discipline and strength how to endure prison isolation and punishment.



Between 1959 and 1965 Huey attended Oakland City College on an on-and-off basis. As he had told Bobby Seale, higher education entertained his mind, and unlike high school, he wasn’t forced to attend each and every class. It was worthwhile because he could stay politically active on campus and pursue (at his own depth and pace) highly complex academic subjects like biological behaviorism and stimulus response (studying the works of B. F. Skinner and Pavlov), existentialism, and logical positivism through the works of A.J.Ayer, a philosopher from the 1930s who explored the inner meanings of reality, perception, and knowledge.

In 1964, after serving out his six months in the Alameda County and Santa Rita jails, Huey’s relationship with Donald Warden and the Afro-American Association was gradually deteriorating. Although he couldn’t verbalize it at the time, Huey thirsted for a form of organized social activism that went beyond the campus teach-ins and discussion groups. He yearned for something that could reach out to poor and working-class blacks and all oppressed people in order to help improve their social and economic conditions and to end institutional racism. The Afro-American Association did not have the answers Huey was seeking.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

David Hilliard

About the Author

As chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, David Hilliard was actively involved in every major activity of the best-recognized and most feared African-American organization of the 1960s and ’70s. He is the author of This Side of Glory, a memoir that tells the story of his involvement in the Black Panthers, and the coeditor, with Don Weise, of The Huey P. Newton Reader.

Keith and Kent Zimmerman are coauthors of the international bestseller Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs with former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten; Sing My Way Home: Voices of the New American Roots Rock; and the New York Times bestseller Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The Zimmermans live in Oakland, California.

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