THE SHADOW OF THE PANTHER; HUEY NEWTON AND THE PRICE OF BLACK
POWER IN AMERICA
By Hugh Pearson
Addison Wesley (1994)
In the last years of his life, Huey P. Newton became the single most frightening individual I have ever known.
The last time I saw Huey alive was in late 1988 or early '89, when I drove up into an expensive subdivision of the Oakland hills to hear him speak at the pristine and glistening, newly-built Merritt Junior College.
It was a world away from the old Merritt College, which had set squat and brick-ugly in the heart of Oakland's sprawling, flatlands Black Community. That's where I had first met Huey Newton in the fall of 1965, a year before he and Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party. Huey and I were Black student organizers/agitators and aspiring revolutionaries in an era when it was not considered odd to be either.
The Huey Newton of 1965-'66 was tough and quick with his fists. He had a reputation as a street fighter, and he'd intimidate you if you let him. But I got along with him pretty well, considering we ended up on opposite sides on a number of issues. We discussed and debated and argued, and he once came pretty close to punching me out. But he had a sense of humor and could be as reasonable as the next person, and I was never especially afraid around him in those days, even in the tensest of situations.
But it was a much different Huey Newton I saw at the new Merritt College in the late 80's. I'd been away from home for 20 years and, having read from a distance of Huey's transformations, I wanted to see for myself. I purposely sat in the back of the auditorium, hoping for anonymity. Somehow, he spotted me anyhow. His wife came over to take a picture of me, for what purpose I can only imagine. She made little effort to conceal herself. Huey acknowledged my presence from the podium, asked me to stand, announced me to the crowd as one of his revolutionary compatriots from the old days, and requested that I come up on stage and embrace him.
Huey Newton has been dead for five years, and I am writing these words alone and in the safety of my desk at home. Yet I am unable to control my trembling, even now, thinking of that moment. His smile was cold and frozen, strained, as if his lips were strapped together by leather thongs that required the greatest effort of his face muscles to part. His eyes had the look of the shark about them...a deep and ancient malevolence devoid of all mercy. To look into those eyes was to look into your own death. Across the great expanse of that vast college auditorium, with all the hundreds of students sitting in between us, it was like being locked in a dark closet with a doberman pinscher. I fled the auditorium, declining his embrace.
What happened to Huey Newton between 1965-'66 and 1988-'89 changed the history of this country, for good or ill. He and Seale formed the Black Panther Party, an Oakland-based national organization that advocated Black Revolution and violent retaliation against racist police brutality. The police and FBI attacks against Newton and his followers were as widespread as those against the American Communist Party two decades before, and were just as devastatingly effective. Huey was involved in a shootout that left an Oakland police officer dead, was jailed several times for that and other offenses, and for a time was forced to leave the country and live in exile in Cuba. His militant actions and the attacks against him made him a hero to many African-Americans and to both the radical and the not-so radical white left. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American citizens said they were willing to die for Huey Newton and for the causes he championed. Some did.
But Huey Newton was more--or less--than a committed revolutionary. He was also a drug addict and a man with a violent temper and a personality that could quickly turn him trigger-quick into a brutal, remorseless thug. These two personalities...the revolutionary and the thug...competed side by side for the soul of Huey P. Newton, often in full view of Party, press, and public. He was accused by former supporters of any number of crimes, including murder, extortion, and forced sodomy. He became perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial figure of an enigmatic and controversial era. The Black Panther Party eventually cracked and broke apart from the strain of it all. Huey Newton died a crack addict in 1989, shot in the head by a drug dealer.
Over the years there has been remarkably little objective study of the Black Panther Party. Most of the books available were written by Panther leaders themselves (Newton, Seale, Elaine Brown, David Hilliard), with various levels of flight from the truth. There were a lot of expectations prior to publication, therefore, that Hugh Pearson, a young African-American journalist, could shed some light on the true story of the Panthers.
"The Shadow Of The Panther" is a deeply disappointing book, shallow in conception and shoddy in execution, an unbalanced and therefore an untruthful account.
Pearson is clearly most energized by the stories of Newton's violent excesses, including this account of the beating of the tailor, Preston Callins, for the offense of calling him "baby:"
"Newton returned to the room with a .357 magnum, walked up to where Callins was seated, and suddenly whacked him across the head with the pistol. Blood shot everywhere. Newton whacked Callins on the other side of his head. Then he told Callins he was going to shoot him. ... He hit Callins again. Then he hit him again, knocking him to the floor. Then he kicked Callins in the mouth. ... Bleeding profusely, Callins managed to stumble out of the penthouse into the hallway. Newton followed him, this time with a new gun, because the grips of the first gun had broken on Callins' skull. ... There was blood in the hallway, blood all over Newton's apartment."
There is little doubt that the incident happened (Callins was hospitalized, and Newton was later brought to trial for the beating), or that it was important in understanding the mind and methods of Huey Newton. Pearson considers it so important, in fact, that he devotes two full pages to the account, and much of the book concentrates on these sagas of Newton's personal descent into madness.
But what he leaves out is also instructive. We learn little about the early lives of Panther leaders...what led them to their revolutionary commitments or what caused their excesses and mistakes. And the massive campaigns carried out by the FBI and local police departments to discredit, disrupt, and destroy the Black Panther Party are given short shrift. The deaths of Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago and Bunchy Carter and John Huggins in Los Angeles are mentioned only in passing, buried in the midst of a three-page, 29-item "partial list of Panther-police clashes" that took place between 1968 and 1969.
Hampton and Clark were killed during a raid of their apartment by Chicago police. The raid was investigated by a Chicago Grand Jury, and credible evidence was presented to show that the two men were set up by an FBI informant planted in their midst and then murdered by police, with Hampton being drugged before the raid took place. Carter and Huggins were killed by members of a rival Black Nationalist organization, but evidence suggests that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had advance knowledge of the plans to kill the two men, and the killings themselves might have been carried out by police or FBI provocateurs. Pearson mentions possible FBI collusion in the deaths of Hampton and Clark without comment on its ramifications, and simply ignores it in the case of Carter and Huggins.
Pearson, in fact, breezily dismisses the fact that the FBI might have conducted a clandestine campaign to destroy the Black Panther Party. "Examination of key [FBI] memos available to the general public leads to the conclusion that [the FBI's] campaign was primarily one of letter forging, wiretapping, and telephone voice impersonation. The memos provide strong evidence that whenever any planned counterintelligence activity was deemed dangerous to life, [the FBI] backed away from it." Does Pearson actually believe that J. Edgar Hoover would have written a memo ordering the murder of Black Panther Party members, or that the FBI would now release such a memo if it ever existed? At best Pearson shows himself here to be hopelessly naive, and at worst he raises serious questions about his objectivity in writing this book.
But mostly, "The Shadow Of The Panther" suffers from an excess of sensationalism and a lack of journalistic curiosity. Pearson perhaps gives a clue to his method in an Afterword, when he laments that "[o]ne of the things that struck me as I wrote was how disappointed, even angry, I often became at our society and myself, for payment so much attention that, arguably, in so many ways amounted to little more than a temporary media phenomenon." But the Black Panther Party had a profound effect on American life that persists to this day: its direct offshoots are the African American gangs that permeate the core of most American cities, and its off-the-pig ideology has been translated and reinterpreted into the gangsta rap that is so much a staple of post-modern American pop culture. A better journalist and historian would have recognized that.
The organizational legacy of the Black Panther Party is thin, but that is not surprising. Intense police and FBI repression during the 1970's left much of the organization's leadership dead or in jail and the members scattered and a bit disillusioned. After Huey's death, some of the group's old leaders attempted to reorganize the Party, but that effort has so far met with little success. There are reports of a group called the "New Black Panthers" forming in several cities around the country, part of the tactics of which involve violent confrontation with the police. It is too early, however, to tell whether this will be more than a passing phenomenon.
But what is most important to consider about the lasting effect of the Black Panther Party is that the violent confrontation between police and young African-American males which generated the Party's birth in 1966 is still present in America's inner cities today. What has changed, for the most part, is that young African-American males now seem far more willing to shoot back than they were 28 years ago. And it does not seem unlikely or unreasonable to believe that a generation which resurrected the image of Malcolm X and turned him into a cultural icon could do the same for Huey P. Newton.
An objective, honest study of the Black Panther Party is still much needed. Perhaps someone else will take up the challenge.