In a Black History Month that has seen the culture-defining release of the Black Panther movie, one would be remiss to not take a closer look at the real-life Black Panthers that gave their Marvel counterparts such relevancy. Instead of Wakanda, they had Oakland, and instead of T’Challa, they had Huey P. Newton.
Huey, co-founder of the Black Panthers, would have been 76 this past weekend. His image has come to epitomize the Black Power movement—him sitting on a wicker chair in a beret, staff in one hand and gun in the other. Other times, it’s the infamous photo of him and co-founder Bobby Seale patrolling the streets of Oakland. Seale holds a Colt .45 while Huey brandishes a shotgun, a bandolier studded with bullets draped across his torso.
But while people today are familiar with Huey’s role as a founder of the Black Panther party, his armed self-defense program against Oakland police, or even the movement to release him from prison after he was charged with killing a police officer, they are less familiar with the man behind the gun.
In Huey’s interview with Playboy in 1973, one of the first questions the magazine asks him was whether the Panthers had moved away from the “radicalism and violence” of their early days.
“The party…is now said to be forming coalitions with the black church, with white peace groups, even with the Democratic Party?” Lee Lockwood asks, questioning if not decimating the stereotype of the Panthers as a horde of gun-wielding thugs.
“It just happens in the party, women hold more official positions than men do—and also higher offices in general. Some brothers don’t like it.”
But for Huey the answer was simple. In order to organize the black community and empower them politically, the Black Panthers had to gain their trust and respect first. Huey and the Panthers instituted survival programs—community service initiatives like health clinics, free breakfast programs and educational institutes—that didn’t just strengthen the respect black people had for the party, but ensured black people would live.
“We [were] trying to organize the community,” Elaine Brown, the former chairman of the Black Panther Party, tells Playboy over the phone. “And these programs were a way for us to be part of the community and not abandon what [they] were concerned with because we wanted to have some swashbuckling image in newspapers.”
While these images are glamorous and powerful, the ways in which they’ve been used has led to the Panthers’ political work either being misunderstood or scarcely known throughout history. Combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s dogged effort to surveil the organization and discredit it in the eyes of everyday Americans, stereotypes of the Panthers as a group of violent mindless thugs still dominate. But this couldn’t be further from the actual truth.
Founded in 1966 to combat police violence in Oakland, the Panthers did not call for armed revolution, but armed self-defense. Huey carried around law books to defend his rights when police stopped him, and he encouraged others to do the same. And nobody in the Black Panther Party initially broke any laws by toting their guns, exercising their constitutional right to bear arms as Americans. Huey told Playboy he believed armed revolution was inevitable in the United States, but that it was necessary to use survival programs as a strategic measure to keep the people alive until that time came.
“We are being threatened with total destruction through more and more domination and control by the white establishment,” Huey told Playboy in 1973. “Through survival programs, we can organize the people to make a revolution.”
Though the image of machisimo and hypermasculinity would cling to the Black Panther legacy, Huey knew black liberation was not possible without black women’s liberation. His confidence in women wasn’t just limited to rhetoric, but manifested in political decisions he made for the party.
“It just happens in the party, women hold more official positions than men do—and also higher offices in general,” Huey told Playboy. “All of which gets the black male pretty upset. Some brothers don’t like it.”
But the biggest decision Huey would make to empower black women came in his appointment of Elaine Brown, an organizer with the Panthers, to the role of chairman of the party. Brown wasn’t just Huey’s righthand woman—as time passed, she became his lover as well.
“Huey Newton was a poster to me,” she says. “When I arrived at New York after all of that, and I actually physically saw Huey Newton at the airport, and all the other comrades that were greeting me with such enthusiasm after I had been so depressed and living in isolation, I couldn’t believe it. And I definitely couldn’t believe Huey because he was absolutely the most stunning man I’d ever laid eyes on.”
“We didn’t have a role for women in the Black Panther Party. If you were in the party, you were a Panther.”
The trust and loyalty Brown built with Huey led to him making her the leader of the party after he was forced into exile in Cuba. While Brown concedes the party wasn’t perfect, she maintains many women held leadership positions and worked alongside men in the same capacity, including participating in the original police patrols in Oakland.
“I don’t think anyone thought it was an aberration to have a woman as a leader,” she says.
For Brown, characterizations of the Black Panther Party as a chauvinist organization ignore the party’s refusal to conform to gender roles. While the Panthers inevitably worked within a patriarchy, they operated fundamentally as an army in which both men and women undertook the tasks they were assigned.
“We didn’t have a role for women in the Black Panther Party,” Brown says. “If you were in the party, you were a Panther. We didn’t have any gender roles. We didn’t assign women to do women’s work, or men to do men’s work. People were assigned—and they were assigned, because it was a paramilitary organization—according to what they were capable of doing. Everybody had to be trained on weapons, for example. Almost everybody had to sell newspapers. We didn’t put the brothers on the street and have the sisters cook food.”
Brown controlled all the guns and money, and gained the respect of both men and women in the party during Huey’s exile. But by the time Huey came back from Cuba to face his murder trial, the party had become something he couldn’t recognize. The Panthers had not betrayed his vision. In fact, they’d expanded, regrouped rank and file, and gained more power than when he’d originally founded the party. With the stress of his oncoming trial and his personal desire to write and theorize instead of running a nationwide organization, Huey became increasing indifferent to the party. He began to allow the men of the party to challenge Brown’s leadership and that of other women in the party.
“I don’t want to save the world. I just want to be Huey,” Huey told Brown in a fateful phone conversation she relates in her autobiography, A Taste of Power. And just like that, the ideals that took the Black Panthers from a disorganized band of activists to a revolutionary organization running the city of Oakland came crumbling down. Huey felt like he had outlived his ownership of the Black Panther Party. He had gone from a college student who had founded the party to an icon of the Free Huey movement while he languished in prison for a crime he did not commit, and finally to a man plunged into existential crisis because he wanted to write and dream. In spite of his criticism of patriarchy, he relented to the inferiority complex that led black men in the party to question the growing political power of black women.
The party spiraled because of its internal contradictions, and by the early ‘80s, it had tragically declined. In 1980, Huey finished his doctorate in social philosophy, publishing his dissertation about repression against the Panthers. While history remembers Huey the prisoner or Huey the armed soldier, it often erases Huey the scholar from the narrative. In his lifetime, Huey served as the primary theoretician of the party, writing philosophical books and essays.
Huey met his death at the premature age of 47, not at the hands of the police who had violated him or the government that imprisoned him, but a 25-year-old drug dealer who used to eat at the Panthers’ free breakfast programs as a child.
The tendency to condemn Huey or forget his brilliance persists until now. In order to understand Huey and the Black Panther Party, and the struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people in the United States, it’s necessary to consider the man in all his dimensions. Huey was a writer and a dreamer. He was a political prisoner who raised the flag against the unjust incarceration of black men and women. He was a man who was all too human in both his heroic deeds and shameful mistakes.
Elaine Brown knows. “I still love Huey P. Newton,” she says. “I sang at his funeral. And I still see him as one of the greatest leaders of black liberation struggle in America ever.”