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‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’: The Black Panther Party and the Campaign to Free Huey P. Newton

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Abstract

In October 1967, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Huey P. Newton was arrested and charged with the murder of a police officer. His organization, which was on the point of collapse, rallied around him, courtesy of a major campaign that ran through his trial and his two years in prison, making ‘Free Huey’ a rallying cry for radicals across the globe. It transformed the BPP into one of the most visible political organizations of the era whilst redefining Newton as one of the key icons of 1968. As important, the ‘Free Huey’ campaign enabled the BPP to surf 1968’s radical tide, forging links with other radical groups as it grew to international prominence. Yet this newfound fame was not unproblematic, since it revealed the ambiguities of the BPP’s philosophy and elevated Newton to mythic proportions that no living human could match. The ‘Free Huey’ campaign thus reveals both the ability of radical groups to generate and exploit the revolutionary fervor of the year and the problems inherent in such an approach.
European journal of American studies
14-1 | 2019
Spring 2019
‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’: The Black
Panther Party and the Campaign to Free Huey P.
Newton
Joe Street
Electronic version
URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14273
ISSN: 1991-9336
Publisher
European Association for American Studies
Electronic reference
Joe Street, « ‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’: The Black Panther Party and the Campaign to Free
Huey P. Newton », European journal of American studies [Online], 14-1 | 2019, Online since 29 March
2019, connection on 02 April 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14273
This text was automatically generated on 2 April 2019.
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‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’:
The Black Panther Party and the
Campaign to Free Huey P. Newton
Joe Street
1 In October 1967, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), Huey P.
Newton was arrested and charged with the murder of an Oakland police officer, John
Frey. Newton’s organization rallied around him, initiating a major ‘Free Huey’ campaign
that ran through his trial and his two years in prison, and that rescued the BPP from
oblivion. The campaign was significant enough for the Oakland Tribune to state that the
trial became one of the two biggest news events of the year.1 ‘Free Huey’ also became a
rallying cry for radicals across the globe. It propelled Newton into the forefront of the
radical movement and transformed the BPP into one of the most visible political
organizations of the era.
2 Formed in October 1966 in Oakland, California by Newton and Bobby Seale, the BPP
initially focused its energies on opposing police brutality in Oakland’s inner city and
similar local neighborhoods. Attracting a small but committed membership, it conducted
a sequence of armed police patrols that unnerved the Oakland Police Department while
alerting locals to their rights as citizens under arrest. Inspired by black nationalist,
anticolonial, and internationalist traditions, the BPP took particular influence from
Marxist theorists such as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Mao Zedong, and especially Frantz
Fanon’s coruscating critique of French colonialism as outlined in his classic text, The
Wretched of the Earth. A widely-publicized confrontation with San Francisco police that
followed the BPP’s armed protection of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, during a visit
to the city in February 1967 elevated the organization to regional notoriety. On May 2,
1967, prompted by a legislative proposal to end California’s citizens’ rights to bear arms
in public, the BPP conducted one of the most sensational events of the 1960s. A collection
of armed Panthers entered the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento to protest
the so-called Mulford Bill. A series of arrests followed that deprived the BPP of its most
skilled organizers, and the organization entered a decline. In the early hours of October
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28, 1967, Newton became embroiled in a melee with police officers Frey and Herbert
Heanes, leading to Frey’s death and Newton receiving a gunshot wound. Charged with
murder, Newton faced the death penalty. The BPP set about deifying its imprisoned
founder, transforming him into an international icon. Convicted of voluntary
manslaughter in September 1968, Newton’s conviction was quashed on appeal nearly two
years later. The BPP welcomed him upon his return much like the Bolsheviks received
Lenin from exile, a near-legendary leader ready to spearhead the revolution.2
3 Most historical assessments of the Free Huey campaign emphasize the role of the ‘Free
Huey’ rallies in bringing the BPP to a wide audience, and similarly point to the mass
media’s response to the BPP. For Jane Rhodes, the campaign rendered the BPP media
icons while enabling Eldridge Cleaver to cement himself at the organization’s head.3
Curtis Austin, Donna Murch, and Robyn Spencer present the campaign as fundamental to
the BPP’s meteoric growth as members and supporters joined in their thousands and
transformed the organization.4 As the campaign gathered pace, the BPP reached out to
other radical groups. Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin chronicle the inter-organizational
tensions that emerged, while Joel Wilson and David Barber evaluate the BPP alliances
with white radicals and Aaron Bae its multiracial alliances.5 Less interested in the popular
movement to free Newton, Lise Pearlman chronicles events inside the courtroom.6
4 Such approaches underestimate the role of the Free Huey campaign in defining the BPP’s
development. As important, they elide the BPP’s martyrizing of Newton. The analysis that
follows demonstrates how the Free Huey campaign successfully cemented the BPP within
1968’s radical movement and iconized Huey P. Newton while also sowing the seeds for the
organization’s later decline. It focuses on the three key elements of the campaign outside
the courthouse to free Newton. First, it reveals the extent to which the fractious
relationships between the BPP and fellow radical groups the Peace and Freedom Party
(PFP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) informed the BPP’s
growing pains. Two public galas designed to elevate the BPP’s status and celebrate
Newton’s birthday offer additional evidence of the BPP’s attempts to insert itself into
California’s radical movement. The article then demonstrates how media representations
of Newton further publicized the BPP. Coupled with the ambiguity of the BPP’s own
rhetoric, this attracted both welcome and unwelcome attention, facilitating the BPP’s rise
to prominence just as it encouraged repressive actions against the organization’s
members. The voluminous FBI reports on BPP activities as the Free Huey campaign
accelerated are testament to the magnitude of the FBI’s interest in the BPP, which was
piqued by the BPP’s early forays into the public consciousness; the Free Huey campaign
simply confirmed to the FBI that the BPP needed neutralizing. The article’s final section
argues that Newton’s absence enabled the BPP to elevate him to near-mythological status,
a process intended to maintain the campaign’s momentum but that stored problems that
manifested themselves following his release in 1970. The campaign consequently emerges
as the central event in the BPP’s history and as an exemplar of radical campaigning in
1968.
5 Kathleen Cleaver argues that the campaign intended to ensure that Newton would not be
executed whilst elevating him to a symbol of everything that the BPP was fighting for and
against, so countering the accusation that he was merely a criminal.7 It ensured that the
people of the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond understood the disputed facts of the
case and became aware of Newton’s importance to the African American struggle against
white power. It also built upon the BPP’s early street protests to render the area around
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the Alameda County Courthouse a focal point for activists, the police, the media, and the
wider community. Rallies nearby brought great publicity to Newton and the BPP, and
evoked the pomp of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association parades.
As important, the campaign transformed the BPP. On the night of Newton’s arrest, it was
little more than a community group with a handful of members. Its co-founder Bobby
Seale later admitted that, at this point, the BPP had ‘totally fallen apart; it didn’t exist.’8
The recently arrived SNCC activist Kathleen Neal, BPP stalwart Emory Douglas, and
Eldridge Cleaver – who soon married Neal – reinvigorated an organization that was little
more than the three individuals themselves.9 By the Free Huey campaign’s conclusion,
the BPP was an international sensation with thousands of dollars pouring into its coffers
each month and tens of thousands of sympathizers across the world. Accurate
membership numbers are impossible to verify, although it is safe to state that the
numbers of Panthers increased exponentially between October 1967 and November 1968.
10
6 The campaign itself took numerous forms. One tactic was to ensure that members of the
Party and the community were always present in the courtroom’s public gallery. This was
to convey a threefold message: first, to remind Newton that the BPP was not abandoning
him. Second, it reminded the court that the BPP was watching, a little like the Party’s
police patrols did to the Oakland Police Department. With an African American man on
trial and a gallery full of African American faces facing a white judge, white lawyers, and
a majority white jury, the racial connotations of the trial would be on show throughout.
Third, their presence gave the press another opportunity to publicize the Party. The
Oakland Tribune, for example, regularly noted the BPP supporters in the courtroom,
inadvertently suggesting that the BPP had a membership that far exceeded its real
numbers.11
7 Another tactic was to reach out to other organizations, most notably the PFP and SNCC, in
an effort to broaden the BPP’s support base and build a viable support infrastructure,
something that the small and inexperienced BPP lacked. That Newton would be tried by a
majority-white jury encouraged the BPP to reach out to the white community. It
announced an alliance with the PFP in late December 1967.12 Aware that the PFP needed
allies in the black community and that its links with the antiwar, civil rights, and campus
movements suggested that it was committed and sincere, Eldridge Cleaver felt that it was
well placed to aid Newton’s cause. As important, a BPP alliance could bring extra
momentum to the PFP’s faltering quest to place itself on the ballot in the November 1968
election, particularly in the Bay Area’s black communities.13 The alliance thus signified
the BPP’s tacit acceptance that electoral politics might be a necessary step towards the
revolution, and that the two-party system in the nation could be disrupted and ultimately
overthrown, whilst providing the BPP an infrastructure through which it could promote
itself. In March, Eldridge Cleaver reinforced this message, informing the PFP’s convention
of the BPP’s quest for a UN-observed plebiscite of black America over their national
destiny.14
8 The alliance ensured the vigorous pursuit of the Free Huey campaign, enabling its slogan
to become one of the rallying cries of the era. Immediately after its announcement, even
the antagonistic Tribune published the BPP’s Ten Point Platform and Program, while the
PFP flooded the Bay Area with literature publicizing both Newton and the BPP.15 It thus
repositioned the BPP on the radical left while cementing Eldridge Cleaver’s position at
the Party’s core. It also boosted the demonstrations at Newton’s trial. In November, sixty
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Panthers were present for Newton’s second court appearance. A court hearing late in
December saw roughly 400 demonstrators, including numerous PFP members. Such was
the fervor that one protester was inspired to scale the courthouse’s flagpole to remove
Old Glory and re-raise it upside down to signify that the nation was in distress. The
radical-countercultural magazine Berkeley Barb delightedly revealed that Newton’s
supporters packed the court and reported a successful ‘Honkies for Huey’ meeting that
same week, illustrating that the BPP was now a significant player in Bay Area radical
circles.16
9 The other major coalition of the Free Huey period was with one of the storied
organizations of the 1960s civil rights movement. Newton inducted Kwame Ture (then
known as Stokely Carmichael), one of SNCC’s greatest organizers and one of the most
prominent black activists in the world, into the BPP in June 1967, hoping to take
advantage of his renown and organizational experience. By the end of 1967, the two
organizations’ mutual appreciation extended to the negotiation of a formal bond. This
foundered, however, over whether it was a formal merger, as the BPP’s negotiator
Eldridge Cleaver thought, or a more flexible alliance, as SNCC’s James Forman believed.17
The arguments would rumble through 1968 as SNCC withered and the BPP focused more
intently on freeing Newton.
10 Early 1968 saw the emergence of the third chief tactic within the Free Huey campaign and
the first major outcomes of the alliances. The BPP organized two major events for
Newton’s birthday weekend: in Oakland on February 17, and in Los Angeles the following
day. Designed to announce the partnership with SNCC and give Ture the opportunity to
speak, the birthday galas were major publicity coups. Ture met with Newton in prison
shortly before the Oakland gala. The discussion was apparently not as straightforward as
Ture’s dazzling smile to reporters on his exit suggested, however. Rumors suggested that
the two disagreed over the roles of whites and armed revolution in the African American
struggle. Ture, who had witnessed the betrayal of SNCC by many of its white supporters
in the previous three years, felt that Newton was naïve in believing that the BPP could
prevent its white allies dominating the BPP-PFP relationship.18
11 The first gala was a mixed success. The Oakland Auditorium, almost within earshot of
Newton’s cell at the Alameda County Courthouse, filled with a mixture of black, white,
young, old, employed, and jobless, demonstrating widespread support for Newton.
Speakers included Bob Avakian of the PFP; SNCC’s Ture, Forman, and H. Rap Brown;
Newton’s mother, and his attorney Charles Garry. Ron Dellums, the recently elected
Berkeley City Councilman, announced his intention to table a council motion for Newton
to be set free. At center stage stood the empty wicker chair that Newton occupied for his
famous photoshoot with spear and rifle. Its emptiness was a simple and effective visual
ploy. A reprise took place at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles on the following day, with
Maulana Karenga, a former Afro American Association colleague of Newton and founder
of the LA-based African American pressure group US, and local pastor the Reverend
Thomas Kilgore replacing Dellums. A crowd numbering over 3,000, including six FBI
informants and one FBI agent observed matters.19 The FBI’s presence both indicated the
increased importance of the BPP during 1968 and offers a taste of the extensive
counterintelligence operation that the FBI waged against the BPP.
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12 Stills from Huey! Dir: Pugh (American Documentary Films, 1968). Above, left to right:
unknown male, Seale, Newton’s chair, Ture (who donned his dashiki immediately before
giving his speech), Brown. Below, Newton’s portrait, as depicted in Huey!
13 The BPP’s newspaper lauded the Oakland gala as the ‘first liberated rally ever held in
Babylon.’20 The printed press was more hostile, and television merely ignored it,
apparently a consequence of the BPP demanding $1,000 for broadcast rights. Berkeley’s
KPFA radio station known colloquially as Pacifica, recorded it for radio broadcast. Famed
for its willingness to engage with the Bay Area’s radicals, Pacifica’s presence
demonstrates that the BPP had maneuvered itself into the center of the Bay Area radical
movement.21 American Documentary Films, a radical filmmaking collective that was
preparing a documentary about the BPP, also recorded the event. Its production, Huey!,
juxtaposed footage of the rally with footage of BPP Treasurer Bobby Hutton’s April 1968
funeral, some white supremacists, and various Oakland police officers, before soliciting
the opinions of white oppression held by some Oaklanders in a barbershop. Concluding
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with excerpts from Ture’s speech, the documentary offered a sympathetic outsider’s
perspective, suggesting that the BPP sat at the core of 1968’s political expression.22
14 This coverage revealed that tensions existed at the heart of the BPP’s new coalition.
Forman struggled to define the terms of the alliance.23 Bobby Seale reinforced Newton’s
centrality to the BPP and the wider racial struggle before discussing the BPP’s Ten Point
Platform and Program, its firearms policy, and direct action in the community.24 In
contrast to the polite applause that met Seale’s speech, pandemonium followed Rap
Brown’s address. In his now familiar sunglasses and beret, Brown opened with a
denunciation of Thurgood Marshall before stating that the only difference between
Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace was the fact that ‘one of them’s wife’s got cancer.’
Anticipating Ture’s speech, he denounced integrationism, although he mused on the
potential of a rainbow alliance of the dispossessed led, of course, by black revolutionaries.
25 Anointed Prime Minister of Afro-America to the crowd’s further acclaim, Ture then
took the stage. Uneasy at the BPP-PFP alliance, he begrudged the presence of PFP
luminaries at the event. (This was somewhat ironic given that the PFP funded Cleaver and
Seale’s trip to invite Ture to the rally. He might have raised a smile, however, at the
knowledge that they apparently had to denounce the PFP as liars and racists before
receiving the cash.26) As if to underscore the division between him and his new comrades,
Ture eschewed the BPP uniform of black leather jacket, beret and rollneck jersey in favor
of a dashiki: attire more associated with Pan Africanism.27 The Tribune reported that
Ture’s thoughts on the Newton trial were straightforward: Newton would be freed, or
else.28 His apocalyptic speech, however, gave little indication of his sympathies for the
BPP’s program, instead focusing on the value of racial nationalism to the worldwide
liberation struggle. He concluded to a standing ovation, ‘The major enemy is the honky,’ a
position that directly challenged the BPP’s willingness to enter into alliances with white
radicals.29
15 His speech placed the BPP in a bind. It was in no position to censure its most famous
recruit, despite a public address that opposed one of its own core tenets. Yet this bind is
revealing of the BPP’s attempt to embed itself within the rival (black) nationalist and
(white) radical political groups. This might also have prompted Ture’s insistence that the
ideology of the BPP was ‘up for grabs’ in early 1968.30 Schooled in the fissiparous
atmosphere of leftist and civil rights pressure groups, Ture was a wily political operator,
always attentive to such schismatic tendencies. Later in 1968, Eldridge Cleaver reflected
on this maneuvering, arguing that Newton’s arrest and the formation of the PFP
represented an opportunity to unite Bay Area blacks with radical whites behind Newton,
one that worked to the BPP’s advantage.31 Whilst skeptical of Ture’s brand of nationalism,
Cleaver was acutely aware of the publicity that Ture’s appearance – and whatever
controversy accompanied it – would bring to the BPP and that enveloping Ture within the
BPP would bring great benefits to the organization even though it might be problematic
at a personal and ideological level.
16 Meanwhile, James Forman brokered talks with various African American groups in an
attempt to extend the BPP’s foothold in southern California.32 Such work ensured that the
February 18 Los Angeles rally included a cross-section of African-American radicals. The
speeches that day lacked Oakland’s electricity but reinforced the sense that the BPP was
entangled in a struggle for the future of African-American radicalism in California. Seale’s
speech embraced the broad sweep of post-Civil War American history and offered a
potted guide to the BPP, before ending with a ‘Free Huey or else’ chant.33 Karenga, safe on
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home turf, outlined his belief that only nationalism offered the black population a
legitimate political ideology before telling his audience: ‘Let’s talk about how to get white
people fighting each other…. Let them shoot each other… and after it’s all finished we will
have a better world.’ He finished by praising Newton as a ‘symbolic figure’ for the black
community.34 Rap Brown raised laughter that was loud enough even for the FBI to notice
when he pondered ‘The only thing that Huey Newton is guilty of, perhaps, is that he
didn’t tell me he was going down on the honkies that day.’ After repeating some of the
themes of his Oakland speech he concluded nihilistically, ‘We say freedom or death. Fuck
it. Black Power, brother.’35 Ture repeated many of the themes of his Oakland speech,
adding that his audience should be prepared to kill police in retribution should Newton
be executed.36
17 The Birthday Galas, then, reveal the inconsistency in the public messages associated with
the BPP during the early stages of the Free Huey campaign. This was in part a
consequence of the glare of publicity leading to the BPP’s growing pains occurring more
or less in public. Observers such as the many FBI agents who tracked the organization and
the press outlets that were keen to emphasize internecine disputes in the African
American struggle thus gathered enough raw material with which to work. The rallies
also intensified police repression of the Party. Within one week Bobby Seale was arrested
in his own home and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and numerous Panther
activists were stopped and searched by local police, prompting Newton to mandate that
all BPP members ‘acquire the technical equipment to defend their homes and their
dependents.’37 Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice appeared at the end of the month. It was an
instant sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and propelling Cleaver, and
hence the BPP, to international celebrity.38
18 In January, Newton gave his last press interview without Charles Garry ready to pounce
on any missteps. Garry’s presence meant that interviews could take place in the
courthouse’s attorney-client meeting room rather than in the dramatic surroundings of
Newton’s cell.39 Reframing Newton not as a criminal – literally behind bars – but as a free
man whose liberty was only temporary restricted, this could reinforce his claims to
innocence by presenting him in less suggestive surroundings, even though it undercut
the BPP’s suggestion that Newton was already a martyr. Illustrating the extent of the
BPP’s rise, Newton’s interviewers in March were KPFA, the Los Angeles Times, his comrade
Eldridge Cleaver, and Joan Didion, whose spare journalistic style was beginning to attract
major attention. Didion’s piece appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on May 4 and raised
the BPP to another level of celebrity.40 It was perfectly calibrated to appeal to the Post’s
genteel, conservative readership, although that issue’s cover, depicting The Beatles
meeting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, suggested that the Post cautiously embraced
elements of 1968’s counterculture, albeit in the guise of the spiritual quest of the most
popular rock group of the era. While Didion suggested that the matter of Newton’s guilt
was irrelevant to the situation facing the BPP, she lamented Newton’s preference for
rehearsed political statements over personal confession. ‘Almost everything Huey
Newton said had that same odd ring of being a “quotation,” a “pronouncement” ready to
be employed whenever the need arose,’ she sniffed before suggesting that she saw
Newton as little more than an ‘educational fun-fair machine… where pressing a button
elicits great thoughts on selected subjects.’41
I kept wishing that he would talk about himself, hoping to break through the wall of
rhetoric, but he seemed to be one of those autodidacts for whom all things specific
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and personal present themselves as minefields to be avoided even at the cost of
coherence, for whom safety lies in generalization.42
19 In a later revision, Didion reflected that she was pretentious, self-absorbed, and
somewhat bored during the late 1960s, belatedly acknowledging that she was unsuitable
to interview, let alone understand, Newton.43 Her desire to engage Newton – a man she
had not previously met at a highly personal level exposes Didion’s youthful sense of
white privilege rather than Newton’s inarticulacy. Similarly, her unpleasant reference to
Newton’s education and its impact on his articulacy again reinforces the suggestion that
the interview was an exercise in condescension. Rather than celebrating Newton’s
determination to overcome the failures of his schoolteachers it instead reinforced any
existing prejudices held by Didion’s readers even as it brought the world of the BPP
further into the suburban homes of middle America.
20 By the publication of Didion’s article, such was the BPP’s repute within radical circles that
the Ramparts editor David Welsh was writing that the Newton trial would ‘rock this rotten
system to its foundations.’44 The BPP’s newspaper went further still, asserting that the
Newton trial ‘marks the end of history.45 Regular press conferences fed a constant stream
of information to the media, the BPP’s newspaper could be found almost everywhere in
the Bay Area, and flyers coated lampposts, walls, and windows. The BPP even developed a
speaker’s kit, designed to offer its representatives bite-sized histories of the Party,
biographies of its jailed leaders, and information on the BPP’s various legal cases and
their significance for the wider African American population. This information was
designed to ensure that each BPP speaker could not only detail the Newton trial but also
facts pertaining to a plethora of cases, ranging from low-level harassment to police
brutality, thus presenting Newton’s case as symptomatic of a wider system of repression.
46
21 Even Eldridge Cleaver’s arrest following the death of BPP treasurer Bobby Hutton during
a shoot-out with Oakland police in April 1968 did not contain the Free Huey campaign:
Seale and Kathleen Cleaver simply took over as major spokespersons. Soon afterwards,
Seale compared Newton to Jesus, echoing the BPP newspaper’s insistence that, like the
Son of God, Newton ‘laid his life on the line so that twenty million black people can find
out just where they are at.’47 Here, the BPP began Newton’s martyrdom, calling on
Christian iconography to establish his innocence and saintliness. Whilst this was a little
paradoxical given the BPP’s advocacy of Marxism (not to mention somewhat hyperbolic),
it referenced the importance of Christianity to vast swathes of the African American
population and created a narrative for Newton that was familiar to any American
observer. It also slyly indicted the American government, suggesting that Newton’s life,
like Jesus’s, hung on the whims of a capricious legal system that could sentence him to
death despite being innocent of any capital crime.
22 Newton’s trial opened with the BPP in determined mood. That week’s newspaper was
covered by a photomontage of Newton, headlined: ‘Free Huey Now: Huey Must Be Tried
By His Peers.’48 Chanting and fist-raising Panthers paraded in front of the Alameda
County Courthouse, helping to transform the public image of the Party. Rather than a
disorganized rabble, the BPP appeared as highly organized and regimented, militarized
even. Rather than a chaotic gathering of gun-happy youths, it was a disciplined unit. In
mid-July, the BPP held a sequence of rallies in the Bay Area, all monitored by the FBI.49
Crowds peaked on July 15, with even the FBI noting the impressive sight of 1,500 people
gathered outside the courthouse.50 The San Francisco Chronicle estimated that twice as
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many were present, chanting ‘Free Huey’ in an ‘awesome outburst’ of popular sentiment
that was met with a police baton charge in an effort to clear the vicinity.51 Unfortunately,
the BPP could not maintain the momentum. By the week’s end, numbers were dwindling,
and the demonstrations ceased before the end of the month.52 The recently-bailed
Cleaver, meanwhile, met with the Cuban and Tanzanian delegations at the United Nations
Building in New York City, and promised that he and other BPP members were prepared
to die ‘before seeing Huey Newton sentenced to death.’53 The BPP then called for UN
Observers to be placed in all American cities that had black ghettos. ‘This action is
necessary,’ the BPP newspaper stated,
because the racist power structure of this imperialist country is preparing to
unleash a war of genocide against her black colonial subjects. Black people, on the
other hand, are determined to resist this aggression by any means necessary,
including revolutionary armed struggle. The hour of showdown for racist-
imperialist America has dawned. The case of Huey P. Newton will be the spark that
will set this showdown in motion.54
23 The BPP’s warnings reflected wider sentiments. The Washington Post mused that the trial
could create the first martyr of the American left since the Italian-American anarchists
Sacco and Vanzetti. Many believed that the anarchists were executed for their political
beliefs rather than for the crime they were supposed to have committed.55 Newton, who
likewise was as much on trial for his politics and his race as he was for Frey’s death, thus
transfigured into the pre-eminent symbol of revolution as the country reeled from the
assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The Berkeley Barb, in full
apocalyptic mode, told its readers ‘History has its pivotal points. This trial is one of them.’
It was, the Barb warned, ‘life or death for the United States.56
24 Such extravagant language had its roots in the early stages of the Free Huey campaign. At
a meeting prior to the February rallies SNCC’s James Forman outlined a taxonomy of
retaliation should any African American militant leaders be assassinated: for his own
death, he considered a fair price the destruction of ten ‘war factories, fifteen police
stations, thirty power plants, one southern governor, two mayors, and 500 police. The
cost for Ture and Rap Brown would be tripled, ‘and I tell you this,’ he promised, ‘the sky is
the limit if you kill Huey Newton. The sky is the limit if Huey Newton dies.’57 He repeated
the slogan at the Oakland birthday rally. By April, the slogan ‘Free Huey, or the Sky’s the
Limit’ was on placards wielded by sympathizers at various Bay Area protests and as
Newton’s trial jury considered its verdict, the BPP’s own newspaper devoted its cover to
the same line.58
25 This famous slogan was more than simply a rhetorical ploy. In the first instance, ‘Free
Huey’ offered blanket condemnation of the very trial itself. If the jury found him guilty, it
was merely a consequence of the iniquity of the American legal system, as established in
Point Nine of the BPP’s foundational document, specifically Newton and Seale’s somewhat
Marxian understanding that a jury of Newton’s peers should include people from ‘similar
economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background
[s].’59 The slogan also reminded Panthers and other observers of the historic crimes
perpetuated against African American people by the very legal system that was supposed
to protect them. ‘Free Huey’ went further, however, rejecting even the suggestion that
Newton could receive a fair trial. In denying even the slim possibility that a jury of
Newton’s peers could be selected, it denounced the American legal system while asserting
Newton’s innocence. Bobby Seale elaborated, stating that any claim for a fair trial
representedold white liberal[ism]’ and an ‘endors[ement of] continued racism,’ an
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implied swipe at the faith of the mainstream African American civil rights movement in
using the law to address black inequality and white racism. Kathleen Cleaver was even
blunter: ‘Asking whether a black man can get a fair trial in America is tantamount to
asking if a Jew could get a fair trial in Nazi Germany.’60
26 The slogan’s second clause was more complex. ‘The sky’s the limit’ suggested that the BPP
was fully prepared to take whatever means necessary to obtain justice should Newton not
be freed. Seale later recalled that this statement was essentially ‘anarchistic.’61 Within the
context of the BPP’s willingness to present arms in public, protest at the California State
Capitol, and offer stinging rebukes to the white power structure, it was tantamount to
suggesting that the BPP was readying itself for war. When pressed, though, Panthers
stated that ‘the sky’s the limit’ referred to their willingness to go to the highest court in
the land the United States Supreme Court to ensure Newton’s liberty.62 This took
advantage of the statement’s ambiguity and echoed Charles Garry’s courtroom strategy in
Newton’s defense. During the trial, Garry called Dr. J. Herman Blake from UC-Santa Cruz
to testify about the gulf between the literal and metaphorical meanings of BPP rhetoric.
He outlined the concept of signifying, a linguistic strategy used heavily by black
Americans, in which the speaker talks about one particular idea while having a
completely different idea in mind. The example Blake used on the witness stand was a
group of young men talking of a ‘fine day today’ when a pretty woman walks past.63 The
comment might ostensibly be about the weather but it also signifies the speaker’s
appreciation of the woman’s beauty. If this concept were applied to ‘the sky’s the limit,’
one might suggest that the BPP had the Supreme Court in mind when using the
metaphor. This claim is untenable, however. The BPP considered the California judicial
system to be racist, unfair, and unrepresentative of the population. No factors suggest
that the nine justices of the Supreme Court were any less so. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Seale
promised reporters ‘that Huey P. Newton must be set free or the sky is the limit around
the world,’ including locations well outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, and Cleaver
told the New York Times that the BPP would do ‘anything within our power’ to protect
Newton from the death penalty.64
27 Nevertheless, the BPP was canny enough to know that a full-frontal attack on white
America was never more than a fanciful folly. The ‘sky’s the limit’ slogan ultimately
existed both to terrify observers and rally supporters, to tap into the former’s fears of
African American revolutionary power and the latter’s desire to take immediate action
against oppression. The slogan’s call for action chimed with 1968’s revolutionary zeitgeist
more so than any legal contingency plans. In this sense, the year’s many other upheavals
were firmly encoded in the statement. As important, the BPP reemphasized rhetorical
ambiguity as a key weapon in the oppositional struggle. Allied to the press coverage of
the rallies and the trial itself, it suggested to whites that the BPP was more powerful than
they could imagine and presented the few Panther sympathizers who were able to gain
access to the courtroom as the tip of a revolutionary iceberg. It simultaneously rallied
black Americans around a cause that appeared ever more apocalyptic as 1968 progressed,
while suggesting that Newton was a martyr-in-waiting, again elevating him beyond his
mere corporeality. With violent disorder convulsing cities across the nation in the wake
of Dr. King’s assassination, the Democratic National Convention descending into chaos,
and the third phase of the Tet Offensive wreaking havoc in Vietnam, the BPP’s statement
both exploited and contributed to a tense national atmosphere.
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28 The jury decided in September to convict Newton of voluntary manslaughter, a decision
that Garry denounced as ‘chickenshit,’ but that saved Newton from the death penalty.65 It
might have initially been a shock, but the BPP regrouped and resolved to continue the
campaign, spurred perhaps by the reaction of the Oakland Police Department to the
verdict. Two of its officers announced their disgust by offloading a volley of bullets into
the BPP’s Grove Street headquarters in the early hours of September 10.66 The special
issue of The Black Panther on September 14 retorted that the BPP would free Newton, with
a portrait of the BPP leader hovering above the ‘sky’s the limit’ slogan which itself rested
over a rifle. Two photographs cited the slogan and presented one young man brandishing
a Bowie knife and a revolver, ready to pounce, and another aiming a rifle at an off-camera
target. Kathleen Cleaver’s accompanying editorial painted an apocalyptic picture of the
repression of the BPP within a Marxian critique of American capitalism, concluding that
the African American population faced a stark choice between ‘total liberation or total
extinction.’67
29 By the end of the year, however, the Free Huey campaign downshifted. With Newton
removed to the state prison at Vacaville and subsequently the men’s colony at San Luis
Obispo, Oakland-based demonstrations lacked a focal point.68 Now that the death
sentence had been avoided, the BPP could shift focus to Newton’s absence, mythologizing
his role in the creation and definition of the BPP. Bobby Seale wrote of the community’s
role in rescuing Newton in The Black Panther in December 1968, shortly after Eldridge
Cleaver fled the US to avoid returning to prison. He mentioned a plan to petition the
Supreme Court to declare a mistrial but nary a mention of the sky being the limit should
Newton remain imprisoned.69 The quiet abandonment of the slogan might suggest the
BPP’s awareness that it was more problematic than it first appeared. More important, it
reflected the recalibration of the BPP’s rhetoric and strategy, which accelerated with
Cleaver’s exile.
30 Meanwhile, Newton’s physical absence paradoxically became the basis for his
omnipresence. Thus his image appeared everywhere the BPP was present. He stared out
of the masthead of the BPP’s newspaper each week, his profile eerily echoing Alberto
Korda’s image of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, perhaps the quintessential 1968 symbol. Shot
from below and lit from the left, both photographs elevate their subjects, offering them
an omniscient gaze. Both men look sternly outwards, suggestively to the viewer’s left.
Both sport berets, Guevara’s trademark headgear. According to Bobby Seale, he and
Newton chose the beret after watching a movie about the French Resistance, in which the
resistance fighters wore the headgear.70 Their decision was thus a conscious display of
their antifascist credentials, one that Guevara’s death which occurred three weeks
before John Frey stopped Newton – intensified. Within months, Korda’s image became an
icon, reproduced on posters, banners, and handbills across the world, helping to render
its subject a legend who willingly sacrificed himself for the masses and in the process
achieved apotheosis.71 The subtle, albeit unconscious, echoes of Korda’s photograph in
the pages of The Black Panther fueled Newton’s own myth and suggested a similar
construction of his image.
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31 First Image: Cropped version of Alberto Korda ‘Guerrillero Heroico – Che Guevara’ (public
domain)
32 Second Image: ‘All Power to the People’ badge (from the New York Public Library at
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c9e83030-6be8-0135-6bb0-0550f5bf58c1; public
domain). This features the same image as that used on The Black Panther’s masthead
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33 While the FBI was working to prevent the rise of a black messiah, the BPP also attempted
to keep Newton the intellectual in the public eye, issuing a number of his writings and
opinions, placing them in outlets such as the radical publications The Movement and the
Berkeley Barb.72 The desired impact was manifold. By touting his work to other
publications, the BPP opened up new revenue streams while reducing the pressure on its
own organization to reach out to wealthy white radicals. Such income was essential to
keep on top of the escalating cost of bail and legal fees for arrested Panthers. While the
BPP presented Newton as a martyr of the black revolution, his writings ensured that he
was ever present in the minds of members and supporters, enabling the BPP to maintain
the momentum of the early months of the campaign.
34 This was not merely about Newton’s role as a revenue stream or focal point of BPP
organizing, however. His ongoing writings ensured that he became not simply a symbol of
the BPP’s campaign but one of its driving forces. By continuing to issue his writing, the
BPP suggested that his incarceration was only a temporary hiatus to his physical
activities and no barrier to his intellectual leadership. Newton’s prison writings might
therefore be compared to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail,
disseminated as a tool through which to reveal the injustice of the prevailing justice
system while also ensuring that jail did not remove the writer from the struggle.
Supporters could thus draw sustenance from his continued determination to fight while
Newton had something to focus on during the long hours of solitary confinement that he
endured.73
35 As important, such work burnished Newton’s intellectual credentials. While feted for his
activism in radical circles, Newton was not renowned as an intellectual, as Didion’s
dismissal suggested. The BPP Ten Point Platform and Program was in the process of
becoming a classic of 1960s protest literature but Newton’s thought did not move far
beyond its tightly focused ideas until his incarceration. Missives such as ‘In Defense of
Self-Defense’ and ‘The Correct Handling of a Revolution’ both written before his
conviction and neither as renowned as the Platform and Program – suggest that Newton’s
parameters broadened during his imprisonment. The first warned African Americans that
they were close to being railroaded toward destruction and remains the greatest
demonstration of Newton’s rhetorical brilliance. Its historical sweep extends from the
colonial period to the 1960s, encompassing the genocide of the American Indians,
internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and even atomic diplomacy. It notes
bitterly that, despite all of the peaceful protesting, political lobbying, praying, and
petitioning, the tyrannical grip of white America over black America showed no sign of
loosening. After drawing this dystopian tableau, it offers a stark conclusion: as Fanon
concluded of the Algerian independence movement, armed resistance was the only
option remaining.74 It thus positioned California at the forefront of the racial struggle,
and placed the BPP at the very heart of 1960s protest. Using the Cuban Revolution as a
model, ‘The Correct Handing of a Revolution’ presents the vanguard party as the essential
vehicle for the revolution that would lead the people away from inchoate protest towards
guerrilla warfare and urges readers to heed Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, another
indication of the broadening of Newton’s intellectual horizons.75 This sequence of
publications allowed Newton to develop a broader platform for the BPP and demonstrate
that he was using his jail time to immerse himself in radical literature, place the BPP’s
current struggles in context, and develop new directions for the Party to pursue. His
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writings thus played a crucial role in ensuring that Newton lived up to his billing as a
central figure in the African American struggle.
36 In February 1969, Berkeley’s community theater hosted a birthday rally for over 2,000
supporters who heard a special tape-recorded message from Newton extolling the
rainbow alliance of anti-imperialists and promising a new offensive that would bring
about the revolutionary change that the BPP craved. Charles Garry gave a barnstorming
speech, followed by the BPP’s friend, Reverend Earl Neil, who opined that the empty
wicker chair onstage symbolized not merely Newton’s absence but the absence of any
meaning in society without Newton.76 Neil’s mythmaking deepened the BPP’s attempt to
render Newton a living martyr. Where the empty chair at the 1968 galas was an ominous
vision of what might occur should the campaign fail, in 1969 the chair represented both
Newton’s physical absence and his divine, even transcendental presence. He thus
achieved omniscience: always listening, always thinking, and always watching. His
apotheosis continued to give the BPP purpose but also detached him from his own
humanity. He was no longer capable of error, doubt, or vacillation.
37 Panegyrics to Newton were not confined to the BPP’s propaganda unit. In April 1969 the
New Left activist Stew Albert wrote in the Berkeley Barb,
Huey’s greatness can not [sic] be locked up in San Luis Obispo…. Huey Newton is a
giant who turns other men into giants…. Huey P. Newton’s greatness is that he took
the best thoughts of the greatest minds the century has known and summed it up in
a law book, a shot gun and a ten-point program…. Huey is a generator, the purest
light of freedom our generation has produced.77
38 This was to have a major impact on Newton’s post-prison life following the reversal of his
conviction in 1970.
39 Newton’s official response to freedom was telling. While expressing gratitude for his legal
team’s work, he announced his belief that popular opinion, expressed largely through the
BPP’s public actions, compelled the court to reverse his conviction. As important, he
argued that release from prison did not constitute freedom, citing Malcolm X in the
process: ‘I’m being transferred for institutional convenience, as they say, from maximum
security to minimum security.’ Freedom, he suggested, could only begin with the release
of all African American political prisoners; moreover, America itself was, for its black
population, the prison.78
40 His release also revealed the extent to which his sanctification was complete. The
Washington Post declared that he had achieved ‘legendary proportions’ among the
American left and put a photograph of his release on its front page.79 Shortly afterward,
Newton held court at a press conference in Charles Garry’s offices, where he seemed
overwhelmed at the attention.80 In the FBI’s headquarters, J. Edgar Hoover plotted his
next move, telling his agents that Newton’s release ‘offers excellent opportunity for
effective counterintelligence.’81 Indeed, underneath the jubilation, the New York Times’s
Earl Caldwell noticed a chilling fact: during the trial, hundreds of Panthers marched in
the streets; by August 5, 1970, few remained. Significant numbers were in prison or were
dead.82
41 FBI counterintelligence, disruption, and physical assaults combined with the BPP’s own
structural weaknesses to hobble the organization in the years after Newton’s return. Yet
in 1968, the alliances wrought by the BPP promised a new, radical successor to the civil
rights movement’s interracial coalition. As the Birthday Galas suggest, this attempt at
coalition building was fraught with a tension that ultimately prevented such a grand
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radical movement forming. The BPP learned that it could not dominate the entire radical
movement as it had the PFP in late 1967 and early 1968, not least because it needed to
contend with African American radicals whose popularity exceeded its own. Yet the Free
Huey campaign, and specifically its combination of the galas’ pageantry with the BPP’s
rhetorical flair, demonstrates the popular fervor in California for the BPP’s diagnosis of
the United States’ problems during 1968 and the extent to which the BPP became an
emblematic organization of that year.
42 Newton’s mythologizing and the popular acceptance of him as a living martyr also
reflected these times and constituted the key factor in the BPP’s revitalization. With icons
such as Dr. King and Malcolm X in their graves, Newton’s supporters feared the murder of
another of a black American leader. Through sanctifying Newton, the BPP attempted to
wrestle control of the African American struggle’s agenda while raising itself to
international prominence. Newton briefly became a cypher through which many
American radicals could project their oppositional tendencies, abetted by a propaganda
campaign that elevated him into a position normally reserved for the sanctified. Yet, as
Joan Didion’s profile suggests, the BPP could not control its popular image, revealing the
Free Huey campaign to be as suggestive of the backlash against protest during 1968 as it
was a perfect example of such protest. This backlash was certainly informed by the BPP’s
own rhetoric, which was ambiguous enough to become a palimpsest onto which any
observer could inscribe their own feelings about 1960s radicalism. Thus, the apocalyptic
tenor of this rhetoric might have excited BPP supporters and fellow travelers but it also
enabled the BPP’s opponents to justify state and federal repression. The BPP struggled to
maintain the campaign’s early momentum, not least because the FBI and local police
subjected its leadership cadre, and increasingly the rank-and-file, to concerted
disruption. So, even as the organization tapped into 1968’s revolutionary atmosphere to
boost its campaign to free Newton and suggest that the revolution was just around the
corner, this very atmosphere and this very suggestion attracted the forces of reaction
who sought to cage California’s Black Panthers.
43 Proper names:
Newton Huey P., Frey John, Seale Bobby, Guevara Ernesto ‘Che’, Zedong Mao, Fanon
Frantz, Shabazz Betty, X Malcolm, Heanes Herbert, Rhodes Jane, Cleaver Eldridge, Austin
Curtis, Murch Donna, Spencer Robyn, Bloom Joshua, Martin Waldo, Wilson Joel, Barber
David, Bae Aaron, Pearlman Lise, Cleaver Kathleen (nee Neal), Garry Charles, Garvey
Marcus, Douglas Emory, Cleaver Eldridge, Ture Kwame (Stokely Carmichael), Forman
James, Brown H. ‘Rap’, Dellums Ron, Karenga Maulana, Kilgore Thomas, Hutton Bobby,
Marshall Thurgood, Johnson Lyndon, Wallace George, Didion Joan, Welsh David, King Dr.
Martin Luther, Jr., Kennedy Robert F., Blake Dr. J. Herman, Eisenhower Dwight, Hilliard
David, Korda Alberto, Neil Earl, Albert Stew, Hoover J. Edgar, Caldwell Earl
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NOTES
1. Oakland Tribune 5 January 1969, cited in Jane Rhodes, Framing the Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of
a Black Power Icon (New York: New Press, 2007), 116-117.
2. Earl Caldwell, ‘Newton is Freed on $50,000 Bail’ New York Times August 6, 1970, 24; idem.,
‘Young White Army Rallies to Newton’ NYT August 7, 1970, 14; ‘Huey P. Newton’s release from
prison’ KPIX Eyewitness news report, August 5, 1968 at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/
bundles/208428 (consulted April 26, 2018)
3. Rhodes, Framing the Black Panthers 103-5, 116-80, 190.
4. Curtis J. Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party
(Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006) 114, 127, 170, 183-4; Donna Jean Murch, Living
for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 139, 151-4, 155-62; Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution
Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Durham: Duke University
Press, 2016) 66-7, 80-1.
5. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black
Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 104-5, 109-14, 123, 126, 135-6, 144-5,
273, 288; Aaron Byungjoo Bae, ‘The Struggle for Freedom, Justice, and Equality Transcends Racial
and National Boundaries: Anti-Imperialism, Multiracial Alliances, and the Free Huey Movement
in the San Francisco Bay Area’ Pacific Historical Review 86 (2018), 691-722; Joel Wilson, ‘Invisible
Cages: Racialized Politics and the Alliance between the Panthers and the Peace and Freedom
Party’ and David Barber, ‘Leading the Vanguard: White New Leftists School the Panthers on Black
Revolution’ in Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams (eds.), In Search of the Black Panther Party: New
Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) 191-251.
6. Lise Pearlman, The Sky’s The Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? (Berkeley:
Regent Press, 2012) 331-475.
7. Cleaver cited in Rhodes, Framing the Black Panthers, 118.
8. FBI telegram, October 28, 1967 Huey Newton FBI File #HQ105-165429 section one (hereafter
FBIHPN); FBI report, ‘The Black Panther Party for Self Defense’ November 16, 1976, 16, 23
Eldridge Cleaver FBI file #100-HQ-447251 Section 29; Seale comments in All Power to the People
(Lew-Lee, 1996) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBNiERw0WYU (consulted July 18, 2016)
at 24 minutes.
9. Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale, Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers (New York:
Abrams, 2016), 29; Kathleen Cleaver (ed.), Target Zero: A Life in Writing, Eldridge Cleaver (New York:
Palgrave, 2006), 118; Jane Rhodes, ‘Black Radicalism in 1960s California: Women in the Black
Panther Party’ in Quintard Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore (eds.), African American Women
Confront the West, 1600-2000 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 351.
10. Shames and Seale, Power to the People, 32 suggests 5,000 members in November 1968.
11. Rhodes, Framing, 119
12. Bloom and Martin, Black, 109.
13. Cleaver, ‘Bunchy’ in Cleaver (ed.), Target Zero, 127-128; Shames and Seale, Power, 34; Wilson,
‘Invisible Cages’, 194; ‘New Left on Coast Begins Ballot Drive’ New York Times August 16, 1967, 18.
14. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party (London: Arrow, 1970), 240-241;
Eldridge Cleaver, ‘Black Paper by the Minister of Information’ (text of a speech at the PFP
founding convention, March 16, 1968) The Black Panther Black Community News Service May 4, 1968,
12 (hereafter The Black Panther)..
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15. Rhodes, Framing, 122-3
16. Seale, Seize the Time, 240; Pearlman, Sky’s The Limit, 342, 351-352; ‘Backers Pack Court for Huey’
Berkeley Barb 5, 24 (December 15-21, 1967), 1, 3.
17. Huey P. Newton, Executive Mandate No. 2: June 29, 1967 in Toni Morrison (ed.), To Die for the
People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1972), 9-10;
Peniel E. Joseph, Stokely: A Life (New York: Basic, 2014), 87-94, 97-99,161-163; Austin, Up Against,
129-132
18. Joseph, Stokely, 240-241.
19. Ibid., 243; FBI letter, March 5, 1968, 1-3 FBIHPN section one; transcript of speeches, February
18, 1968 rally, Los Angeles, 13 FBIHPN section one; FBI report, ‘Huey Percy Newton’ May 24, 1968,
15 FBIHPN section one; Huey! dir: Sally Pugh (American Documentary Films, 1968) at https://
diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/191359 (consulted January 28, 2016). My thanks to
Eamonn Kelly for uncovering the secret history of this documentary.
20. ‘Huey Must be Set Free’ The Black Panther March 16, 1968, 20.
21. Rhodes, Framing, 127.
22. Huey (1968).
23. James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press,
1997), 531.
24. Audio recording of Bobby Seale speech at February 17, 1968 BPP rally at ‘Huey Newton
Birthday Rally February 17, 1968 (Bobby Seale, H Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael)’ https://
www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_uwaka7dKU (consulted January 25, 2016).
25. ‘H. Rap Brown Free Huey Rally, February 1968’ transcript at The Pacifica Radio/UC Berkeley
Social Activism Sound Recording Project: The Black Panther Party http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/
MRC/rapbrown.html (consulted January 25, 2016: hereafter UCB: BPP); Pearlman, Sky’s The Limit,
358; Pictures of Oakland rally The Black Panther March 16, 1968, 12-13.
26. Wilson, ‘Invisible Cages,’ 201, 219n43; Seale, Seize the Time, 245-246.
27. Pictures of Oakland rally The Black Panther March 16, 1968, 12-13.
28. Rhodes, Framing, 125.
29. ‘Stokely Carmichael Free Huey Rally, February 1968’ transcript UCB: BPP http://
www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/carmichael.html (consulted January 25, 2016); ‘H. Rap Brown and
Stokely Carmichael in Oakland’ KQED News report, February 17, 1968 at https://diva.sfsu.edu/
collections/sfbatv/bundles/189468 (consulted January 28, 2016); Rhodes, Framing, 126.
30. Ture quoted in Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 280.
31. Morry Wright, ‘If the Pigs Don’t Kill Cleaver, Watch Him’ Berkeley Barb 7, 5 (August 2-8, 1968),
11.
32. Earl Anthony, Picking up the Gun: A Report on the Black Panthers (New York: Pyramid, 1971),
103-104.
33. FBI transcript of Bobby Seale speech at February 18, 1968 rally, Los Angeles, 15-26 FBIHPN
section one.
34. FBI transcript of Ron Karenga speech at February 18, 1968 rally, Los Angeles, 36-43 (quotes 40,
42) FBIHPN section one.
35. FBI transcript of H. Rap Brown speech at February 18, 1968 rally, Los Angeles, 47-56 (quotes
49, 56) FBIHPN section one.
36. FBI transcript of Stokely Carmichael speech at February 18, 1968 rally, Los Angeles, 57-84
FBIHPN section one.
37. Seale, Seize the Time, 256-257; ‘Interview with Bobby Seale’ KPIX Eyewitness News report,
February 25, 1968 at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/206885 (consulted January
28, 2016); ‘Complaint for Injunction and Declaratory Relief’ April 19, 1968 Huey P. Newton
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collection microfilm at Northumbria University reel 7: illegible file name (fifth such file on reel);
Huey P. Newton, ‘Executive Mandate No. 3: March 1, 1968’ in Morrison (ed.), To Die 12-13 (quote).
38. Kathleen Rout, Eldridge Cleaver (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 62, 100, 134, 164; Colin McGlashan,
‘Black Panther Warning: ‘Set Huey Newton Free – or the sky’s the limit’ The Observer September 8,
1968, 5.
39. Pearlman, Sky’s The Limit, 355; Joe Street, ‘Shadow of the Soul Breaker: Solitary Confinement,
Cocaine, and the Decline of Huey P. Newton’ Pacific Historical Review 84 (2015), 343.
40. Marc Weingarten, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote & the
New Journalism Revolution (New York: Three Rivers, 2005), 116-123.
41. Joan Didion, ‘Black Panther’ Saturday Evening Post May 4 1968 in Reporting Civil Rights: Part Two,
American Journalism 1963-1973 (New York: Library of America, 2003), 676, quote: 679.
42. Ibid., 678.
43. Joan Didion, The White Album (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1979), 20.
44. ‘From Riches to Rags on Road to Revolution’ Berkeley Barb 6, 12 (March 15-21, 1968), 8; David
Welsh, ‘Huey, the Police, and the White Community’ The Black Panther March 16, 1968, 14.
45. ‘Huey Must be Set Free’.
46. Rhodes, Framing, 145, 149.
47. Henry Weinstein, ‘“Free Huey”: A White Man’s View’ Daily Californian May 20, 1968, 15; ‘Huey
Must be Set Free’.
48. The Black Panther June 10, 1968.
49. Rhodes, Framing, 153; ‘A Rally For Huey Newton’ San Francisco Chronicle 15 July 1968, 2; FBI
teletype 16 July, 1968; FBI teletype 17 July, 1968; FBI teletype 19 July, 1968; FBI teletype, July 20,
1968; ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’ FBI letterhead memo, July 22, 1968, 1; ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’
FBI letterhead memo, July 22, 1968, 2; FBI teletype 19 July, 1968: all FBIHPN section two.
50. ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’ FBI letterhead memo, July 16, 1968 FBIHPN section two; ‘Black
Panthers Support Huey P. Newton at the Alameda Courthouse’ KTVU News footage July 15, 1968
at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/220765 (consulted January 28, 2016).
51. ‘“Free Huey, Free Huey” An Awesome Outburst’ San Francisco Chronicle 16 July 1968, 1, 16;
‘Bobby Seale Describes Police Conduct at Alameda Courthouse’ KTVU News footage, July 15, 1968
at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/220766 (consulted January 28, 2016).
52. ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’ FBI letterhead memo, July 22, 1968, 2; ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’ FBI
letterhead memo, July 29, 1968, 1; ‘Trial of Huey P. Newton’ FBI letterhead memo, August 16,
1968, 3: all FBIHPN section two.
53. FBI teletype, ‘Trial of Huey Newton’ August 8, 1968 FBIHPN section two.
54. ‘Free Huey at the U.N.’ The Black Panther September 14, 1968, 3.
55. Ward Just, ‘The Making of a Martyr’ Washington Post July 28, 1968, B2.
56. James Schreiber, ‘Crossroads Trial: Nation’s Life at Stake’ Berkeley Barb 7, 3 (July 19-25, 1968),
3.
57. Forman, Making, 526.
58. Carson, In Struggle 282; Pearlman, Sky’s the Limit 397; The Black Panther September 7, 1968, 1;
FBI memo, July 16, 1968 FBIHPN section two; ‘Bobby Seale Calls for Huey P. Newton’s Release’
KPIX Eyewitness News report, c. August, 1968 at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/
bundles/190419 (consulted January 28, 2016).
59. ‘October 1966 Black Panther Party Platform and Program’ in Philip S. Foner (ed.), The Black
Panthers Speak (New York, Da Capo, 1995), 3. A later and equally notorious Bay Area trial proved
that the BPP was correct to claim that a jury of one’s peers was likely to be friendly. Former San
Francisco City Supervisor Dan White shot and killed the city’s mayor, George Moscone and
supervisor Harvey Milk in November 1978. His trial jury included a considerable number of
people who, like White, were working-class Catholics. None lived near the Castro, the center of
San Francisco’s gay community and Milk’s adopted locality; none were black, gay or lesbian. He
‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’: The Black Panther Party and the Campaign ...
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18
was acquitted of murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Randy Shilts, The Mayor of
Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (London: Penguin, 1993), 309.
60. Both quotes: Weinstein, ‘Free Huey’, 16. See also Wilson, ‘Invisible Cages’ 199-201; Wallace
Turner, ‘Negroes Press Nomination of Indicted Militant’ New York Times February 5, 1968, 70.
61. Shames and Seale, Power, 31.
62. Seale, Seize the Time, 277; Pearlman, Sky’s The Limit, 467-468.
63. Charles Garry and Art Goldberg, Streetfighter in the Courtroom: The People’s Advocate (New York:
E.P. Dutton, 1977) 142.
64. ‘Bobby Seale Calls for Huey P. Newton’s Release’; Wallace Turner, ‘Black Panthers, White
Power: Violent Confrontation on Coast’ New York Times July 20, 1968, 10.
65. Garry and Goldberg, Streetfighter, 150.
66. Bloom and Martin, Black, 199.
67. ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ The Black Panther September 14, 1968, 5; ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ ibid., 8;
Kathleen Cleaver, ‘Racism, Fascism, and Political Murder’ ibid.
68. Street, ‘Shadow’, 343.
69. Bobby Seale, ‘Huey Newton: How the Black Panther Party and the community can still set him
free from prison’ The Black Panther December 21, 1968, 7.
70. Shames and Seale, Power, 42.
71. Michael Casey, Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image (New York: Vintage, 2009), 48-49, 110-3,
123-133.
72. FBI airtel, March 4, 1968, 3 FBI COINTELPRO: Black Extremist 100-448006 section one; Rhodes,
Framing, 164-165.
73. Street, ‘Shadow,’ 334-7, 340-9.
74. Newton, ‘In Defense of Self Defense: Executive Mandate Number One’ in Foner (ed.) Black
Panthers Speak, 41.
75. Newton, ‘The Correct Handling of a Revolution’ ibid., 40-45 (quote, 44); idem., ‘Talks to The
Movement’ ibid., 50-66.
76. Tim Findley, ‘Newton’s Message at Berkeley Party’ San Francisco Chronicle 17 February 1969, 8;
‘Message From Huey’ The Black Panther 3 March 1969, 2.
77. Stew Albert, ‘Freeing Huey: Here’s How to Do it’ Berkeley Barb 8, (17 April 25-May 1, 1969), 3
(reprinted The Black Panther May 4, 1969, 3).
78. ‘Message from Huey, June 2, 1970’ The Black Panther June 6, 1970, 3. He nods to Malcolm X,
‘Message to the Grass Roots’ in George Breitman (ed.), Malcolm X Speaks (New York: Grove, 1965),
8.
79. Leroy F. Aarons, ‘Hundreds Greet Newton on Release from Prison’ Washington Post August 6,
1970, A3 (quote); ‘Huey Newton Savors Freedom’ Washington Post August 6, 1970, 1.
80. Huey Newton comments at San Francisco press conference, c. Aug. 5, 1970, UCB: BPP http://
www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/pacificapanthers.html#1970 (consulted Feb. 19, 2013); ‘Huey P.
Newton’s release from prison’ KPIX Eyewitness news report, August 5, 1968 at https://
diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/208428 (consulted April 26, 2018).
81. FBI teletype August 6, 1970 FBI Black Extremist 100-48006 section twenty.
82. Caldwell, ‘Young White Army Rallies to Newton’ New York Times August 7, 1970, 14.
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ABSTRACTS
In October 1967, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Huey P. Newton was
arrested and charged with the murder of a police officer. His organization, which was on the
point of collapse, rallied around him, courtesy of a major campaign that ran through his trial and
his two years in prison, making ‘Free Huey’ a rallying cry for radicals across the globe. It
transformed the BPP into one of the most visible political organizations of the era whilst
redefining Newton as one of the key icons of 1968. As important, the ‘Free Huey’ campaign
enabled the BPP to surf 1968’s radical tide, forging links with other radical groups as it grew to
international prominence. Yet this newfound fame was not unproblematic, since it revealed the
ambiguities of the BPP’s philosophy and elevated Newton to mythic proportions that no living
human could match. The ‘Free Huey’ campaign thus reveals both the ability of radical groups to
generate and exploit the revolutionary fervor of the year and the problems inherent in such an
approach.
INDEX
Keywords: Black Panther Party, San Francisco Bay Area, African American radicalism, 1968,
Protest, 1960s protest, Free Huey, rhetoric, signifying, mythologizing, FBI, Black Power
AUTHOR
JOE STREET
Joe Street is an Associate Professor in American History at Northumbria University, Newcastle,
UK. He specializes in 20th century American and African American history, having written
several articles on the 1960s and the civil rights and Black Power movements, including “The
Historiography of the Black Panther Party” (Journal of American Studies, no. 44) and “The
Shadow of the Soul Breaker: Solitary Confinement, Cocaine, and the Decline of Huey P. Newton”
(Pacific Historical Review, no. 84). He is also the author of the monographs Dirty Harry’s America:
Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan and the Conservative Backlash (University Press of Florida, 2016) and
Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement (University Press of Florida, 2007). He is currently writing
a new volume on the Black Panther Party to be published with the University of Georgia Press in
2021.
‘Free Huey or the Sky’s the Limit’: The Black Panther Party and the Campaign ...
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20
Article
This article reports the results of a research study which sought to understand how formerly incarcerated Black and Brown men make sense of their experience of prison rehabilitation and the desistance process—one that entails rebuilding individual identity as a reformed individual. Drawing on life histories and photo-elicitation interviews with twenty-three formerly incarcerated Black and Brown men, this study sought to assess the extent to which knowledge of Black history matters in building identity. This article highlights two narrative forms that emerged from the men’s responses to photographs of famous Black leaders, which helps further our understanding of desistance as a relational process of creating collective belonging in prosocial racialized communities. The first is the retrospective narrative of prison organizing. This refers to narrative identities that emerged as the participants talked about taking on leadership and organizational roles while incarcerated, thus creating communities of meaning around understanding the self through Black history. The second is the prospective narrative of togetherness, where the participants’ narrative identities expressed a longing for a sense of togetherness (or wanting to belong)—achieved through becoming individual agents of social change. This article provides new possibilities for understanding desistance as a collective process, as well as recommendations for using photo-elicitation as a narrative intervention.
Book
Full-text available
In The Revolution Has Come Robyn C. Spencer traces the Black Panther Party's organizational evolution in Oakland, California, where hundreds of young people came to political awareness and journeyed to adulthood as members. Challenging the belief that the Panthers were a projection of the leadership, Spencer draws on interviews with rank-and-file members, FBI files, and archival materials to examine the impact the organization's internal politics and COINTELPRO's political repression had on its evolution and dissolution. She shows how the Panthers' members interpreted, implemented, and influenced party ideology and programs; initiated dialogues about gender politics; highlighted ambiguities in the Panthers' armed stance; and criticized organizational priorities. Spencer also centers gender politics and the experiences of women and their contributions to the Panthers and the black power movement as a whole. Providing a panoramic view of the Party's organization over its sixteen-year history, The Revolution Has Come shows how the Black Panthers embodied black power through the party's international activism, interracial alliances, commitment to address state violence, and desire to foster self-determination in Oakland's black communities.
Article
This article examines the 1967-1971 political prisoner solidarity movement for Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton as a case study of multiracial radical alliances in the San Francisco Bay Area. In contrast to the predominant trope of ''unlikely allies,'' I argue that the activists examined in this article who formed alliances with Newton and the Panthers were predisposed to collaborative activism through their common antiimperialist orientation, expressed as anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and anti-U.S. military interventionism. In addition, I show that earlier alliances laid the foundation for alliances with later movements and organizations, creating what I term ''genealogies of alliance'' within the Free Huey Movement that demonstrate a persistent desire for collaborative activism throughout this era. This article prompts a reconsideration of Sixties radicalism; in contrast to scholarly and popular interpretations that focus on activists' sectarianism and divisiveness, the Free Huey Movement illuminates how activists theorized and endeavored to work toward the collective liberation of all people. © 2017 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association.
Book
In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the U.S., the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with offices in 68 U.S. cities and powerful allies around the world. Black against Empire is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence. Bold, engrossing, and richly detailed, this book cuts through the mythology and obfuscation, revealing the political dynamics that drove the explosive growth of this revolutionary movement, and its disastrous unraveling. Informed by twelve years of meticulous archival research, as well as familiarity with most of the former Party leadership and many rank-and-file members, this book is the definitive history of one of the greatest challenges ever posed to American state power.
Article
The article probes the impact of prison on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party. Incarcerated for three years in various locations in California, Newton descended into cocaine addiction and criminality soon after his 1970 release. The current literature fails to account for the impact of solitary confinement on Newton's life and consequently misinterprets his descent into criminality. The article suggests that the immense pressures placed on Newton in prison and after freedom were related to the decline of the rehabilitative experiment in California's prison system. It reveals the psychological effect of prison on Newton before linking his fragile mental state to his drug addiction. It concludes by demonstrating how Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) surveillance unwittingly took advantage of Newton's fragility to compound his psychological stress, indicating the extent to which prison successfully prevented Newton reclaiming his position as a significant force in the African American political struggle. © 2015 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association. All rights reserved.
Young White Army Rallies to Newton' NYT August 7, 1970, 14; 'Huey P. Newton's release from prison' KPIX Eyewitness news report
  • Earl Caldwell
Earl Caldwell, 'Newton is Freed on $50,000 Bail' New York Times August 6, 1970, 24; idem., 'Young White Army Rallies to Newton' NYT August 7, 1970, 14; 'Huey P. Newton's release from prison' KPIX Eyewitness news report, August 5, 1968 at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/ bundles/208428 (consulted April 26, 2018)
Framing the Black Panthers 103-5, 116-80
  • Rhodes
Rhodes, Framing the Black Panthers 103-5, 116-80, 190.
Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in
  • Donna Jean Murch
Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 139, 151-4, 155-62;
The Real Trial of the 20 th Century?
  • Lise Pearlman
Lise Pearlman, The Sky's The Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20 th Century? (Berkeley: Regent Press, 2012) 331-475.
Eldridge Cleaver FBI file #100-HQ-447251 Section 29
Eldridge Cleaver FBI file #100-HQ-447251 Section 29; Seale comments in All Power to the People (Lew-Lee, 1996) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBNiERw0WYU (consulted July 18, 2016) at 24 minutes.