The Founders of the Black Panther Party: Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale

The Black Panther Party was a political party that used violence to combat the discrimination of African Americans in the 1960s and the 1970s. Their radical nature and use of violence cemented them as an organization of dangerous people that threatened the security and safety of the American people. The organization was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. The work of Newton and Seale is now a part of American history and the history of the Black Power Movement. Their lives are an intricate part of the history of the Black Panther Party.

Bobby Seale was born on October 22, 1936 in Dallas, Texas.
Seale lived in poverty and had an abusive father.

Bobby Seale
Bobby Seale; Source: Wikimedia

His family moved to Oakland, California when he was eight years old. He attended high school until dropping out in 1955 to join the U.S. Air Force. Three years after enlisting, Seale was discharged for bad conduct because he got into a fight with his commanding officer. He went back into high school while working as a sheet metal mechanic. After graduating, he decided to continue his education by attending Merritt College. At college, he would meet his friend, Huey Newton.

Huey P. Newton was born on February 17, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana. His father, Walter Newton, was a sharecropper and Baptist Preacher and named his seventh son after the Governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long. When Newton was young, his family moved to Oakland, California. Newton’s family stated in Oakland where he was able to graduate from high school in 1959 despite not being able to read, although he did eventually teach himself.

Huey P. Newton
Huey P. Newton; Source: The Source.com

Newton decided to further his education at Merritt College. He earned an Associate of Arts degree in 1966 and San Francisco Law School and the University of California at Santa Cruz where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Social Philosophy and, in 1980, earned a Ph.D.

Whilst at Merritt College, Newton became involved in politics and joined the Afro-American Association. At a rally protesting the Cuban Blockade in late 1962, Newton and Seale met and quickly became friends and political confidants. In school, Newton and Seale worked together to develop the school’s black studies curriculum and integrate African-American History courses into the college curriculum. In 1966, the pair founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and adopted the symbol of the all-black political party from a county in Alabama. The group would later be renamed to the Black Panther Party. Soon the Black Panther Party would grow from a small organization in Oakland to nationwide movement.

The Black Panther Party was originally created as an organization that used force to protect African-Americans from the local police, but in time, they expanded. As they expanded the scope of their organization, the reputation of the Black Panthers grew and soon they became a new voice in the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements. Newton and Seale created a series of guidelines and descriptions of the ideal way to operate the Black Panther Party and called it the Ten-Point Program. The Program served as a description of the goals of the Black Panther Party. The Program was also an attempt to shape how they party was viewed both by its members and administrators as well as the American public.

On August 22, 1989, Huey Newton was shot in his hometown of Oakland, California. He was shot by a crack dealer after demanding free drugs because of his fame. His death solidified who he was in memories of people. After hearing of the murder, many people had differing opinions of him. “Fred DePalm, who was awakened by the shooting this morning, said: ‘To us, Huey Newton was a hero. The Black Panthers were a thing to identify with along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.’”3 “Alameda County Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Tom Orloff told a reporter, ‘the Huey Newton I dealt with from the mid-1970s on played no positive role in the community in any sense; I saw him as a criminal.’”4 Both of these viewpoints only portray a partial view of the memory Newton thus lose the detail and emotional intensity of Newton’s legacy. The partial nature of these memories leaves his legacy open to distortion and instrumentalization. For example, Tupac Shakur references Newton in his song “Changes” by saying “‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said. Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.” This implies that Newton was killed by those he was fighting against and thus distorts Newton’s memory to serve his own purpose.

Conversely, Bobby Seale is better able to control how he is remembered by taking action. Today, he is “still speaking out at college campuses around the country, where he lectures in his trademark black beret about the Black Panthers as well as about social justice issues, including voting rights, education, employment and equality.”2 He is able to shape how he is remembered in history by clarifying his views and how he identifies himself. He once described himself by saying “I am not a hoodlum. I’m a community organizer.”

Sources:

  1. “A Tension in the Political Thought of Huey P. Newton” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12111-011-9207-9)
  2. “Where are they now? Black Panther Leader Bobby Seale” (http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/history/info-08-2010/where_are_they_now_bobby_seale.html)
  3. “Huey Newton Killed; Was a Co-Founder Of Black Panthers” (http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/23/us/huey-newton-killed-was-a-co-founder-of-black-panthers.html)
  4. “Even in Death, Newton Stirs Sparks: Family, Friends Bitter at Those Who Label Him a Criminal” (http://articles.latimes.com/1989-08-24/news/mn-1357_1_huey-newton)
  5. “Newton, Huey P.” (http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-01144.html)
  6. “Huey P. Newton – Author, Civil Rights Activist” (http://www.biography.com/people/huey-p-newton-37369)
  7. “Bobby Seale” (http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Seale__Bobby.html)
  8. “Bobby Seale | American Activist” (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bobby-Seale)
  9. “Bobby Seale – Civil Rights Activist” (http://www.biography.com/people/bobby-seale-9477529)
  10. “2pac – Changes Lyrics” (https://genius.com/8051)
  11. “Reading the Past against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies” (https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ506379)
  12. “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory” (https://www.tib.eu/en/search/id/BLCP%3ACN013685301/Dynamics-of-Distortion-in-Collective-Memory/)

One thought on “The Founders of the Black Panther Party: Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale”

  1. I enjoyed reading your essay about the founders of the Black Panther Party – it’s always cool to see how someone’s past ultimately shapes their legacy. I wrote my piece on street protests and specifically about Bloody Sunday, a peaceful march/street protest in 1965 that resulted in a lot of violence against the peaceful protesters (which you can read here: https://blackpower.web.unc.edu/2017/04/black-power-in-bloody-sunday/). I’m interested in the ideological/methodical differences between the Black Panther Party and organizations that advocate nonviolent methods like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Maybe you can expand on how the founders of the Black Panther Party differed from these groups on their opinion of the use of violence in fighting their oppressors and bringing about change.

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