The black leather jackets, black berets and afros referenced the legacy clearly and accurately. There was no doubt about it; she was making a statement. Those familiar with his legacy were reminded of its relevance. Those less familiar watched closely, some seeking to understand while others assumed the worst. The tribute, performed during Super Bowl 50 halftime show, was just as much a call to action as it was a celebration of black pride. The event itself seemed to represent the words that defined the movement many years ago: undying love for the people. While the nation watched the performance, Beyoncé and the dancers celebrated black life, protest injustice and paid homage to the The Black Panther Party (BPP). By doing so, they also paid homage to political activist and revolutionary, Huey Newton, the party’s co-founder. Despite the many negative connotations associated with his name, Newton was a scholar, visionary and so much more.
The youngest of seven children, Newton was a quiet and shy child. Despite his quiet demeanor, he was often picked on as a child because of his name. Believing the governor was trying to subtly help blacks in the area, Newton’s father named him after Governor Huey P. Long of Louisiana. “And as you can imagine,” Newton tells PBS, “the name always caused me a few problems. He was a notorious racist but not really political problems per se, but really more problems of a personal nature.” After being bullied on several occasions, Newton’s older brother Walter taught him to fight so well he eventually became known as “Crazy Huey.” In between street fights and trouble with the law, he managed to graduate, but was practically illiterate. Determined to prove his high school counselors and teachers wrong, he taught himself to read. In fact, his brother Melvin helped Newton develop into a stronger reader by bribing him with 25 cents for memorizing passages from classic poems and plays. T.S. Elliott, Edgar Allen Poe, Byron Shelley and Shakespeare were some of his favorites. But it was at Merritt Community College in Oakland, California where his love for reading, philosophy and politics grew exponentially.
Inspired by Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Karl Marx, Newton felt compelled to do more about the conditions of black people. After meeting Bobby Seale on the campus, the two formed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966. The group’s primary intention was to protect black communities from racial discrimination and police brutality. As if remembering how he was bullied as a child, Newton assumed the role of “Minister of Defense.” Desiring to not only protect black communities, but to empower them as well, the BPP created the Ten Point Program, a list of social, educational and political demands. Demanding better housing and employment opportunities, the BPP went on to create several social programs. The Free Breakfast for Children Program helped feed malnourished children. Two hours every morning, Newton and other members provided breakfast, serving approximately 20,000 meals per week. Despite the group’s many successes, Newton remained in and out of prison. Though his later years were riddled with trouble, Newton did manage to earn a Ph.D. in Social Philosophy from the University of California Santa Cruz.
Though the BPP eventually dissolved, its legacy lives on. As the fight for racial equality continues today, the determination of the Black Panther Party lives on. The demands for equal housing, education, employment and health care are issues that still plague many communities in the nation. Black pride and celebrating the natural beauty of black women continue to encourage self love and cultural heritage and the natural hair movement remains strong. Black Lives Matters embodies the party’s impassioned cry of undying love for the people. Prone to theft and other crimes, Huey Newton was not a spotless saint, but he was a human being with a vision. He was not always in class, but he was a scholar. He is not remembered as a writer, but he was a poet. In his interview with PBS, he explained, “I enjoy expressing myself in the poetic form…I’m no Maya Angelou but I could tell you why the caged bird sings.”
“One day,” one of Newton’s poems reads, “I suddenly realized I had forgotten name, sex, age, address, race, [and] I had found myself.” Like most people during that time, Huey Newton was a complex man, plagued by insecurities and enraged by injustice. But if there is one lesson from his life, it’s that he was also so much more. As notated in his poem, labels can only divide us. It’s when we forget about them that we find ourselves, and we too, can become so much more.