Twenty-three years ago today, Huey P. Newton – revolutionary, agitator, rhetorician, co-founder and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party – was shot and killed when a drug deal went wrong. He was forty-seven years old. After his glory years in the 1960s during which time Newton was the leading voice in the Panthers’ crusade to establish equality for black Americans through militant organisation and community programs, the subsequent slog, drudgery and cultural disintegration of the 70s and 80s saw Newton drifting into the very downward spiral against which he’d so long railed. Ironically, his murderer, a young dealer named Tyrone Robinson, had once been a recipient of the “Free Breakfast”, one of the many initiatives that Newton had set up in his hometown of Oakland, California to improve life for the poor blacks of his community. As the crack-addicted Newton stared into the barrel that would soon fire three bullets into his face, he said to his killer: “You can kill my body, but you can’t kill my soul. My soul will live forever.”
Ignominious though his death may have been, Huey P. Newton’s life was anything but. He was a man of destiny who had set out to change the course of his own people’s destiny, in his own words, ‘by any means necessary.’ Speaking at Newton’s funeral, his fellow Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale said: “He stood for all of us, and he did so in ways very few people could even attempt … The debt we owe to HPN is one that can never be paid and may never even be fully understood.”
It’s so easy to forget recent history, to take for granted change once it has occurred. The fate of a hero is not an easy one, as Huey P. Newton himself said: “The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man”; but to watch the film above is to be reminded of the trail Huey P Newton and the Panthers blazed, and the critical social changes that occurred in their wake.