The first time Fredrika Newton saw her future husband was the day he got out of prison. When he came down the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse in California that afternoon of August 5, 1970, a sea of elated supporters surged around him. He made his way through the crowd and climbed up onto a car to make a speech, pulling off his shirt and standing bare-chested in the sun. “Jesus Christ,” Fredrika recalls. “He was gorgeous.”
Huey P. Newton, at 28 years old, was the leader of the Black Panther Party, one of the most influential social movements of the 1960s. When he’d been arrested in 1967, charged with killing a police officer, the group had only a few dozen members. His fellow Panthers eagerly took up his cause, insisting that Huey had been wrongly accused. The slogan “Free Huey” became a rallying cry, emblazoned on posters and buttons. Before long, Black Panther Party offices popped up all over the United States, and Huey became a revolutionary icon like Malcolm X and Che Guevara.
When Huey was released on appeal, some of Fredrika’s activist neighbors convinced her to come along to the courthouse. But she had no interest in joining the movement. She was 18, about to leave for college, and whenever she passed the Black Panther Party’s headquarters in Berkeley, she’d gotten into the habit of crossing to the other side of the street. “I thought they were going to try and recruit me,” she says. “I didn’t feel Black enough. I wasn’t political, and I was shy.”
It was Fredrika’s mother, Arlene Slaughter, who brought her closer to the Black Panther leader. Arlene was a Jewish real estate agent who’d married a Black musician in the early 1940s, when interracial marriage was against California law. The Slaughters had eloped to Mexico, and once they returned to the U.S., they’d struggled to find anyone who would rent or sell them a home. Arlene became a lifelong advocate for fair housing, often posing as the buyer to help people secure loans. The Black Panthers were clients of hers, and she invited Huey over for brunch a few months after his release.
He arrived with an entourage of fellow Panthers and white college students who tried to outdo each other with clever questions. Fredrika, who was home for Christmas, found the whole scene off-putting at first. But she slipped in a question of her own: What was it like in prison? Huey paused for a long time before answering. It was very lonely, he eventually replied. His thoughtfulness impressed Fredrika. “He really took a long time to sort out his feelings,” she says. “He gave such consideration to this simple question.”
That evening, Fredrika was washing dishes when a Black Panther called with a message: Huey wanted to see her, and he was sending over a car. Arlene knew where Huey lived—she’d helped the Black Panthers secure his high-rise apartment on Oakland’s Lakeshore Drive. “It’s a beautiful place,” Arlene told her daughter as Fredrika headed out the door in purple tie-dyed pants. “Let me know how you like it.”
It was after 10 p.m. when Fredrika arrived at Huey’s door. She remembers the Isaac Hayes song “I Stand Accused” playing on the stereo and the awkward way Huey went in for a first kiss. She had to sneak back into her mother’s house the next morning.
During the 14 years that followed, Fredrika and Huey came together and fell apart over and over again. Huey struggled to lead the Black Panthers through times of violence and identity crisis. At one point, he fled the country. But he came back, and in 1984, he and Fredrika finally decided to get married.
Then, on August 22, 1989, Huey was killed on the streets of Oakland, and Fredrika was left on her own, grieving and wondering what to do with her husband’s complicated legacy.
The Black Panther Party’s co-founder, Bobby Seale, once said that the group “came right out of Huey Newton’s head.” The two men met in 1961 as students at Merritt College in Oakland. Huey was eccentric, sometimes walking into class barefoot and soaked with rain. On the street with his drinking buddies, he’d deliver lectures on Plato’s cave allegory—the prisoners staring at shadows on the wall, afraid to go out into the sunlight. “The allegory seemed very appropriate to our own situation in society,” Huey later wrote in his 1973 autobiography. But no one around him knew quite what to make of it. “The dudes on the block still thought I was ‘out of sight’ and sometimes just plain crazy.”
For Huey, Plato’s writings were personal as well as political. In high school, he’d realized he was functionally illiterate, a struggle he traced back to white teachers who’d insulted his intelligence in front of the entire class. His older brother Melvin was a good student, and Huey borrowed his copy of The Republic. “I went through the book about eight or nine times before I felt I had mastered the material,” he later recalled. Whenever he came across a word he didn’t know, he looked up its meaning.
By the time Huey got to college, he was a voracious reader. He identified with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the poverty in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and the loss of faith in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He and Seale joined the local Afro-American Association, where they read books by Black authors like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. The readings helped them make sense of the growing unrest in their own community.
At the time, most of the Black families in California were fairly recent migrants from the South. (Huey was born in Louisiana in 1942 and Seale in Texas in 1936.) Between 1940 and 1960, the Black population of Oakland grew tenfold, from 8,462 to 83,618. In California, migrants found better jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. But neighborhoods remained segregated, because white property owners and landlords wouldn’t sell or rent homes to Black residents. The state’s Fair Housing Act, passed in 1963, was designed to outlaw that kind of discrimination, but California voters overturned it the following year. Thousands of Black Californians were stuck in poor, crowded neighborhoods. There was little they could do to protest their conditions. Unlike in the Deep South, there were no lunch counters to desegregate, no bus seats to claim. All the people could do was explode.
On August 11, 1965, a 21-year-old driver in the Black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts failed a sobriety test. As crowds gathered, a white policeman struck the Black driver across the face with a baton. Enraged neighbors responded by hurling rocks and chunks of concrete. Over the course of six days, the residents of Watts burned buildings and smashed cars, destroying their own community.
Huey and Seale spent hours unpacking what had happened and discussing how no existing movement seemed to have the solution. They admired Malcolm X, but he’d been killed in February 1965 without leaving any clear plan of action. As for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he’d come to Watts and tried to talk to the people, but the encounter left him grappling with the limits of his own nonviolent philosophy. “Urban riots are a special form of violence,” King explained at a 1967 conference of the American Psychological Association. “They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. … Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.”
In October 1966, Seale received a pamphlet in the mail from a voting rights campaign in Lowndes County, Alabama, that featured a drawing of a black panther. Huey liked the symbolism. “The panther is a fierce animal,” the burgeoning activist explained in his autobiography, “but he will not attack until he is backed into a corner; then he will strike out.”
Huey and Seale decided to start their own group: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. They quickly drafted a ten-point program, making demands for fair housing, employment and education. Other points were more radical, like a call to release all Black prisoners and exempt Black men from military service. The tenth point quoted the first portion of the Declaration of Independence word for word.
With their agenda in place, the two college friends hit the streets. “The Panthers were about doing,” says Stephen Shames, a white photojournalist who took thousands of photos of the group between 1967 and 1973. “A lot of the lefty white groups were always about talking. I’d go to meetings, and people would have arguments about who should run the tractor factory after the revolution. The Panthers were like, ‘Why are you talking about after the revolution? We need to do something now!’”
Huey and Seale started following the police and supervising their arrests. At the time, Huey was taking classes at the San Francisco Law School, and though he never graduated, Shames says “he knew the law backward and forward.” When the police ordered the Black Panthers to leave, Huey would read the legal code that protected a citizen’s right to watch an arrest, quoting the exact distance away a citizen was allowed to stand. When an officer asked if his gun was loaded, Huey asserted his legal right to carry a loaded weapon.
On May 2, 1967, a group of 30 armed Black men and women marched up to the California State Capitol to protest a new gun control bill sponsored by Don Mulford, the state assemblyman who represented Oakland. Huey was on probation at the time; he’d served six months in prison in 1964 for stabbing another man with a steak knife. So he stayed behind in Oakland while Seale led the group into the California statehouse and onto the floor where the lawmakers were gathered. Security ordered the Panthers and attending reporters back outside, where Seale gave a short speech and everyone gathered on the steps for a photo opportunity.
“The Panthers were incredibly media-conscious,” says Shames, who recently published two photo books about the group. He notes that their leather jackets projected toughness but also hipness. Their berets were inspired by the French resistance during World War II. Above all, the Panthers’ style conveyed power. At the time, white flower children were running away from their parents’ conventions and expectations, dressing in rags and wandering the streets of San Francisco. But the Black Panthers were responding to the chaos and helplessness that plagued their own community. They wanted to create a new Black stereotype that projected confidence and discipline.
As for the guns, the Black Panthers used them as “symbols of citizenship, symbols of equality,” says Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. He points out that it’s common nowadays to hear gun enthusiasts talk about “government tyranny.” But Winkler, who teaches law at the University of California, Los Angeles, says this meant something different to the Black Panthers. “For Huey Newton and Bobby Seale,” says Winkler, “government tyranny came in the form of government officers wearing police uniforms, coming into their neighborhoods and abusing them, arresting them, harassing them, shooting them in the back, and ultimately denying their liberties.”
On the day of the Panthers’ demonstration, California Governor Ronald Reagan complained to the camera crews. “There is absolutely no reason why, out on the street, today, a civilian should be carrying a loaded weapon,” he declared. On July 28, 1967, Reagan signed the new gun control bill into law.
Since then, the debate around firearms has shifted so much that most Black activists now fight for gun control rather than against it. In April, after a mass shooter killed six people at a Nashville elementary school, two Black Tennessean lawmakers in their late 20s, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, walked to the front of the state House of Representatives chamber while holding a megaphone and a sign that said, “Protect kids, not guns.” Viral videos circulated of the two young men raising their arms in clenched fists and chanting the Black Panther Party slogan: “Power to the people!”
Shames notes that this kind of social media platform would have given the Black Panthers a weapon far more powerful than any rifle they ever had: “Bobby even said to me, ‘If I were organizing the Panthers now, we wouldn’t have carried guns. We would’ve just followed the police with our cellphones.’”
Huey’s probation for the steak knife incident had just ended when two Oakland police officers pulled him over in the early morning hours of October 28, 1967. The only facts everyone agreed on later were that Huey had been shot in the stomach and that Officer John Frey had been shot dead. Huey insisted he wasn’t armed at the time, and all the bullets found at the scene were later proved to be police bullets. But law enforcement immediately took Huey into custody.
Ericka Huggins, now 75, remembers seeing an article in the radical Ramparts magazine with a photo of Huey wounded and handcuffed to a gurney. “Here he is with a bullet wound in his belly, police officers standing guard,” she says. “How could he have killed someone if he was wounded in the belly? That’s the core of your being. It was just wrong. And I knew it was wrong.” She and her soon-to-be-husband, John Huggins, dropped out of college in Pennsylvania and drove to Los Angeles to join the Panthers in 1968.
Though Huey was in prison, his ideas were still guiding the party. He saw community service as a kind of secular religious calling. “Our complete faith in the people is based on our assumptions about what they require and deserve,” he wrote in his autobiography. “In the metaphysical sense, we based the expression ‘All Power to the People’ on the idea of man as God. I have no other God but man, and I firmly believe that man is the highest or chief good.”
The party’s members set to work creating what Huey called survival programs. “We did a lot of listening,” Huggins says. “We were young, and we just said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’” The Panthers eventually provided urban Black communities with everything from legal aid to shoes and clothing. They escorted seniors to the grocery store, helped with employment and housing, and even provided building maintenance. “One of the ambulance programs started out with a hearse,” says Huggins. “The thinking was, ‘Well, a body can fit in it—why not?’ We were really practical.”
The Panthers’ most visible effort was the Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren program, which served free hot breakfasts to as many as 20,000 students in 1969. The program caught the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who complained in a memo. “The resulting publicity tends to portray the BPP in a favorable light,” Hoover wrote, using the bureau’s typical shorthand for the group’s name, “and clouds the violent nature of the group and its ultimate aim of insurrection.”
The bureau was watching the party as part of its counterintelligence program, Cointelpro. “The extremist BPP of Oakland, California, is rapidly expanding,” the FBI declared in a memo dated September 27, 1968. “It is the most violence-prone organization of all the extremist groups now operating in the United States.” The memo went on to call for ideas that would “neutralize all organizational efforts of the BPP as well as create suspicion amongst the leaders.”
The field offices sent back a flood of proposals. After Yale University’s medical school invited the Panthers to speak about their local free medical clinic, the local FBI office drafted a letter from a fictional alumnus. The letter expressed alarm that the Panthers were trying to “cajole Yale into providing financial assistance to a clinic which in the event of armed revolution would provide secret medical care for wounded members of the Black Panther Party.”
The missive didn’t stop the Panthers from opening more medical clinics. They pioneered new ways of screening for sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects 1 out of every 365 African Americans. Mary T. Bassett, who went on to serve as New York State health commissioner, spent a summer in college helping the Black Panther Party test residents in public housing buildings. “The sickle cell screening program was a lesson in community health that has never left me,” Basset wrote in a 2016 article for the American Journal of Public Health. “It was more than just a service—it was an organizing tool.”
It's true that the Black Panthers saw their social programs as preparations for a revolution, but it was never entirely clear what form that revolution would take. “We must gain the support of the people through serving their needs,” Huey wrote. “Then when the police or any other agency of repression tries to destroy the program, the people will move to a higher level of consciousness and action.”
At the same time, Black Panther leaders were forming friendships with left-wing revolutionaries like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Algeria’s Houari Boumédiène. But Huey refused to endorse violent overthrows of the government, calling them coups. On a 1973 episode of “Firing Line,” a television show hosted by conservative William F. Buckley Jr., Huey launched into an earnest, long-winded discourse on peaceful revolution and the will of the people that led Buckley to complain, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I think you don’t, either.” (Fredrika says Huey got that kind of reaction a lot: “His thought process was unlike most people’s, so it was hard to grasp his concepts.”)
On the other hand, Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ minister of information, liked to make direct, incendiary statements. In 1967, a few months before Huey went to prison, Cleaver persuaded Huey to pose in a throne-like rattan chair, holding a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Huey didn’t want that photo taken,” Fredrika says. Cleaver circulated the image with a strongly worded caption: “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of Black people, or face the wrath of the armed people.”
Cleaver unleashed his own wrath after white supremacist James Earl Ray assassinated King on April 4, 1968. Cleaver would later admit to a reporter that he’d deliberately ambushed the police two days later, launching a shootout that killed the party’s first recruit and youngest member, 17-year-old Robert James Hutton (also known as Lil’ Bobby). After the gunfight, Cleaver fled the country, first to Cuba and then to Algeria.
The FBI escalated its plans to “thwart and disrupt” the Black Panthers. The bureau’s Los Angeles office suggested sending anonymous letters to Black Panther Party leaders and members of a Black nationalist group called US Organization (or the Organization Us) in the hopes of provoking violence. “Your suggestion to capitalize on BPP differences with [redacted] are appealing and could result in an ‘US’ and BPP vendetta,” Hoover wrote on October 31, 1968.
Huggins was home with her 3-week-old daughter on January 17, 1969, when her husband, John, and their close friend Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter got into an argument with members of the US Organization. The two groups were on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, attending a meeting about the school’s new Afro-American Center. During the dispute, another man burst into the room and killed the two Black Panther Party members. An FBI memo from January 20 noted the deadly incident with satisfaction: “It would appear that the above activity will even further split the factions of the US group and the BPP.”
A few months later, Huggins herself was charged with murder. Newly widowed at 21, she’d moved to New Haven to run a Black Panther center and be closer to John’s family. In May 1969, a party member named George Sams Jr. arrived at Huggins’ center, where he led the torture and murder of another Panther, Alex Rackley. In court, Sams implicated Huggins and claimed that Seale had instructed him to kill Rackley for being a government informant. (Party members later came to believe that Sams himself had been working for the government.) Huggins and Seale spent two years in jail before a judge finally dismissed their charges.
“I was breastfeeding when I was incarcerated,” Huggins says. “My daughter became a fatherless child—and then a motherless child. I could only see her for one hour every Saturday. It was a kind of despair that made me want to give up. But I knew I couldn’t because I was her mother. I also knew that our bond was going to be broken.”
Huggins and Seale were still behind bars when Huey was finally released on appeal in August 1970. Huey immediately went out to do radio interviews and give speeches, presenting himself as energetic and ready to build new alliances. “We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups,” he declared during a speech in New York City just ten days after his release.
Privately, Huey was anxious and overwhelmed. The group had ballooned into a massive national organization with some 2,000 members. Fear and suspicion were intensifying, and Black Panther centers around the country were facing police raids. In December 1969, a promising young Black Panther leader, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, was murdered by the Chicago police. (William O’Neal, the FBI informant who orchestrated the murder, later spoke publicly about the bureau’s strategy and his own role in it.) It was up to Huey to reassure and unify everyone.
Fredrika says Huey would call her in a panic, threatening to jump off his balcony. “He went into prison and there were, what, 40-something members of the party,” Fredrika says. “And he comes out and it’s this international movement. They made him into a symbol. It separated him from the community that he loved.”
On the morning of March 6, 1971, Huey appeared on a local Bay Area TV show, hoping to project an image of unity with Cleaver. The two Panthers had never entirely agreed on the party’s agenda, but they’d lately grown even further apart. While Huey was in prison, Cleaver had written an open letter to Black soldiers serving in Vietnam: “You need to start killing the racist pigs who are over there with you giving you orders. Kill General [Creighton Abrams] and his staff, all his officers. … If it is necessary to destroy the United States of America, then let us destroy it with a smile on our faces.”
That kind of talk wasn’t Huey’s style. “Huey’s father was a minister,” Fredrika says. “He knew better than to go into churches and curse, but that was Eldridge’s way. Black folks became afraid of the party, and Huey realized what he had to do to change that image—the image of the gun and the leather jackets, as well as the vocabulary.”
The FBI had done its part to set the stage for a conflagration by sending a series of letters to Cleaver in Algeria. One, supposedly from Huey’s personal secretary, complained that Huey—the “supreme commander”—was failing in his leadership and added, “If only you were here to inject some strength into the movement, or to give some advice.” Another, from a made-up white radical named “Algonquin J. Fuller,” flattered Cleaver in a similar way: “Brother Newton has failed you and the party. … They need the leadership which only you can supply.”
Cleaver was no doubt emboldened by this flattery when Huey invited him to call into the television show that morning in March 1971. Instead of reassuring listeners, Cleaver criticized Huey’s management. “The party is falling apart at the seams,” he declared on the air.
After the show, Huey called Cleaver and continued the heated conversation. “I’m not a coward like you, brother, because you run off to get Lil’ Bobby Hutton killed,” Huey yelled into the receiver. “But I stay here to face the gas, you see? You’re a coward because you attacked me this morning.” He informed Cleaver that he was being expelled from the party.
On April 17, 1971, the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service published a special supplement titled “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver From the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party From the Black Community.” Under Cleaver’s influence, Huey wrote, the Panthers had become “a revolutionary cult group. But this is a basic contradiction, because revolution is a process, and if the acts you commit do not fall within the scope of the process, then they are non-revolutionary.”
The FBI also spied on Paul Coates, who opened the Black Book after working w the Baltimore Black Panthers. Coates opened Black Classic Press in 1978, still operating today. Among his literary legacies are his son Ta-Nehisi Coates. Great interview here: https://t.co/esyXjjTsR3 /19 pic.twitter.com/wMMVOlD99m— Joshua Clark Davis (@JoshClarkDavis) April 28, 2019
Paul Coates, the father of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, remembers the fallout from the split. He was a Black Panther Party leader in Baltimore, and at the time of Cleaver’s expulsion, he happened to be hosting fellow Panther Sam Napier, who ran the party’s newspaper distribution center in Queens, New York. “We got called early Monday morning and told that there was going to be a meeting,” Coates says. “So Sam and I went up to Harlem.”
Most of the Panthers from New York and New Jersey announced that they’d be going with Cleaver. “I was asked, what am I going to do?” Coates recalls. “And I said, ‘Baltimore is going to stay with Huey.’ Someone knocked me upside the head.” Napier also declared his allegiance to Huey. “But the same brother who’d called us jumped in and said, ‘Don’t move on them. They were our comrades. Let them walk.’”
Coates says a Panther named Robert Webb warned him and Napier to leave and never show their faces in Harlem again—adding, “because if you do, you’re dead.” Not long afterward, Webb was killed, and then someone killed Napier in retaliation. Coates ended up leaving the party in 1972 after receiving death threats himself. By that time, everyone was so wary of FBI involvement that they blamed every threat or act of violence on the authorities. But Coates says he doesn’t think the bureau “would’ve had to send an outside hitman in to kill Robert Webb. There was enough animosity and enough thuggery in the party at that point.”
The Black Panther Party soon closed its national field offices and shifted its focus back to Oakland. Seale launched a campaign for mayor, and Elaine Brown, a party member who’d helped set up the first Breakfast for Schoolchildren program in Los Angeles, made a bid for the Oakland City Council. By then, there were more women in the Black Panthers than men, and in 1974, Brown took over as the party’s leader.
Angela Tate, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is struck by the way gun-toting men still dominate the Black Panther Party’s image, even though the women ran most of the programs. “That’s significant in the sense that Black women are always brought in to fix the problems,” Tate says with a wry laugh. “The women of the Black Panther Party usually get marginalized to just photos of them in Afros, and that’s about it.”
Earlier this year, Tate hosted an event at the Washington, D.C. museum with Huggins and photographer Shames, who had just collaborated on a book called Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party. Huggins spent most of the 1970s directing the Oakland Community School, one of the Black Panthers’ most successful long-term projects. Huggins remembers the day Maya Angelou brought James Baldwin to visit. “He left in tears,” she says. “I saw him as he was leaving.” Baldwin told her, “Ericka, every child deserves a school like this.”
Huey wasn’t around for much of the Oakland Community School’s existence, but it was modeled on the Intercommunal Youth Institute that he had created a few years earlier for the children of party members. “The school was his idea,” Huggins says. “He created the concept. He was a visionary.”
Fredrika spent some time working for the Black Panther Party, but she found it grueling. “You’re up at the crack of dawn cooking breakfast, and you’re working until late at night,” she says. “There wasn’t much balance. We didn’t do anything for recreation.”
In 1973, Fredrika left the party—and Huey—and went back to school at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. While she was there, Huey was accused of murdering a 17-year-old prostitute. He and his then-girlfriend, Gwen Fontaine, fled the country and eventually arrived in a capsized Zodiac boat on the shores of Cuba, where they were welcomed as revolutionary comrades. After a while, the novelty wore off. Huey and Gwen got married, and Huey ended up working ten hours a day in a cement factory. “I know it was hard on him,” Fredrika says with a chuckle. “They lived in a very tiny place, and Huey had never done manual labor.”
In 1977, Huey came back to the U.S., where he stood trial, and the charges were dismissed. He enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he earned a PhD in a subject called the History of Consciousness. Fredrika was back in the Bay Area by then, too. She’d had a son, born in 1975, and she was working as a model. After she ran into Huey at a Santana concert, she started seeing him again, with Gwen’s knowledge.
Huey wasn’t in good shape. He’d always been a drinker, but he was now also heavily using cocaine. On Fredrika’s 28th birthday, he failed to show up for a date, sending his bodyguard with flowers and apologies instead. Fredrika ended up dating the bodyguard for the next five years.
Huey and Gwen ultimately divorced, and in September 1984, he called Fredrika and abruptly asked her to marry him. Fredrika was reeling from the death of her mother, Arlene, who had been murdered by an ex-boyfriend the year before. She wanted to believe that Huey could finally offer her a stable, happy life, but she now acknowledges that this was wishful thinking. “It probably wasn’t a good time, but I didn’t think from my head,” Fredrika says. “I just loved him. Everybody knew that.” She and Huey wed a week later in Reno, Nevada.
Fredrika’s son, Kieron Slaughter, was 9 when his mother married Huey. “From my perspective, it was kind of out of nowhere,” he says. But after being raised by a single mother, having a stepfather opened up a new kind of family experience. The three of them went to theme parks and wore silly hats, and Huey let Kieron sit on his lap while he was driving. “Huey was super nice, super jokey,” says Kieron. “It seemed like being around kids allowed him to explore the childlike part of himself.”
Kieron knew nothing about the Black Panther Party, which had disbanded after the Oakland Community School closed its doors in 1982. But he was impressed by all the books in Huey’s large house in the Oakland hills. He noticed the way Huey could shift “like flipping a switch” from being playful and childlike to having intense intellectual conversations with visiting friends. “And then he could flip and adapt and go out on the streets in the hood,” Kieron adds, “talking it up with the hardest cats out there.”
Kieron didn’t notice any signs of his stepfather’s drug addiction, but he has indelible memories of the time he opened the front door and saw a SWAT team standing there. “They busted in, and Huey was mad because I’d opened the door,” he recalls. “I felt a lot of guilt around that, a lot of blame, because he went to jail after that.”
In 1987, Huey served nine months in San Quentin for gun charges; in March 1989, he was sentenced to six months in prison for misappropriating $15,000 from the Oakland school. Fredrika says her son didn’t want to come with her on Sundays when she went to visit Huey in prison. “Kieron couldn’t take it. He just would sob.”
Fredrika now suspects that Huey had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. “I mean, he could have been raised with a white picket fence and still had those issues,” she says. But his struggles with law enforcement and members of his own organization certainly didn’t help. “It was relentless. It never ended.” FBI memos show the bureau actively sought to undermine Huey’s mental stability over the years. One memo dated January 25, 1971, noted with satisfaction that “the egotistical Newton” had started reacting almost hysterically to any criticism, adding, “some of this criticism undoubtedly is result of our counterintelligence projects now in operation.”
Throughout Fredrika and Huey’s marriage, he would disappear for stretches of time or be overtaken by florid delusions. Once, he was so out of it that he held a knife to Fredrika’s throat while she was in the bathtub. No matter how bad it got, there was no hope of sending Huey to rehab. As Fredrika wrote in the introduction to the most recent edition of Huey’s memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, “He never wanted a life without drugs more than he wanted the drug.”
On August 21, 1989, Huey found out that a film project about his life was falling through. He’d been counting on the income from the film, and he was despondent when he left the house to pick up Kieron from day camp. Huey never showed up at the camp, and Fredrika never saw her husband again. Early the next morning, she learned that Huey had been shot dead in West Oakland. Tyrone Robinson, a 25-year-old member of the narcotics-dealing gang the Black Guerilla Family, confessed to the crime.
Fredrika had no money for a funeral, but well-wishers sent in checks and cash in denominations as small as $5. “In the end,” she wrote in a 2006 essay, “the people buried Huey.”
Huey’s death was a very different one than he’d imagined for himself. When he wrote his autobiography in 1973, he assumed he’d spend his life working for his ideals and eventually get killed for them like so many of his heroes. “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite,” Huey explained. “We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.”
Instead, Huey died from what he called “reactionary suicide”—succumbing to confusion and despair. “Huey had not fallen victim to the many police guns and bullets, nor the prison death houses we both had faced,” Seale said in Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, a book he co-wrote with Shames in 2016. “Newton was killed by a young drug dealer. I am troubled that Huey P. Newton, who struggled against all odds in the 1960s and 1970s, could get caught up in the vicious cycle of violence and community self-destruction.”
These days, when Fredrika feels an urge to talk to Huey, she often goes to the spot where he died. There’s a monument to him nearby, a bronze bust of his head and shoulders that Fredrika commissioned from local sculptor Dana King and unveiled in 2021. He’s shirtless, gazing into the distance as though looking at a future no one else can see. The street alongside the monument has also been renamed in her late husband’s honor: Dr. Huey P. Newton Way.
Immediately after Huey died, some people urged Fredrika to follow the lead of Coretta Scott King by glorifying her late husband’s life and carrying on his work. But Fredrika was exhausted. “All I wanted to do was raise my kid,” she says.
Huey also hadn’t lived or died the same way as King, although the older civil rights leader exhibited his own character flaws. “People are complicated,” says Tate, the Smithsonian historian and curator. “So many people reflect on these big figures and just focus on a period when they were young and idealistic. That’s one of the reasons some of these figures like the idea of dying young—because then they don’t have to deal with the complexities of what it means to be older and how you change over time.”
One question facing Fredrika was whether she could be honest about her husband’s complexities while honoring his memory and preserving his ideals. She ultimately decided that she could. In 1995, at the urging of Huey’s lifelong friend and Black Panther Party associate David Hilliard, Fredrika founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. She and Hilliard started out small, releasing volumes of Huey’s unpublished and out-of-print writings along with a book on the Black Panthers’ service programs. Fredrika and the foundation also worked hard to secure approval for the memorial statue. Until its unveiling, no public memorial to the Black Panther Party stood in the city where the group began.
“In my generation, there’s still a lot of pride for the work that went on back then,” says Kieron. He’s now 48 years old and has spent his entire career in public service: first in Richmond, California, and now in Berkeley, where he’s the city’s chief strategist for economic development. In practice, he says, his job is about “supporting small businesses, women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, trying to help them overcome the kind of bureaucracy that was set up in the past to discourage and discriminate against these folks.”
Kieron also spent two years as an urban fellow with the National Park Service, and he’s been working to establish a Black Panther Party National Park unit that would include historic sites all over Oakland and, eventually, the United States.
Though Kieron has chosen a career his stepfather would have commended, he says that children of Black Panthers—known within the group as “cubs”—sometimes feel the weight of their family history. “There’s a struggle with how much responsibility should fall on us to continue this,” he says. “I have a friend who grew up in the party, and now he runs a coffee shop. That’s not necessarily revolutionary or continuing the legacy, but he’s just living his life.”
One of the best-known Black Panther offspring is Paul Coates’ son Ta-Nehisi, whose writings about race in America have earned him a National Book Award and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In 2015, Marvel Comics asked Ta-Nehisi to write a new series about the superhero Black Panther. Though the character first appeared in 1966 and slightly predated the political organization of the same name, Marvel writers later ended up paying tribute to many of the party’s themes. The mythical substance that fuels the Kingdom of Wakanda, vibranium, has the property of self-defense: It can absorb energy from a bullet and send it back at the shooter. The 2018 Black Panther film begins and ends in Oakland, with strong messages about community service.
“The fact that Ta-Nehisi is involved in this is kind of weird,” Paul says. “He’s interrogating America, but really interrogating the whole notion of the oppressed and what leadership is all about.”
Fredrika wishes Huey had lived long enough to watch the Black Panther Party take its place in history. The very location of his memorial statue is poignant: It’s at the intersection of Dr. Huey P. Newton Way and Mandela Parkway. Both streets were named after legendary activists, but Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and came out to finish his life as a white-haired elder statesman. In contrast, Huey spent most of his own much shorter life trapped in the prison of his own mind. The young idealist who once gave street lectures about Plato’s cave allegory never quite made it out into the sunlight.
Fredrika spends a lot of time thinking about the world she’s leaving behind for her 13-year-old twin grandchildren, Kieron’s son and daughter. “At 71, I see that I only have so much time left,” she says. But it’s a different feeling than she had in her youth, when she was dating a young revolutionary and wondering how long either of them would live. “I was reckless in my 20s, so it didn’t matter,” she says. “Now, all of it matters.”