Power Struggle
"Forced to Take a Stand"

Measured in strict terms of increased national awareness and consciousness-raising, the Free Huey movement was a success. Newton became a household name, and though few approved of the Panthers’ militant tactics, most media sources agreed that his trial was an example of white injustice towards blacks. [48] But the concession was too little too late—the emphasis on violence and revolutionary rhetoric had already charted the course the party would take. Even as chapters sprouted up across the country—Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York—the party’s dangerous association with guns and street thugs resulted in increased police interference, infiltration by FBI informants, [49]and, inevitably, more outbreaks of gunplay. The press spread the Panthers’ reputation of violence and terrorism across the country with sensational reports of such incidents, a problem further complicated by the fact that “elsewhere, ousted members or persons never connected with the party might don the Black Panther name and uniform without official sanction, their unlawful antics dragging the party’s valued reputation through the courts and gutters.” [50] Many chapters turned to Oakland for leadership, but the party’s home base faced troubles as well.

With Newton behind bars and Bobby Seale facing his own trial in Chicago, [51] Eldridge Cleaver assumed control of the Black Panthers—a party which suddenly had morphed into a nationwide organization. [52] Cleaver advocated increasingly vicious confrontations with police, painting the Panthers’ struggle in masculine and military terms: “Either pick up the gun or remain a sniveling coward!” he ordered. Stressing absolutes and extremes, he took the party’s militant efforts to the next level, and himself was involved in a shoot-out with police in April 1968, just two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. [53] As an ex-felon, Cleaver faced a long sentence if convicted on charges stemming from the incident. Unwilling to return to prison, he and his wife, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, [54] fled the country on November 24, five days before he was to turn himself in to authorities for parole violations.

Cleaver’s exile only compounded the effects of the developing fissures in the party. In the wake of an escalating liberal conviction that their cause was all but lost, [55] many rank-and-file party members insisted that the revolution had veered from Huey Newton’s vision. Only his return could restore the Panthers to their true mission as the revolutionary vanguard, as “the party that Huey Newton started for the betterment of our people.” [56] The Black Panthers faced the future uncertainly; by the end of 1969, they were “besieged on every side and virtually leaderless. The party could do little more than welcome the 1970s with a fervent prayer for their leader’s swift return.” [57]

"The Panthers were a confused blend of boys' club and militia. Their gun battles with police were macho street theater run amuck. And their thug posture, as later adopted by drug gangs and rap artists, further isolated the black male from the American mainstream."

--Richard Corliss, Time


"The arrest of Huey Newton opened up a Pandora's box of danger and opportunity for the Black Panther Party. National publicity brought nationwide expansion, and with it the inevitable potential for outbreaks of violence."

--Michael Newton, Bitter Grain


"Eldridge Cleaver shunned the political intimacy that human beings demand of their leaders. When he fled the country, his exile became a physical reality. Eldridge had cut himself off from the revolutionary's greatest source of strength-unity with the people, a shared sense of purpose and ideals. His flight was a suicidal gesture, and his exile in Algeria is a symbol of his defection from the community on all levels-geographical, psychological, and spiritual."

--Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide




BACK: Free Huey! | FORWARD: Legacy