Legacy and Legend
"To Die For the People"

After two years of legal wrangling, Huey Newton’s conviction for manslaughter in the death of Officer John Frey was reversed in the summer of 1970. Though he faced a new trial, Newton posted the $50,000 bail and was released from the Alameda County Courthouse on August 5, 1970 into a crowd of supporters waiting to cheer his freedom. Almost “10,000 people of all colors” had assembled to greet him, “as if he were God.” [58] The bright summer day marked the first time Newton experienced the actual magnitude of his popularity. Having spent a great deal of his imprisonment in solitary confinement, in particularly gruesome surroundings those in the California penal system commonly referred to as “the Hole,” Huey had expressed concern that the “action and unpredictability [would] excite [his] nervous system.” [59] If that was the case, however, he hid it well. In response to the crowd’s cheers Newton climbed atop a car and ripped off his shirt in jubilance, revealing a newly muscled physique. Some observers argued this was an “effort to allow the crowd to drink in their idol” while others maintained it was merely the expression of an “incredible sense of freedom.” [60] Whatever his motives, the move thrilled the audience, most of whom were “eager to know what Huey Newton was really like.” [61] Thus began the challenge of living up to the “hero worship” the Free Huey movement had created. Sadly, the myth of Huey Newton would prove impossible for the man Huey Newton to achieve.

The ensuing twenty years of Huey’s life would be a blur of guns, drugs, celebrity, and paranoia—equal parts of the fame and notoriety sparked by the Free Huey movement. Huey had almost predicted his end, just a year after his release:

Too many so-called leaders of the movement have been made into celebrities and their revolutionary fervor destroyed by mass media. They become Hollywood objects and lose identification with the real issues. The task is to transform society; only the people can do that—not heroes, not celebrities, not stars. The revolutionary’s place is in the community with the people. [62]

But Huey was not in the community with the people when it mattered most—he was in jail, isolated from the needs and concerns of the party that had been his. Ironically, it was his imprisonment which had sparked the growth of the party; Newton's deliberate exploitation of the martyr role had provided the cause the Panthers needed. But it was a role that no one could live up to—Newton was never martyred, yet as one man, it was impossible to embody a mass movement. Thus Newton's release from prison restored his individual will and marked the beginning of the end for the Black Panther Party. His sad decline both predicted and mirrored the Panthers' disappearance as an influential force.

The marketing and consumption of Newton's image enabled the black community's mass identification with the party, for as Eldridge Cleaver had declared in 1968, at the infamous birthday rally, “There is no distinction between Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party.” And in the end, would Huey Newton have wanted it any other way?

"And so the revolution's handsomest martyr had been resurrected. Women inside the movement, on the fringes of it, and no closer to the movement than the Huey Newton posters hanging in their bedrooms squealed with apolitical delight. Indeed, he did look all-powerful, all-knowing on the day of his release as he stood bare-chested on top of a car to address his cheering followers. But as usual there was no immediate way to separate followers from fans."

--Gilbert Moore, A Special Rage

"Although people received me warmly, I was at first a symbol. Our relationship had changed. There was now an element of hero worship that had not existed before I got busted…The earlier close family tie has been enlarged by an image of me created through publicity and the media. So much had been written, so much said, that I was distanced from them; there was a slight estrangement."

--Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide

"Huey gave me a sense of self-pride. I liked to see a black man with pride. As young as he was, he had pride. He walked with it. He talked with it. He feared no one."

--Mourner outside Huey Newton's funeral

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