Debate: Can A Pacifist Love Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers?

Two sides of Huey P. Newton

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Black Panthers emerged from Oakland, California as the most viable revolutionary movement in the United States. Unlike the civil rights protesters associated with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and John Lewis, the Black Panthers carried guns, marched in military formations and spoke of violent overthrow. Key leaders like Huey P. Newton left a legacy that has never lost its relevance, from Tupac Shukar and Public Enemy 20 years ago to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Beyonce today.

What can a pacifist think about the words of Huey P. Newton? Daniel Wojciech and Marc Eliot Stein both watched a powerful movie called A Huey P. Newton Story, starring Roger Guenveur Smith and directed by Spike Lee, and agreed to both share their thoughts below about whether or not Huey P. Newton's message is compatible with pacifism. What do you think? Please read these opposing viewpoints and let us know.

Huey Newton To Die For The People And Become President In Heaven by Daniel Wojciech

I don't think we can ever have peace without freedom. And pacifism doesn't hold much weight except as a theory, definitely not as action, until people can have freedom or a glimpse of sincere freedom. That's why Huey P. Newton is such a towering figure in U.S. and World history. He wanted freedom. By any means necessary. Stop the murder of Black people and give power to the people. Huey wanted peace, most definitely. But he was ahead of his time because he understood that Black people, minorities in general, cannot have peace until the day when they are not considered targets by default because of the color of their skin.

“We set ourselves up to be murdered,” claims Roger Guenveur Smith’s Huey P. Newton in the Spike Lee movie A Huey P. Newton Story.

I am not attempting to promote or defend Huey P. Newton — I don’t want to start that conversation. What I do want to do is talk about Huey P. Newton's supposed “legacy”, and about the Black Panther Party. Their impact, their movement and the mark they left on Americans’ idea of peace, justice, equality and progress.

Huey liked guns. But Huey also hated guns. “Sometimes you need to pick up the gun to put the gun down.” That’s not a verbatim quote, but the sentiment remains. Huey didn’t like guns at all, but he was smart. Huey P. Newton was smart because he realized he needed to utilize and use the tool of the gun to defend himself, his people and his and their livelihood.

I’ve never been in a situation in my entire life where I thought I could risk getting murdered because of something I cannot help. My skin color is seen as safe. No matter where I go in this country, I can be somewhat comfortable. The power structure that exists between Black people and the police does not exist between White people and the police.

This is big. If you are seen as a threat simply because of something you did not choose, cannot help and simply could do without, what would you do? Would you believe that world peace is possible? If every breathing second of your life was a battle for your very existence, would you believe Pacifism is a viable option? Or even possible?

What I’m trying to say is that Huey P. Newton and The Black Panthers’ legacy should be considered one that was endorsing and in favor of peace. But when you are attacked and killed for who you are, what do you do? What is your relationship to self-defense and self-preservation?

A Huey P. Newton Story starring Roger Guenveur Smith is a good intro into the man’s story and myth and mayhem. I feel like we really need to reflect and think about The Black Panthers’ legacy and narrative and where it fits into American history, before we ever think further of the notions of justice, peace and/or progress. Power to the people.

Huey Newton and the Black Panthers Worked For Peace Where It Mattered Most by Marc Eliot Stein

I’m a pacifist and I love Huey P. Newton. I know the Black Panther Movement did a lot of good in the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m sick of the cliche that divides black struggle movements into “nonviolent” vs. “violent”, as if Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were opposed to each other, as if the civil rights marchers in Alabama and the street revolutionaries in Oakland were not all in the same critical fight for social justice.

Yeah, we all know that Malcolm X called Martin Luther King an Uncle Tom, and we know that Huey P. Newton and the Panthers made a big show of the fact that they carried guns. Big deal! Violence was not the goal the Panthers were fighting for. But violence was the problem they were trying to solve.

Who would look for violence in the year 1968 and find it in Oakland, California? The real violence that rocked America in this era was the war in Vietnam, and black Americans were being drafted and sent overseas to die by the hundreds of thousands. The Black Panthers stood vividly and loudly against the Vietnam War (at a time when most Americans were voting for Richard Nixon) and this is the biggest reason why pacifists should embrace and love the legacy of the Black Panthers. But it’s not the only reason.

Leaders like Huey P. Newton were dead serious about the social and civil causes they fought for, and they fought not with weapons but with words. These leaders won respect in their communities because they were intelligent, and because they took their moral responsibilities seriously. No serious and intelligent person embraces “violence” in the abstract, because only a sophomoric fool or a self-destructive maniac goes out looking for violence.

Huey P. Newton didn’t have to go out looking for violence in Louisiana, or in Oakland, or in Vietnam (where so many of his neighbors from Louisiana and Oakland had been sent to die). Huey P. Newton saw violence, injustice and death every time he opened his eyes, and if you pay close attention to the brilliant words he left behind (such as in the moving Spike Lee film A Huey P. Newton Story) you’ll understand that Newton’s life’s mission was to stand up against violence, not to support it.

The Black Panthers were not a violent movement, though their words and their pronouncements flirted with suggestions of armed revolution. (This got them a whole lot of media attention, though actual acts of Black Panther violence were rare, and no actual overthrow was ever attempted.) The Panthers ran food banks that actually fed people on a massive scale when other community organizations failed to get the job done. They published books — they urged each other to read, to write, to share ideas. They ran schools and community centers.

We love Huey Newton today for his heart, his sense of humor, his imagination, his burning intelligence, his deep conviction for what is moral and just. The fact that it’s fashionable today to choose favorites among the black leaders of the past and divide the great movements of the 60s/70s black rights struggle into “violent” vs. “nonviolent” shows a comic-book view of good vs. evil that has little to do with the hard reality of the actual struggle that took place on the streets during these years.

Let’s look some more at this actual struggle, instead of the false mythologies we build around it. Just as the Panthers were not in real life a violent moment, it's also a fact that the civil rights protest movements led by Martin Luther King were not nonviolent, though they tried to be. Nonviolent? What a laugh — these protestors were taunted, insulted, beaten up, hit with clubs, hit with rocks, thrown in jail. Bricks flew through their windows, their houses were burned to the ground. Doesn’t sound very nonviolent to me.

The ideals of the civil rights marchers were nonviolent, though, and I believe Huey P. Newton’s ideals were nonviolent too. Unfortunately, none of these activists were able to work the miracles they hoped for, though they all did their best, and they all made a difference. When we speak glibly of the difference between Martin Luther King and Huey P. Newton — and let’s throw in Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy too, for what it’s worth — let’s remember what they all had in common. They were all murdered with guns.

Daniel Wojciech lives and breathes in Portland, Oregon. He used to be a therapist but wasn’t cut out for the gig because he talks too much. Marc Eliot Stein is the founder of Pacifism for the 21st Century and Literary Kicks.

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