|A Huey P. Newton Story: An Interview with David Hilliard, Former Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party|
Reflections on the Black Panther Party Today
How do you feel about hearing Huey P. Newton's words and seeing him portrayed by Roger Guenver Smith in 'A Huey P. Newton Story?'
I'm excited to see that so many peopleespecially younger generations, who likely have not heard of Huey beforewill come into contact with him in a much broader sense than he is usually depicted in books and movies. Roger has delved beyond the Black Panther militancy of the gun and police shoot-outs to present Huey’s intellectual side, which ultimately was the driving force behind the Party. I'm very proud of the film in this respect. But I'd encourage anyone interested in truly learning about the Black Panther Party founder to read his own words in the forthcoming The Huey P. Newton Reader from Seven Stories Press. As the book's editor, I can say it's the most comprehensive collection of his writings and speeches ever published. An ideal companion to A Huey P. Newton Story.
What are some of the more significant changes you think Newton and the Black Panther Party did for generations of blacks?
For starters, we raised the political consciousness of a generationand that includes not only blacks, but also whites and all people of color. We also worked with the women's movement and lesbian and gay activists. On a separate level, the Black Panthers furthered equality for African Americans in the courts, and perhaps most importantly, in the area of jury selection or being tried by a jury of one's peers. We also launched the modern prison movement with Huey's 1967 arrest; the national call to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, for example, is made possible by our pioneering work in prisoner justice movements. The Party's "Survival Programs" fed and clothed thousands of poor people throughout the U.S. at a time when neither the American government nor most social service agencies were providing these services; today, these programs are commonplace. Lastly, the Black Panthers, under Huey's guidance, brought the venerable civil rights struggle associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. to a new phase of empowerment in which the battle was no longer taking place in the American South, but in urban centers like Oakland, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
When are you inspired to reflect on the reason for the Black Panther Party's existence and the need to carry out its message?
I reflect daily on Huey's contributions and the Party's role in American life. However, I think of our work not in terms of the past but more often in the context of the present and the future. Huey founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 because African Americans were in desperate need of equality under the law, and he argued, as Malcolm X had before him, for armed self-defense. But he was pragmatic enough to understand that self-defense also meant protection against homelessness, inadequate or nonexistent healthcare, and unemploymentas well as self-defense against police brutality. All of these problems remain with us today; one needs only to think of the AIDS epidemic, the vast numbers of people living on the streets, or racial profiling to see that the Black Panther Party's message is possibly more relevant today than it was 30 years ago.
How are you currently promoting Huey's legacy and the change ushered in by the Black Panthers?
The Huey P. Newton Reader is our most recent contribution to promoting Huey's legacy. With this book, we hope to introduce a new generation of students to the complexity of his vision, especially around self-defense and black liberation politics. In many ways, he is the political heir to Malcolm X. Like Malcolm, Huey often remains misunderstood, if not under appreciated, as a civil rights leader. To these ends, I launched the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation (blackpanther.org) with Huey's widow Fredrika Newton and former Party leader Elaine Brown in 1993. Among the Foundation's ongoing projects are free book giveaways, providing outreach services to prisoners and their families; public lectures; and leading the nationally renowned Black Panther Legacy Tour (blackpanthertours.com).Also, we're launching Black Panther Records in 2002 in order to communicate our message through hip-hop.
When children and adults take the Black Panther Legacy Tour in Oakland, what are some of their reactions?
The youth are inspired. But at the same time they're angered that they've never been told about Huey and that the Party's history is not taught in their schools. You must remember that the Black Panthers were a youth movement. Huey was 24 when he created the Party in 1966, and his first recruit, Bobby Hutton, was 17. The youth on our tours, therefore, have an emotional response to our history, seeing us as the precursor of their own lives. We, too, confronted authority with aspirations of changing the worldand in fact did so quite successfully. That will always resonate with young people, as it should. The adults are touched by our history as well. However, many of them either can recall the period first-hand or at least have some familiarity with the events. Still, everyone regardless of age is surprised to find so much history in Oakland’s backstreets.
How do you think Huey would feel about his portrayal in "A Huey P. Newton Story?"
Huey would not have worried about how he was portrayed in the film but whether the Party’s message was correctly communicated—which Roger has done a fine job with. Viewers must remember that Huey never saw himself as a hero, even though that is frequently the way in which he is recalled today. He has written that it is the masses of people who bring about social change. The Black Panther Party simply served the will of the community, and the measure of our success (or failure, at times) can be attributed to how effectively we met the community's needs. Without this support, the Party would have ended within its first year of operation.
What do you think was the most important message of the Black Panther Party to white Americans? And has this message changed over time?
Contrary to popular myth, the Party worked closely with white supporters. In fact, some of our most trusted allies were white—Huey's attorney Charles Garry is just one exampleand we established coalitions with the peace movement among other predominantly white protest groups. I'd like to add, however, that we also worked collaboratively with Asian Americans, Latinos, and people of color beyond African Americans. Ultimately, the message of the Black Panther Party transcended race, gender and national identity. We told the world that "the system" could be transformed through struggle. Our slogan "All Power to the People" was more than just a turn of phrase; it was the goal towards which we fought daily, and it remains an unfulfilled reality. Projects like A Huey P. Newton Story and The Huey P. Newton Reader offer a new generation of activists the necessary inspiration and tools for continuing this struggle on behalf of social justice.