When I was little girl, we lived in Detroit, Michigan. During those days, Detroit was known as the “Motor City” and the home of “Motown.” It was a thriving city with a very diverse culture. During the late 60-s and the early 70-s, the Black Panther movement was an organization that was originally designed to implement programs within the poor inner city neighborhoods across the United States. The movement originated in Oakland, California. It was not uncommon to see the Panthers with their big Afros, dashikis, peace sign necklaces, wide legged bell-bottomed pants and platforms shoes, passing out fliers that advertised their services. During those days, most people feared the Black Panthers and viewed them as a radical organization with an agenda all their own, but I was fascinated by them.
My family and friends did not live in close proximity to any of the Panther meeting places or headquarters since most of them were in the poor neighborhoods located on the east side of Detroit. If ever one of the Panthers did infiltrate our neighborhood, they were usually met by the police or an irate working class homeowner that considered the Panthers to be a threat of some sort. I will admit that their appearances could be a little intimidating and a lot of them did carry visible weapons, but I was never frightened of them.
What a lot of people did not know is the that the Panthers provided free hot meals, free schooling, free transportation, free medical clinics and several other services for poor black people. They provided protection for many of the poorer senior citizens whose checks were being stolen from their mailboxes. Most of the original Panthers were college educated. All in all, the Panthers did start out as an organization with great potential.
Huey P. Newton was one of the founders of the movement, serving as Minister of Defense. Newton himself received an associates degree and even studied law. After seeing a photo of Newton and having seen him many times on the national news, I, too, wanted to become a Panther. I read everything I could find on Newton, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and anyone else associated with the movement. Needless to say, my parents were none too thrilled with this wonderful new idea of mine. Besides, being seven years old, I was way too young, I was still in school. I believed the movement would last forever and it was a good forum for minorities to voice their disdain for the system, to speak out about racism and police brutality.
As the government and J. Edgar Hoover began to get wind of the movement, a lot of the energy surrounding the Panther movement turned negative. I would read about the latest raid or killing of a Panther or one of their sympathizers. Although jobs were plentiful and people were thriving, it was during the Vietnam War era and tensions were high all around the world. Robert Kennedy was assassinated and so was Martin Luther king Jr. The Watts riot was big headline news also. Shortly after, the east side Detroit was rioted and the national Guard was called in. Although we lived far from the east side, we were still affected by those riots. Days after the riots ended, I remember my dad driving us to that side of the city to give us a perspective on not just the damages, but just how different our lives were from most of the people who lived and died on the East side of Detroit. I can remember him saying how “radical” the Panthers were and that they were “perpetrators.” Even though I was seven years old at the time, I sill remember the impact of his words along with the sight of the burned buildings and broken windows. I remember how safe I felt as we headed back to the West side of Detroit in our car with all of the windows rolled up.
Despite the riots, I was still a fan of the Panthers, even though my parents were not. My mother forbade me from reading about them and she threw away all of my posters of Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis. I was livid . Looking back on it now, I understand why my parents were so annoyed and their actions were justified. I still admired Huey P. Newton and all he had accomplished. Besides, I had such a huge crush on him. I thought he was just beautiful! He wore the leather jacket and the beret’. To me at that time, he and the movement represented power and I saw them as people that I could one day relate to, but first I’d have to graduate elementary school and move out of my parents house.
As the years passed, the movement was disbanded by in-fighting and the government. I lost some of my fascination with the Panthers, but I still read about Huey P. Newton from time to time. He had gone on to do big things. He had gone to China to meet with leaders, he had beaten several charges including a murder charge, he had been interviewed by top journalists and spoke at colleges and universities around the United States, but by the mid 70-s he was consumed by his own demons. Newton began to commit burglaries and other petty crimes. He was arrested several times over the years. He began to drink heavily and use cocaine. He eventually became a crack addict and in 1989 was gunned down and killed in the Oakland streets by a crack dealer.
I was well into adulthood when I read about Newton’s death in “Jet” magazine. I remember being so disappointed, but more than that, I was disillusioned. In fact, I was angry. How could this brilliant man with so much potential become a crack addict and die in the street? How could someone who represented power, dignity and pride, die with none? I thought of all of those young people and police officers who lost their lives during the struggles of the late 60-s and early 70-s and what a waste of life and time it had become.
The struggle must have been extremely hard for Huey P. Newton. Perhaps he had become weak and succumbed to drugs. Maybe he subconsciously turned to drugs to quiet the noises from his past; the gunfire, the screams, and the sirens . Whatever his reasons, he too, became a statistic. He fell by the wayside. I never met Huey P. Newton, but as a child I was influenced by him and fascinated by the image he created for himself and the movement. He did leave an impact on me.
If, in another life, I were to meet Huey P. Newton, I would commend him for his efforts during the struggle. I would ask him if in giving so much of himself to the struggle, did he not have anything left to give? Not even to himself? I would ask him if he ever saw himself as a hero? Maybe he would respond with something profound or poetic, but maybe he”d simply say “no, I was just a human being who started out trying to make a difference in this world and it got the better of me.” I didn’t need to be a hero, but during those increasingly turbulent times, others needed me to be, and so I was.”
Throughout the years, I have had many heroes. Some of them are still heroic figures to me, and some are not. Although some may have fallen by the wayside, the influence that they once had, has imprinted me for life.