The FBI could not help but take notice when militant black leaders converged on Oakland, California, from all across the nation in mid-February 1968 to meet with 10,000 local activists. It was a fund-raising birthday party for Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Defense. For almost a year, the Panther Party’s popular biweekly newspaper featured Newton seated on a wicker throne with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. Now the empty throne stood in for Newton. The honoree paced back and forth in an isolation cell in the Alameda County jail just a few miles to the north. Newton was charged with murdering a police officer, wounding another and kidnapping a bystander at gunpoint—all while on parole that prohibited him from even carrying a firearm.
Most people gathered in the Oakland Arena on February 17, 1968, expected the twenty-six-year-old, self-proclaimed revolutionary to be convicted and sentenced to death for shooting the officer. Militant Malcolm X disciples joined white radicals and nervous local black community members on common ground—a rally to raise some of the anticipated $100,000 defense costs for the Newton murder trial. His lawyers cultivated grassroots support to prevent the outspoken critic of police brutality from going to the gas chamber. Comrades like Panther spokesman Eldridge Cleaver did not believe the pretrial publicity portraying Newton as a victim, but thought it useful propaganda; while conservative and mainstream newspapers denounced Newton as a cop killer, his militant followers celebrated the shooting death of a racist “pig.” For many of them, his guilt was never in question, but it didn’t matter; in fact, some considered the shooting a long-awaited signal from the revolutionary leader.
The air crackled with anticipation as a capacity crowd poured in for an experience of a lifetime. The featured speakers headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”). Despite keeping the name, SNCC had turned its back on peaceful protest in 1966. The rally speakers included the incendiary H. Rap Brown, “black power” champion Stokely Carmichael, and SNCC organizer James Forman. By February of 1968 the chant “black power” had taken hold as “both a rallying cry and a declaration of war.”1 The theme of this kick-off rally for Huey Newton was unity, which was why the black separatists suppressed their mistrust and tolerated the inclusion of leaders of the white radical Peace and Freedom Party, who had forged an alliance with the Black Panthers. In exchange, Forman insisted that Panther co-founder Bobby Seale invite Maulana Ron Karenga, the head of the Organization US (“US”) from Los Angeles, where the Panthers had just opened a second branch. At the gathering, the Panthers and US held their bitter rivalry in check.
The Panthers owed some of their countercultural clout to the fame of ex-felon Eldridge Cleaver, basking in the success of his recently published, best-selling prison essays—Soul on Ice—and his new platform as a journalist for the Leftist political magazine Ramparts. A self-educated Marxist, Cleaver had won parole from prison in December of 1966. By the time Cleaver walked out of Folsom Prison he had committed himself to becoming a professional revolutionary, as he envisioned his idol Che Guevara: “a cold, calculating killing machine, able to slit a throat at the drop of a hat and walk away without looking back.”2 Huey Newton impressed Cleaver at first sight in February of 1967. By daring a San Francisco cop to draw a gun on him in a street confrontation, Newton proved he was no paper Panther.
Cleaver dubbed the birthday rally “the biggest line-up of revolutionary leaders that had ever come together under one roof in the history of America.”3 As Air Force veteran James Forman took his turn at the podium near Newton’s empty throne, he was similarly inspired. Though Forman had the least militant track record of the SNCC representatives who spoke, he electrified the gathering with his call for retaliation if Newton were executed: “The sky is the limit.”4 This did not sound like empty boasting coming off a year marked by race riots. After two political assassinations that spring and growing unrest over the Vietnam War, the Newton trial became a cause célèbre for radical groups and anti-war activists. In mid-July, when the proceedings began, one underground newspaper ran a blaring headline proclaiming “Nation’s Life at Stake.” The article explained:
History has its pivotal points. This trial is one of them. America on Monday placed itself on trial [by prosecuting Huey Newton]. . . The Black Panthers are the most militant black organization in this nation. They are growing rapidly. They are not playing games. And they are but the visible part of a vast, black iceberg. The issue is not the alleged killing of an Oakland cop. The issue is racism. Racism can destroy America in swift flames. Oppression. Revolt. Suppression. Revolution. Determined black and brown and white men are watching what happens to Huey Newton. What they do depends on what the white man’s courts do to Huey. Most who watch with the keenest interest are already convinced that he cannot get a fair trial.5
For a full year before the trial began, the FBI’s twenty-year-old Counter Intelligence Program (“COINTELPRO”) had been focusing on black radical gangs and various ways to eliminate them. By the summer of 1968, COINTELPRO was bent on destroying the Black Panther Party, but the threat of government persecution could not stop the Panthers from ramping up their rhetoric. Taking his cue from the inflammatory language of both Newton and SNCC leaders, “El Rage” Cleaver challenged the government to instigate a second American revolution. In early July of 1968, the Panther spokesman held a press conference in New York City predicting open warfare in the streets of California if Huey Newton were sentenced to death. Cleaver expected the carnage to spread across country. The day Newton testified on his own behalf, crowds started lining up before dawn and broke the courthouse doors as they pushed against each other, vying for access. Gov. Reagan took keen interest in the proceedings from Sacramento, while J. Edgar Hoover elevated the Panthers to the number one internal threat to the country’s security.
Following Newton’s trial, Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale faced conspiracy charges accusing him of a leadership role in the battle between Chicago police and demonstrators that had exploded onto the floor of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Soon far more serious allegations confronted Seale. He was extradited to New Haven, Connecticut, for allegedly ordering the torture and murder of Alex Rackley, a suspected government plant in the local Panther office. By 1969, the FBI was targeting members of the Panther Party in nearly eighty percent of 295 authorized “Black Nationalist” COINTELPRO missions nationwide. Among these raids was a widely condemned, predawn invasion in December of 1969 by plainclothes policemen who stormed the apartment of charismatic young Panther leader Fred Hampton. The police riddled Hampton’s front door with bullets and killed the twenty-one-year-old community organizer as he lay in bed. The largely white anarchist Weathermen retaliated by bombing police cars. To far greater political effect, 5,000 people gathered in Chicago from across the nation to attend Hampton’s funeral. Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson led the eulogies. Jackson proclaimed, “When Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere.”6 Just six months before his death, Hampton had negotiated a truce among the city’s rival gangs, the first “rainbow coalition” that Jackson would later popularize in his own 1984 historic campaign for the presidency. As reporters revealed cover-ups and discrepancies in the police account of the Hampton apartment raid, the Panthers and their outraged supporters launched a public relations campaign decrying governmental persecution and demanded a probe into COINTELPRO.
In April of 1970, tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on New Haven, Connecticut, from across the country to protest Seale’s upcoming trial. The instigators were Youth International Party (“Yippie”) leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, joined by other “Chicago Seven” defendants. They wanted to show solidarity with Seale, who was the eighth co-defendant in their highly publicized Chicago conspiracy trial until Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale bound and gagged for backtalk and severed his prosecution from the others. In response to the Yippie-led pilgrimage to New Haven, President Nixon mobilized armed National Guardsmen from as far away as Virginia, who came prepared to spray tear gas on demonstrators and students alike. Yale’s President Kingman Brewster sized up the impending confrontation and decided to shut down the Ivy League University for a week to let students and professors who were so inclined to take part in voluntary teach-ins. In comments to the faculty that were quickly leaked to the press, Brewster created a storm of controversy that instantly put the Mayflower Pilgrim descendant on President Nixon’s growing “Enemies List.” Angry editorials throughout the nation reinforced Vice President Agnew’s demand that Brewster resign for daring to say that “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”7
Articulating the opposite concern, Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis viewed the national situation in the same dire light as did J. Edgar Hoover. Testifying before a Senate committee, Davis asserted, “we have revolution on the installment plan . . . going on every day now.”8 But that was Brewster’s point: something far greater is lost when we rationalize the abandonment of our core values as a society. Brewster, and those who rallied to his defense, echoed what Yale Law School’s dean had noted eight years earlier: “The quality of a civilization is largely determined by the fairness of its criminal trials . . .”9 So was Brewster’s skepticism justified?
Under intense pressure, an effort by a trial judge, prosecutor, and jury to provide a fair trial to a black revolutionary had in fact been undertaken in the summer of 1968. As Newton’s lead lawyer Charles Garry questioned his final witnesses, the feisty Leftist knew that most of the packed courtroom had just seen shocking video footage of Mayor Daley’s police force in Chicago cracking heads of both demonstrators and mainstream reporters during the Democratic Convention. Garry referred to the Chicago debacle in his highly emotional closing argument as another example of entrenched racism that infected Oakland’s police force as well. In contrast, prosecutor D. Lowell Jensen tried to sell the jury on a matter-of-fact account of a dedicated local peace officer murdered in the line of duty. The city of Oakland seemed to hold its breath during the four days the Newton jury stayed out over Labor Day weekend. After two dramatic returns to the courtroom for rereading of testimony and further instruction, the sequestered Newton jury—led by a black middle-class foreman—did their best to reach a just result. The outcome greatly surprised both sides, as well as the myriad outside observers who had followed every development in the case.
The highly anticipated first-degree murder conviction and ensuing national conflagration never happened. Why not? What did that diverse Oakland jury of five men and seven women do with the prosecution claim of a police officer martyred by an itchy-fingered black revolutionary? How did they respond to the defense argument that the early morning shootout was just one more example in a long history of racist police brutality? And why, with the extraordinarily high tension surrounding the trial, did no urban violence erupt in its wake, as had occurred so often in the prior year? Even more puzzling, in light of the enormous stakes—why in the years to come did this particular “trial of the century” slip from general public consciousness? Why did it wind up all but forgotten by most experts who make a practice of analyzing such trials? How could they ignore The People v. Huey P. Newton while writing about trials whose only claim to fame is that they involved celebrity defendants? Isn’t it time People v. Newton made everyone’s list of pivotal trials of the 20th century?