Launching the First Movement Trial: Blog #5 of Our 10-Part Series


© Lise Pearlman

Blog No. 4 ended with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton opening their first office in January 1967 with a sign in the window of a West Oakland storefront — Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The small group soon began tailing Oakland police cars to record […]

© Lise Pearlman

Blog No. 4 ended with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton opening their first office in January 1967 with a sign in the window of a West Oakland storefront — Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The small group soon began tailing Oakland police cars to record arrests in West Oakland with cameras and tape recorders – like the Community Alert Patrol in Watts had begun doing after the historic 1965 riots. The startling difference in Oakland was that the Panthers held loaded weapons while Newton boldly approached officers making arrests to ensure suspects were informed of their newly-established Miranda rights. 

Huey Newton, Oakland Post Collection MS169, African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library, Oakland, CA.

Huey Newton, Oakland Post Collection MS169, African American Museum and
Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library, Oakland, CA.

aabIn early 1967, Newton began conducting weekly educational meetings at the Panther office. Walk-ins were offered weapons training and a gun if they sat through political lectures. The Panthers soon adopted uniforms for themselves: black pants, a powder blue shirt, a black leather jacket (which many already owned), black shoes and socks and a black beret. The look was inspired by Che Guevara and the French Resistance. Radical playwright and poet Jean Genet proclaimed that the Panthers “attacked first by sight.” [Leigh Raiford, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African-American Freedom Struggle (Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 2011) ,149].

In February 1967, Newton and Seale attracted local press coverage by providing an armed escort for Malcolm X’s widow from the San Francisco airport to Ramparts magazine’s office. In April, came a more powerful catalyst for the Party’s growth. A sheriff’s deputy in North Richmond killed unarmed 22-year-old Denzil Dowell, drawing large crowds of angry residents to the streets.  North Richmond had a similar post-war history of overcrowding and joblessness as in Oakland. It was just as ready to explode against the police “shoot to kill” practices as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District had been months earlier. The attending doctor in Richmond told the Dowell family the angle of the wounds indicated Denzil’s arms were raised when he was shot. Their charge of police misconduct fell on deaf ears.

The Panthers had just recruited Ramparts writer Eldridge Cleaver (left), an ex-felon then gaining fame for the best-seller Soul on Ice. He suggested they start a newsletter with the Richmond killing as the lead story. Cleaver had been released from prison in December 1966 through the efforts of San Francisco Guild aaadlawyer aaacBeverly Axelrod (right). The two had since gotten engaged. She helped craft two mimeographed pages for their first newsletter in her living room while Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ blared on the phonograph. New recruit Emory Douglas took over production of later issues illustrated with his own original artwork. By mid-May, Douglas launched a far more professional-looking Black Panther newspaper, published biweekly in a print shop. Over the next year, it would become the Party’s major source of income and greatly expand its following.

Meanwhile, alarmed by the Panthers’ militarism, a local Assemblyman sponsored a bill in Sacramento to ban most people from public display of loaded guns within any city limits. He also aimed to prohibit unapproved instructors from teaching the use of firearms.  Newton proposed a brash response — for Seale to head an armed group of Panthers and Dowell family members in a caravan to the State Capitol to oppose the new bill and introduce the Panther Party and its 10-point program to the world. (The terms of Newton’s parole made it too risky for him to go along.) Following Newton’s instructions, on May 2, 1967, about thirty Panthers and friends  marched toward the Capitol with weapons pointed straight up or down at the ground.  Seale then stood on the Capitol steps to read the Party’s “Executive Mandate Number One,” which condemned the Vietnam War as racist and accused the government of a history of racist oppression at home. Frightened legislators quickly passed the “Panther bill” with strong support from both Gov. Reagan and the NRA. By June 1967 California would have in place the nation’s toughest gun restrictions.

aaaeAs risky as it was, Newton’s strategy got him the publicity he coveted — television breaking news and headlines like “Armed Men Invade Assembly,” “Armed Foray in Assembly Stirs Wrath” and “Armed Black Panthers Invade Capitol” [] The London Times and other international papers covered it, too. Pioneering African-American KPIX-TV reporter Belva Davis (left) had arrived in Oakland as a young teen from the same Louisiana community as the Newtons. Among mainstream reporters, she had a unique response to the Panthers’ Sacramento debut. Belva convinced her bosses to describe what motivated the Panthers: a 10-point program that included demands for long-needed improvements to education, housing, and jobs for impoverished black communities.

That spring and summer the Panthers built political support by lobbying for traffic signals at dangerous intersections and acting as crossing guards. In August 1967, the Panthers were asked to provide private security for a Juneteenth Day freedom from slavery celebration in West Oakland’s largest park — instead of having it patrolled by city police. However, Seale and several other Panthers wound up serving short jail sentences for minor offenses related to their Sacramento excursion. By fall,  the few Party members still on the street could no longer maintain an office. J. Edgar Hoover already had informers among them, like infiltrators placed in SNCC, RAM and other radical groups. Yet, the FBI considered the Panthers a local gang that would quickly fade away. Then in late October came the shootout and Huey Newton’s arrest for murder. Everything suddenly changed.

aaafaaagAxelrod immediately recommended her Guild colleague Charles Garry (left) to represent Newton. Garry was renowned as a “streetfighter in the courtroom” who never lost a client to the death penalty. American Communist Party leader William Patterson (right) quickly promised to raise money for Newton’s defense, recognizing the potential the headline case had for embarrassing the United States internationally. Patterson had participated in the Sacco and Vanzetti and Scottsboro Boys appeals decades earlier. He saw the Newton case as a vehicle to once again shine a light on entrenched bias in the American justice system.  Newton also wanted to use the trial as a platform to accuse the deceased officer of being a racist bully and to present himself as an unarmed victim of an abusive arrest.  It would help the Panthers promote Point 7 of their 10-point program demanding an end “to the police murder and killing of black people.”

Garry knew from the outset that any chance for Newton’s acquittal would require two high-powered strategies:  a top-quality traditional defense; and a full-throated public relations effort aimed at the potential jury pool. The timing was excellent for gaining Leftist political support. Legendary guerrilla leader Che Guevara was captured and executed just a few weeks before Newton’s arrest.  White radicals in Berkeley were already preparing to protest the upcoming trial of the Oakland Seven for orchestrating the October 1967 induction center blockade. Anti-war activists were quick to embrace Newton as America’s Che Guevara, and the Panthers as a new ally in seeking to end the war in Vietnam.

© San Francisco Examine 1967; source S.F. Media Co.

© San Francisco Examine 1967; source S.F. Media Co.

Garry seized on a newspaper photo of Newton the day of the shooting, arched in pain from his stomach wound with his hands tightly handcuffed to a hospital gurney just prior to life-saving surgery. Garry asked his associate Fay Stender to quickly draft a complaint charging Kaiser Hospital with medical malpractice. Meanwhile, the defense team obtained the uncropped original photo including the officer the photographer had startled. With help from the Peace and Freedom Party and white radicals calling themselves “Honkies for Huey,” the Panthers distributed the photo locally on the front page of a pamphlet with the caption: “Can a black man get a fair trial?”

The November 1967 issue of The Black Panther newspaper featured a half-page headline “HUEY MUST BE SET FREE!” Meanwhile, Eldridge Cleaver ended his engagement to Beverly Axelrod and proposed to SNCC organizer Kathleen Neal. Eldridge had met Kathleen earlier that year while on a speaking trip back East. He Kathleenurged Kathleen to come to Oakland from Atlanta to help make Huey Newton the symbol of every black man railroaded by the system. Kathleen (pictured right) believed demonstrations outside the Oakland courthouse would draw national press coverage as civil rights activists had obtained in the South. Yet, Southern police had beaten and arrested picketers merely for charges of obstructing public streets, disturbing the peace and violating local parade ordinances. Here, the Panthers faced the toxic atmosphere surrounding a trial for the death of a cop.  Kathleen’s attitude was as fierce as Eldridge’s: “We had a sense we are going to change the world or we are going to die trying.” With a truck loaned to them by The Peace and Freedom Party, Newton’s close friend David Hilliard drove Kathleen around Berkeley and Oakland flatlands using a loudspeaker to ask “Can a black man get a fair trial anywhere in America? . . . Come see about Huey.” The Panthers and “Honkies for Huey” began drawing crowds of protesters whenever Newton was brought to court – the first time a trial took place with the fairness of the justice system itself simultaneously on trial in the streets.

Next week: Blog No 6. :  If He Dies, the Sky’s the Limit


Click below to read Lise Pearlman’s previous Blog posts:

“American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton” – the untold story by Lise Pearlman

Why Revisit the Newton Death Penalty Story Today? — Blog #2 in Our 10-Part Series




Click on the links below to select books by Lise Pearlman:

With Justice for Some: Politically Charged Criminal Trials in the Early 20th Century That Helped Shape Today’s America

The Sky’s the Limit People V. Newton, the Real Trial of the 20th Century?

American Justice On Trial: People v. Newton

CALL ME PHAEDRA: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

Call me PhaedraLise Pearlman’s latest book just won the American Bookfest 2018 International Book Award for biographies and was named a finalist for both U.S. History and Multicultural Nonfiction!   See review in Counterpunch by Jonah Raskin