Friday, July 19, 2013

Huey Newton, the Black Panthers, and the Right to Bear Arms

Adam Winkler provides an excellent history of gun rights and gun regulation in his book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. He includes many interesting details about our past. One, in particular, seemed delightfully ironic and unexpected.

"If it hadn’t been for the Black Panthers, a militant group of Marxist black nationalists committed to ‘Black Power,’ there might never have been a modern gun rights movement."

This suggests there is an interesting tale to be told.

One of the founders of the Black Panthers was a young black man named Huey Newton. Newton receives a brief mention in Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story of the black migration out of the Jim Crow South: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Wilkerson provides this comment:

"Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched."

Wilkerson chooses to use the biographies of three people who migrated as representatives to illustrate the issues and conditions faced by all the migrants. One of the three was a doctor who left Monroe, Louisiana and established a successful practice in Los Angeles. But Los Angeles was not the most common terminus for migrating blacks from Monroe. Oakland, California seems to have held that honor. Wilkerson mentions two of the migrants from Monroe to Oakland who played a role in "recasting the social and political order."

The first was Bill Russell who left with his parents at the age of nine. But nine years was enough time to observe the threats and humiliations to which his parents were subjected. Russell would go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Basketball enthusiasts view him as a national treasure. It is inconceivable that he would have had anywhere near the same life if he had been confined to the South.

The second person mentioned was Huey Newton.

"A toddler named Huey Newton was spirited from Monroe to Oakland with his sharecropper parents in 1943. His father had barely escaped a lynching in Louisiana for talking back to his white overseers."

The history Wilkerson provides puts the children of these migrants into perspective. A family like Newton’s would face an unofficial segregation policy in a town like Oakland. They had more freedom and more opportunity, but they were expected to live within defined boundaries. They escaped the South where law enforcement officers were inevitably racist and must be considered a threat, to discover that the police in Oakland had a strong racist component as well. While the non-southerners were not likely to assist in beating you, or torturing you, or mutilating you, or burning you alive, it was clear that a black person was much more likely to get roughed up or shot in an encounter with the police than a white person. It was anger at police treatment that brought Huey Newton to prominence.

The first generation migrants usually accepted the bad with the good and made the best they could out of the situation. It would be their children who would rebel at the conditions they viewed as unfair and intolerable. Civil rights were not coming fast enough and many blacks thought a new strategy was required.

Adam Winkler explains how Huey Newton changed the nation’s conception of gun rights and gun regulations.

The Black Panther organization was formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seals, both of whom migrated from the South as children. The official name was "Black Panther Party for Self-Defense." The "self-defense" label referred to the goal of protecting black people from the police.

The year 1966 brought three notorious cases where unarmed black men were shot and killed while allegedly committing "petty" crimes. One was shot seven times in the back for what the police referred to as "trespassing." The Oakland police department was almost exclusively white.

"In Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale committed themselves to fighting back against the police....As one Panther said, ‘the primary job’ of the police ‘was to keep black folks down and corralled’ in the poor part of town....Self-help seemed the only available option. As one Panther said, it didn’t make any sense ‘to report the police to the police’."

The Panthers followed the example of Malcolm X who had argued that blacks had the need and the right to defend themselves "by whatever means necessary." The necessary means included arming themselves. Malcolm X reminded everyone that the Second Amendment provided them that right.

"’Article number two of the constitutional amendments’ Malcolm X had argued, ‘provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun’."

"Guns were central to Newton’s and Seale’s philosophy and to the public image of the Panthers. They taught their early recruits that the gun ‘is the only thing the pigs will understand. The gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation’."

Newton knew enough California law to know that he and his comrades had the right to carry loaded weapons as long as they were not carried in a threatening manner. One needed a license only for carrying a concealed weapon. It was also legal to drive around in a vehicle with weapons as long as they were not loaded. This meant that the Panthers could legally walk around displaying an awesome arsenal of loaded weaponry.

The next step was to force a public confrontation with the police. Not surprisingly, a police officer would take note of a group of black men climbing into a car carrying rifles. When the police inevitably came over to see what was going on they were told that they had no right to inspect the weapons. This interaction ensued.

"’Who in the hell do you think you are?’ the officer responded."
"’Who in the hell do you think you are?’ said Newton indignantly"
"The officers asked Newton to get out of the car. Newton did, but while getting up he simultaneously loaded a round of ammunition into his M1. Newton was careful to keep the gun pointed upward and not aimed at any of the officers."
"’What are you going to do with that gun?’ asked one of the stunned policemen."
"’What are you going to do with your gun?’ Newton replied"

Needless to say, this encounter drew a large number of gawking blacks. The police told them to disperse, but Newton yelled that they should stay because it was their legal right to observe police officers making an arrest as long as they didn’t interfere. The observing crowd and the fact that Newton was, in fact, following the law convinced the officers to back off and leave him be.

The blacks had never seen someone face down the police in this manner. Newton’s notoriety spread quickly and attracted the interest of more disgruntled black youths.

The next step was to begin monitoring police actions in order to insure that the police were obeying the law.

"....the Black Panthers began a practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join when they heard about Newton standing up to the cops, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice."

A group of armed observers could provide a powerful disincentive against any straying from appropriate police procedure. After a year of this Newton was quoted as saying:

"With ‘weapons in our hands, we are no longer their subjects but their equals’."

Not surprisingly, pictures of black Californians walking around with loaded rifles were found to be disturbing by white Californians. Laws were introduced in the state legislature that would restrict the carrying of loaded weapons within city limits. Newton decided that it was time to stand up to the state’s legislators and demand that their right to bear arms be maintained. Another daring confrontation was planned. It was decided that Seale would lead in order to avoid putting Huey Newton at risk.

"It was a sunny day in Sacramento, the lily-white hub of California politics, when, on May 2, 1967, a group of twenty-four men and six women, all black and between the ages of sixteen and thirty-one, parked in front of the Capital Building. As they got out of their cars, they loaded their guns, which included .357 magnums, 12-guage shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols."

"In front of the Capital is the West Lawn, a large, flat expanse of grass used for special events. This is where a group of mostly white eighth-graders were gathering for a fried chicken lunch with the governor, the former actor and future icon of the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan. The students stopped and stared in amazement as the Black Panthers marched right by. News crews there to cover the governor’s event saw the better story developing and rushed to follow the heavily armed Panthers."

The Panthers read a prepared statement explaining why they were here and what they hoped to accomplish to the assembled crowd before entering the building. Once inside, they wondered about looking for the legislative chamber. Finally they had to ask for directions. Several armed Panthers made an appearance in the viewing section and observed the chamber activities. The Panthers were quiet but the newsmen with their camera crews were not. The commotion led to both groups being removed.

The demonstration by the Panthers produced the effect they desired. It provided them a national presence and it was effective in recruiting new members.

"The Sacramento ‘Invasion,’ as the papers called it, was a huge success for the Panthers....Their visit to the Capital made headlines across the country and television news broadcast film of the event over and over."

Their bold actions could not help but generate counteractions.

"The reaction of Americans depended largely on their race. Whites were horrified and began to call for the government to take more aggressive action to stop the Panthers. Blacks, emboldened, inundated the Black Panther office in Oakland with calls seeking information on how they could form chapters in their own neighborhoods."

Ronald Reagan immediately responded with this quote:

"There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons."

Reagan soon signed into law legislation that would disarm the Panthers’ police patrols. But that was only the beginning. The Black Panthers’ activities combined with race riots, rising crime statistics, and notable and provocative assassinations to encourage a wave of gun restricting legislation.

Whites who were aghast at the notion of blacks running around carrying guns, soon began to notice that their own rights were also being restricted.

A revolution did occur, but it didn’t involve radical blacks; radical members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) took control of the group and changed its emphasis from sporting uses of guns to guns to be used for self-defense.

"The new NRA-led gun rights movement was not only fueled by the laws passed to disarm the Black Panthers and other black radicals; it also echoed many of the principles espoused by the Panthers. Like the Panthers, modern gun enthusiasts didn’t view guns as valuable for sporting purposes; guns were about personal self-defense. Though justified as a way to fight crime, gun control laws were, in reality, just another way for elites to harass and oppress. Guns were not only for protecting your home; people should be allowed to carry them on the street for protection. Law enforcement was demonized as the enemy, prone to abusive behavior and disregard for the rights of people. The Panthers went to Sacramento to make their voices heard; the NRA lobbyists went to Washington."

The Black Panthers started the gun rights movement. The backlash of gun regulation by fearful whites helped bring about the collapse of the Panthers. The mostly white-driven NRA then, using the Panthers’ arguments, fought back against the imposed gun restrictions with considerable success.

Now we no longer worry about armed black revolutionaries fomenting trouble in our cities; now we have more heavily armed white revolutionaries running around the countryside training in anticipation the day when they will kill police, national guardsmen, or government employees who might be sent to ask them to do something they don’t wish to do.

Such is progress within our nation.


  1. What a distorted and twisted view of the actual history. The second amendment started gun rights not the black panthers. You claim today's NRA members using panther arguments? Where did the panthers get their arguments. Both from the same constitution is my guess. whites want to kill police and guardsmen and government employees? But when you talk about panthers following police, parading with guns in front of 8th grade children, the Governor and his employees in a threatening manner their heros. You are obviously biased and unfair without grasping the entire history of our country. And just how have laws been manipulated to allow only whites and not blacks gun rights anyway? The NRA was formed to protect gun owners freedom in 1871. They just so happen to have many black members and b
    lack spokesman. You need to do your research deeper and be equally fair to everyone and without favoritism.

  2. The NRA contributed directly to the arming and firearms-training of African Americans in direct opposition to the tyranny and intimidation of the KKK.

  3. I don't think that this gun debate is going to end soon, the debates on gun free zone has given birth to too many books on this topic. People may simply join the Firearms safety training classes and get the license to carry the gun, but all we need to do is train them well about the side effects of using that gun. People should be explained the moral abdication that they must follow while carrying that gun.

  4. NRA has never been for the right of Black men to bear arms...not a peep defending the right of the man killed by Police in Minn.


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