The funeral of Raymond (Masai) Hewitt, a former leader of the Black Panther Party who died last week of a heart attack, turned into a reunion of sorts Thursday for people who belonged to what the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called “the most dangerous and violence-prone of all extremist groups.”
About 50 former Panthers were among the more than 200 mourners in Trinity Baptist Church on Jefferson Boulevard in Southwest Los Angeles for their fallen comrade’s funeral service.
Hewitt was minister of education for the Black Panther Party from 1969 to 1971, when the group wore black leather jackets, black berets, shouted “Power to the People” salutes and called for revolution during demonstrations throughout the country.
Word of Hewitt’s death spread quickly through a network of former party members who have kept in touch over the years through their common beliefs and political struggles.
In their heyday, the Oakland-based Panthers numbered from 3,000 to 4,000 members in 40 cities. Although they attained notoriety for violent encounters with police, the Panthers also ran breakfast programs for school children, operated health clinics and offered legal assistance to the poor.
Hewitt, 46, suffered a heart attack on March 2 as he and his wife, Ester, watched the Grammy awards on television. He was rushed to Midway Hospital, where he died a short time later.
In recent years Hewitt had repeatedly called upon former Black Panthers to put their experience into some perspective.
“He used to refer to the Panthers as the walking wounded,” his wife said. “It was like the Vietnam veterans, they are still trying to come to grips with what went wrong.
“It took 20 years for the Vietnam veterans to begin to talk about the war and now (the Panthers) are just getting to the point of being able to talk about what happened.”
Targeted by Government
Internal and external forces pulled the Panther Party apart. The party was targeted by the government for disruption and the group’s own leaders bickered along ideological grounds. By the mid-1970s, some of the founding leaders were in exile and a score of others--including Fred Hampton, Mark Clark and George and Jonathan Jackson--were dead.
Hewitt was a target of COINTELPRO, a controversial FBI scheme intended to undermine radical organizations. According to FBI files later made public, the bureau attempted to discredit Hewitt in 1970 by circulating the false rumor that he was the father of actress Jean Seberg’s unborn child. Seberg, who had a miscarriage, never got over the campaign against her and committed suicide in 1979.
Two years ago, Hewitt helped to organize a 20th-anniversary reunion of the Black Panthers in Oakland. Hewitt had hoped that the anniversary would be the first step toward getting the former revolutionaries to analyze the successes and failures of the party.
“He did not like to dwell on the past but he always said that there were some important lessons to be learned from history,” said Bobby Bowen, a former Panther who is still bitter over the demise of the organization. Bowen lives in Los Angeles and is enrolled in a trade school studying to be an electrician.
“I put in three years of my life in the party. We took militancy to the ultimate. Here we came with guns and black leather jackets. We didn’t realize that you can’t get people to understand what you are saying by waving guns in their faces. We were angry militants who heard a call for revolution so what we did was run and pick up guns.”
Bowen said that the downfall of the party could be traced to the increasing use of drugs by some of those in the party’s leadership, particularly former party Chairman Huey P. Newton, who was not invited to Hewitt’s funeral.
“If he had invited himself I’m sure he would have been let in,” said Michael Zinzun, who was in charge of the invitations.
Among those attending were Elaine Brown, former chairman of the party; Emory Douglas, political cartoonist for the party’s national newspaper, and Bruce Richard, the only Panther to survive a 1969 shoot-out with police in Watts.
Richard, who was 18 when he was wounded in the arm, back and chest in the shoot-out that left two police officers wounded and one of his comrades in the party dead, said he was both proud and regretful of his time in the Panther Party.
“I don’t regret our attempts to defend ourselves and take up some resistance. I do have some regrets over the lives that were lost and the people that were hurt,” said Richard, who was imprisoned for seven years. He now lives in Brooklyn, where he is a union organizer.
Richard was among the people who spoke at Hewitt’s funeral. He praised Hewitt’s work with street gangs, as a party member and afterward as a county employee.
At the time of his death, Hewitt was involved in research on South Africa for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked with the International Human Rights Coalition of Los Angeles and the Philippine Support Committee, his wife said.
Hewitt is survived by his wife, Ester; their three sons, Eduardo, 9; Robert, 5; Eric, 3, and four daughters from a previous marriage.