In a fiery and emotional mix of religious and political fervor, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton was eulogized Monday as complex man whose life should inspire the struggle for freedom and equality and whose death should inspire a battle against hopelessness and drugs.
At a funeral service attended by about 2,000 mourners, ex-Panthers and preachers alike railed against characterizations of Newton as a drug-addicted criminal. The speakers included party co-founder Bobby Seale and former party leader Elaine Brown.
Newton, 47, who embodied the Black Power movement of the 1960s for many people, was killed before dawn last Tuesday in a West Oakland neighborhood plagued by drugs and violence.
Instead of his criminal past, which they blame on police harassment of the Panthers, the speakers concentrated on Newton's courage and intelligence--themes that were eagerly received by the more than 1,200 mourners who crowded into the Allen Baptist Temple, where Newton's minister father once preached, in the modest East Oakland neighborhood where Newton grew up. Another several hundred people stood in the street outside and heard the services over loudspeakers.
During the funeral, Newton's body lay in an open, polished wooden casket just in front of the pulpit where the Rev. J. Alfred Smith Sr. led the services.
"Today we celebrate the life of a world hero, our king in shining armor," said Cecilia Arrington, director of the black studies program at Newton's alma mater, Merritt College in Oakland.
Brown added a veiled reference to another key figure of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Huey Newton was a hero with not just a dream, but a plan."
Seale, who drew roars of approval when he stepped to the podium and donned the rakish black beret favored by the Panthers, recalled his colleague's ability to grasp such esoteric subjects as Hegelian philosophy and translate it in a way understandable to everyone on the street.
He also remembered the practical, social-service tasks--free meals for poor students, free health screening exams, get-out-the-vote drives--that seemed so radical to some when the Panthers provided them 20 years ago but are commonplace today.
The man who admitted killing Newton, Tyrone Robinson, 25, of Oakland, was arraigned Monday in Oakland Municipal Court on one count of first-degree murder. Robinson reportedly said he shot Newton in an argument over crack cocaine, of which police said Newton was a frequent user.
(Newton was convicted of felony assault in 1964 and manslaughter in the 1967 killing of an Oakland police officer, but the latter conviction was overturned on appeal. He also was found guilty of illegal weapons possession on several occasions and earlier this year pleaded no contest to stealing $15,000 in state aid to a Panther-run school in 1982.)
"Huey's problem with drugs was not Huey's alone," said David Hilliard, former chief of staff for the militant Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, urging people to think of his friend's death as symbolic of the economic and social problems that cause the sense of hopelessness at the root of drug abuse. "We need to attack the causes of the drug problem and not attack Huey."
Likened to Moses
Father Earl Neil, who was identified as the spiritual leader of the Panthers before Newton folded the party in 1982, compared Newton to Moses.
"Huey confronted the modern-day Pharaohs and said, 'Let my people go!' " Neil said, igniting applause.
"He confronted the modern-day Pharaoh of racism and the modern-day Pharaoh of a health-care system that allows a black infant mortality rate twice that of whites. He battled the modern-day Pharaoh of a government that tells poor people to bite the bullet while the military is never told to bite an MX missile or a B-1 bomber. He fought the Pharaoh of a justice system that lets a poor youth be shot for stealing a car while a President is pardoned for stealing a nation.
"Huey knew that we didn't need pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by," Neil added over thunderous applause, "but something sound on the ground while we are still around!"
Many speakers said Newton's death will not mark the end of Newton's ideals.
"As long as there are hungry people, as long as there are homeless people, as long as there are people suffering from racism, sexism and all the other 'isms,' (Huey's) spirit will live on," said former Panther Jonina Abron.
"We have an unfinished agenda," said Smith. "You and I must get up out of the rocking chair of complacency . . . get down in the trenches and remember what the man was trying to tell us.
"We can't wait for the Republicans to help us; we can't wait for the Democrats to do it for us. We have to roll up our sleeves and do it for ourselves," he added, his plea for greater black political involvement lost in the applause.
"The spirit, the will and the determination of Huey P. Newton lives on and will continue to live on as long as there is an insensitive, uncaring, racist society," said the Rev. Frank Pinkard, president of the Baptist Ministers Council.
"They called him a gangster, but we know who the gangsters really are. The gangsters are those who killed the red man, who enslaved the black race and imprisoned the yellow people. The real gangsters are those who count ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs," he added, referring to a Reagan Administration budget-cutting proposal. "We know who the real gangsters are!"
Fred Hiestand, a public interest attorney, said true gangsterism was evident in the constant harassment of the Panthers by the CIA, FBI, IRS, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a host of state and local police across the country. Twenty-six Panthers died in confrontations with police in the late 1960s and early 1970s.