Bob Avakian: The Making of a Revolutionary

Talking About Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party--the Early Years

Revolutionary Worker #1213, September 21, 2003, posted at

In response to interest among our readers about the background of RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, this week we are publishing excerpts edited from an interview with Bob Avakian on some of his experiences with the Black Panther Party. This interview was done in May 1989. Shortly after the murder of Huey Newton in Oakland, a comrade in the international movement, XXX, talked to Comrade Avakian about Huey Newton, the early years of the Black Panther Party and the lessons for the revolutionary struggle today. In this discussion, Chairman Avakian recalls Huey's influence on him personally as well as Huey's role as a revolutionary leader more generally. He talks about the actions and strategic thinking of Huey and the Panthers, the problems and challenges they faced as the most advanced revolutionary force in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what can be learned from all this in terms of our Party playing its vanguard role in this time.

XXX : [After Huey P. Newton was murdered, people put] flowers and Panther mementos on the sidewalk where Huey was gunned down. One of these was a bunch of flowers with a card that said: "To Huey--for the early years." This was the part people cherished the most. Since you knew him, could you talk some about what he was like back then, both personally and politically?

B.A.: Well, I knew Huey and Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale...and all of them of course were different. All of them had different roles and they had different personalities... One thing I remember very clearly about Huey, that was different from Eldridge for example, was that Huey was very intense and he would very intensely engage you in political discussion. He'd initiate it or if you started it off he would get into it in a real serious way... I don't mean he didn't have a sense of humor... I just mean he'd get into it in a serious way. Whereas with Eldridge it was different, even when Eldridge was doing better things for a while. And I had a lot of contact with Eldridge, because I worked with him at Ramparts magazine for a while, plus I had a lot of political contact with him and I used to hang around at his house a lot and talk with him, or attempt to talk with him...and that's sort of the difference. With Eldridge I say "attempt to talk with him," because with Eldridge, even when he was talking with you and you were attempting to have a serious political discussion, you always got the sense that Eldridge didn't quite take you all that seriously....

With Huey you always got the sense that if you started a political discussion or he started one with you he was into it intensely and it was serious and you could really meet each other in the discussion and go back and forth. And that's one thing I remember.

For example the first time I ever met Huey was at an Afro-American Cultural Program at Merritt College in Oakland. It was sponsored by a group called the Soul Students Advisory Council which he and Bobby Seale were both into. They were both there at this Afro-American Cultural Program. In fact, Bobby Seale was the m.c., and, I don't know if you know this, but Bobby Seale used to be a comedian and he was doing some of his comedy routines...and he was very, very funny...and he also did some very serious things. I believe it was there that I first heard him read this nationalist poem called "Uncle Sammy Call Me Full of Lucifer," which was a stinging denunciation of U.S. imperialism and white America and so on... He read that with real passion and in a biting way...

XXX : That was Bobby Seale...

B.A.: Yes, Bobby Seale... In fact I think he even got busted another time on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for standing up on a chair and reading that poem...[laughter]. I think he got busted for inciting to riot or something [laughter]... It cut right to the heart of the system and just indicted was inflammatory in a good way.

But let me get back to that program where I first met Bobby and Huey. How I got to that program I think is interesting too. This was a time when there was a lot of Black national consciousness and revolutionary ferment developing among Black people...the mid-'60s...1966 something like that. And one night I was down at a rec center in Berkeley playing basketball with this friend of mine, Billy, and afterward we were sitting around in the rec center just kind of bullshitting...talking about all kinds of things...politics, both in the U.S. and internationally, what was happening with Black people, what was happening in the Third World, Vietnam...things like that. And then this other guy, "Weasel," came over and we all started bullshitting and then Billy had to go somewhere so Weasel and I ended up going to his house. We stayed up with his mother drinking coffee 'til about 3 in the morning... He lived in Oakland... We stayed up and talked about the Congo and how the imperialists had done in Lumumba and all kinds of things...Black people in the U.S....other things going on. And the reason I bring this up is because Weasel was the one who invited me...told me about this program...this Afro-American Cultural Program at Merritt and suggested I go down there. So anyway, there I was, and I was one of only a couple of white people there so that must have caught Huey's attention. So he came over and walks up to me...

XXX : This was the first time you'd had any contact with him?

B.A.: Yeah, this is the first time I'd ever met him and I didn't know who he was, obviously. But he came up to me and I guess I must have struck him as looking somewhat "philosophical" or something [laughs], and he was trying to figure out where I was coming from so he came up to me and said: "who are you, Socrates?" [laughter].

I was sort of taken aback, but I said no, and we started talking about things and pretty soon he says "Oh, you're one of those white radicals.... So what group are you with? Are you with PL?" [Referring to the Progressive Labor Party...Editor.] And I said no, I wasn't with PL. He says: "Well PL, they're not really revolutionary." And at that time PL was considered to be pretty far out, they still somewhat identified with Mao and were considered pretty far out revolutionaries. But in fact, even at that time they had a very strong reformist streak, and they weren't very revolutionary.

XXX : Is that what Huey didn't like about them?

B.A.: Well yeah. He said, "They're not really that revolutionary. I considered joining PL but they're not really serious. They're not really down for the armed struggle." So we got off into this. And he brought up a lot of things...Fanon and Che Guevara and Mao...and basically ran a line that people in the Third World made up a majority of the world, that Black people in the U.S. were aligned with them and this had strategic implications for the struggle in the U.S. We were off on a very wide- ranging discussion... I don't want to present it in narrow terms because it was about how to go after the system here and also about a lot of philosophical questions...mainly political philosophy. It was about the system and what it's about, and the history of Black people in the U.S. and the relation of that to other groups of people in the U.S., and how the struggle of different people would relate. So anyway, it was a very invigorating discussion....

That's my recollection of my first encounter with him...and it's also a very vivid recollection that I have of Huey.

But at that point there was no Black Panther Party yet. He and Bobby Seale hadn't formed the Black Panther Party yet. They were together there at Merritt and they were sort of the driving force in... I think it was called the Soul Students Advisory Council there at Merritt. There was a lot of ferment going on then...everywhere, but including at places like Merritt College...

XXX : When was this again?

B.A.: This was about 1966.

XXX : You weren't part of any organization then, right?

B.A.: I was just part of the, you know, Berkeley radical scene, coming out of the student movement there and the antiwar movement...and I'd been supporting and involved in civil rights struggles and things like that...but I wasn't part of any organized radical group or revolutionary group. In fact I wasn't a revolutionary then. I had one foot sort of in revolution and one foot in reform. It was the people who were to become the core leadership of the Black Panther Party...Huey, Bobby, Eldridge...people like that...who helped me step with the other foot firmly into the camp of revolution. But at this time I was sort of one foot in reform and one foot in revolution. I was attracted to revolution but I hadn't yet really given up on the idea of reform and hadn't really been won over completely to understanding that there was no way to reform this way that would be in the interests of the oppressed people.

XXX : What was it like when the Panthers first started coming out with their program? Particularly when they started taking up active self-defense and talking about revolution. It was somewhat different, as you're saying, than some of the general movement in Berkeley...part of which was reformist, part of which was more radical. But here you had a Black group of people within the United States who were actually challenging and going up against the system...particularly taking on the police. What was the effect of that on people who were against the war, and taking up different issues?

B.A.: It affected different people differently depending on who you were and where you were coming from. The effect generally was electrifying! But whether you thought it was good electricity...whether you thought it was a shock in a good way or a shock in a bad way depended on who you were and where you were coming from.

XXX : We look back now and it's part of history. I'm just trying to get a sense...when you say "electrifying''...was there really a sense that this is something new, this is something different, we've never seen this before?

B.A.: Yeah, I mean for the masses of Black people and to people who were like me, who were attracted to the idea of revolution and who saw the liberating possibilities of revolution, this was tremendously electrifying thing in that sense.

I remember even before the BPP formed having one more encounter with Bobby and Huey which later I looked back on and wondered if this had been right at the beginning of their armed patrols in the Black communities. Because I remember riding in a car in Oakland with my friend Billy at 2 or 3 in the morning and we came across Huey and Bobby on a street in Oakland...their car had broken down and they were stuck there... So we gave them a ride and I reminded Huey about our discussion and we started joking around with Bobby Seale about this poem "Uncle Sammy Call Me Full of Lucifer." I told him I'd heard him doing it at the program and we started talking.

I wondered later on if that had been one of their patrols because originally it was just two of them and they went out and did it...And I remember Bobby Seale telling me...this is how intense things were...that one time after they'd done this two or three times... You know what I'm talking about?... Where they'd go out and Huey would have his shotgun and Bobby Seale had a 45 in a holster and they'd go out and they'd find the cops jacking up some Black person...

XXX : Yeah, right...

B.A.: And they'd get out of the car and position themselves sort of strategically around the cop. The cop would naturally freak out [laughter]. I remember Eldridge telling me the story about how a cop came over one time and he said to Huey, "What's your name?" and so Huey said, "What's YOUR name racist dog?" [laughter]. And the cop was actually reduced to saying, "I asked you first!" [laughter].

You can imagine...Here you are somebody Black being jacked up by the cops and here come these armed Black guys out of the car, standing strategically placed, not backing down from the cops, obviously ready to kick the thing all the way if it comes to that, and reducing this cop to saying [whiny] "I asked you first!" [much laughter].

So that gives you a sense of the effect...I remember Bobby telling me, though, that this was so intense, one time Huey just told him: "I can't deal with this right now anymore" and he actually went to sleep for like 48 hours! It was so intense....

I'm just trying to give a flavor of the formative period, even before there was a Black Panther Party as a fully developed political party...I'm not trying to say they didn't have a political program and a whole worked-out approach to what they were doing...they did...but it was just in its first formative stages. Things were just beginning then. They were still calling themselves the Black Panther Party for Self- Defense...


XXX: You've said that the Panthers eventually became the most advanced revolutionary force of the late '60s in the U.S.-- the foremost revolutionary force. You first met them around 1966. You worked with them, you were close to them, you helped to support and defend them when they came under attack by the government and the police. But in 1968 you found it necessary to found a different revolutionary organization, the Revolutionary Union. The Revolutionary Union later became the core and driving force in founding the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA in 1975. But earlier, in the late 1960s, why didn't you just stay with the Panthers? Why didn't you join the Panthers, why didn't you help build the Panthers, why didn't you just focus on that as the main political organization and work within that?

Bob Avakian:Well, I still did...and other people who were revolutionaries who formed the core of the Revolutionary Union, including myself...we did still work very closely with the Panthers in that period.... At one point that was raised to me by Eldridge as something I should do--just join the Black Panther Party rather than forming another group, even one that would be parallel and in unity with the Panthers....

XXX: You mean secretly, be a closed member?

B.A.:Yeah. Obviously I'd be known to a small number of the leading people as being part of the organization and in turn I would operate under its discipline. And this was something that I seriously did consider and talked over a bit with some leading people in the Panthers. But I felt that this would not be a good step at that time--having a role as a secret member of the Black Panther Party that most of the membership of the Panthers wouldn't know about, having sort of a special status or whatever--I just didn't think that was right and eventually we decided not to do that. I thought it was much better to develop things to the point where you could merge and openly have a party that had everybody in it who was serious about revolution and wanted to implement a program of proletarian revolution.

At that time I was only beginning to develop my own sense of why it had to be a proletarian revolution. But I was beginning to develop that--I saw that's the way things had to go--and I thought the better thing to do was to develop some parallel organization and then be able to step-by-step merge into one organization that would be the proletarian vanguard....


BA : I think one of the real difficulties, both for Huey personally and for the Panthers as a whole, was in a certain sense that they got in a situation where they had to put it all on the line before they had much chance to develop. Let me try to explain what I mean. In other words, Huey stepped out there as a leader in 1966-67, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which became the Black Panther Party, had only been around for more or less a year when this shootout thing went down and Huey was facing the gas chamber...or life imprisonment...or whatever. He was removed from the scene, as far as being able to be actively, directly leading the Black Panther Party, at a time when the Panther Party was just beginning. It was just a core of people at that time. It was a very important beginning, but it was just a beginning.

It was a question where Huey had not really been...just like I was telling you about earlier, his ideas were not fully developed on a lot of these questions. Particularly the big questions like how would you actually go would you "do the dog in Babylon," to put it that way. He was just wrestling with these questions.

Naturally, nobody all of a sudden just jumps out one day and make a leap to becoming a revolutionary where you see that's what's necessary and you commit yourself to that. Huey had done that. That's what drew people to what he was doing... That's the immediate impression that was made on me, that's why I was drawn to what he was doing...because he obviously had made that commitment, he was serious about it, and he was willing to struggle with you about it. But you don't...just because you make that leap and get that understanding in very basic terms that this is what has to be done and you commit yourself to it--okay, I'm ready to give my life to it--that doesn't mean you have all the answers. It doesn't mean that your thinking is full-blown, fully developed. I mean, it is never fully developed because it always should keep on developing and always does keep on developing, in one way or another. But your thinking can still be just in a beginning stage. To use an example, it can be kind of like in its infancy, like a baby just beginning to learn to walk--that's what you are when you first become a revolutionary.

Everybody, every individual, and speaking more generally every group, has to go through that. You can't start out being a very highly developed organization when you're just starting, by definition -- that's naturally the way it is....

I think one of the main things that got to Huey, one of the big contradictions the Panthers were up against ...and we're also up against it's something the vanguard in the U.S. has to learn how to deal's a basic problem in terms of revolution in the U.S. in particular: the situation of Black people as an oppressed nation and the "gap," you might call it, between what Black people are subjected to--how the masses of Black people are forced to live and the feelings they have about wanting some kind of drastic change in their situation -- the difference between that and where much of the people in the U.S. are at. What is the relationship between the struggle of Black people to end their oppression and other struggles against the system? Can this all be brought together to build a revolutionary struggle that can really bring down this system--and if so, how?...

It takes the most advanced, the most completely revolutionary ideology to come up with the answer to these big questions. It takes Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.... It has taken time for our Party to come together and to develop on the basis of this ideology and to know how to really take up the challenge of being the vanguard party in this situation. Yet we have done this...and we are doing it...but we have to keep on doing it...We have to keep deepening and sharpening this as we wage struggle today.

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