On August 22, 1989, former Chairman of the Black Panther Party for self-defense Huey P. Newtown (1942-1989) was shot and killed in Oakland, California at the early age of forty-seven. The violent ending to his life is a reminder that the streets are unforgiving, and should one choose to embrace them, death is a constant threat. In prior years, Newton rose to fame with party co-founder Bobby Seale as the organization spread across America and became an unavoidable presence, catching the eye of Washington, D.C. The Panthers became so feared that former Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) said “the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Hoover refused to see that the Panthers had become an image solidarity and masculinity to thousands of Black youths who had seen and suffered racial discrimination. In the Pacific Northwest, a young man named Aaron Dixon listened to a speech by Bobby Seale and knew from that point on that he was destined to join the Black Panther Party. This book is his memoir of life on the West Coast and the ten years he spent as a Black Panther Party Captain.
It is not necessary to have extensive knowledge of the Black Panther Party before reading this book, but it will be helpful to know who the party’s leaders were. Bobby Seale enters the story quite early, and Dixon is clear that the speech he watched served as the moment when he knew he had found his calling. As a captain, he was required to make the acquaintance of party leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), Fred Hampton (1948-1969) and Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998). However, they were assigned to other duties within the party and Dixon was dispatched to his hometown of Seattle. But before we get to the Seattle Chapter of the party, Dixon takes us down memory lane to his childhood. Readers will be surprised to learn that the author did not come from a broken home. And while things were not perfect, his background is not that of a child coming from dysfunction and gravitating to the streets. In high school he became a star athlete but the 1960s proved to be too scary, too unpredictable, and too painful for Dixon to focus solely on sports. But when he made the decision to see Seale speak, he did not know that his life would change forever.
When we think of the 1960s and America’s dark past of racial discrimination, images of the Deep South come to mind. But as Dixon shows, the South was not the only place where discrimination was an issue. And the stories that Dixon tells are crucial in understanding why the Panthers were so alluring and needed. From the start, he is fully committed to the party and emphatically says:
“For us, this was what putting on the Panther uniform was all about—standing up strong, refusing to be brushed aside and marginalized. We were dead serious when it came to the rights of the people. One thing was certain: if we had to die in the process, most of us were ready for that, too.”
Huey P. Newton once said that the first thing a revolutionary must understand is that he is doomed from the start. Success becomes subjective in the face of imprisonment and death. Dixon experienced both extensively before leaving the party but his memories of the people who changed history are recorded here and serve as an invaluable account of how the party functioned from day to day. The public saw black leather jackets and matching berets but in private, things were not always as glamorous as the author shows. One thing that stood out is that the party members did not always know where they would be from one day to the next. This inevitably made marriage and children difficult and resulted in strained relationships between party members. And the threat of infiltration and arrest kept everyone on high alert. Despite the risks, there are success stories in the book that offset the events that nearly shattered the party’s morale.
To anyone watching, it was only a matter of time before the FBI placed the party in its crosshairs. J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia about Black unity, spurred him to go after anyone and any group that had the power to alter American society. The bureau relied on deception and coercion cloaked under the guise of the infamous Counterintelligence Program (“COINTEL”). The covert actions utilized by the FBI set into motion a series of events that fractured the party resulting in mass exodus and expulsion of people who had joined at its start. And the influence of illegal narcotics in Black communities cannot be understated. Even party members were not immune to their destructive effects. Newton’s battle with drugs is widely known and discussed here as the party slides further into turmoil. Newtown’s paranoia became fueled by drug use and the party saw one of its darkest moments when Newton and Cleaver had a falling out live on air. Dixon can only watch as the party he joined with hopes of changing America, comes apart at the seams.
Before I mentioned that party members found it difficult to have “normal” lives. Dixon is no exception. He is frank about where he went wrong in life and speaks freely of the challenges that came with fatherhood, marriage, and lack of focus on accountability. I am sure that if Dixon could go back in time, he would change his past actions. Joining the party is not one of them. Following the devastating effects of COINTEL, the party became a shell of its former self. Dixon explains how the party changed its focus while trying to hold true to its roots. The section about Elaine Brown and her effect on Bay Area politics is interesting but even she could not avoid the increasingly paranoid Newton. Dixon had a working relationship with Brown and despite their differences, he gives her the praise she is due. However, as the book moves forward, Newton begins his downward spiral. Dixon did know Newton but not intimately as he explains in the book. And while he was in awe of Newton, he was not oblivious to his escalating drug habit and distrust of anyone he thought to be subversive.
While reading Dixon’s account of the party’s decline, it was clear that the writing was on the wall. When he makes his exit, he has given ten years of his life to the party. But as we learn, his life after the party was anything but normal. In fact, there are unexpected twists and turns in the story including a manhunt by the U.S. Marshall Service. I found myself speechless while reading the book’s conclusion. But there is redemption in the story and Dixon did learn from everything he experienced. Further, he is alive today and continues his political activism. Though his days in the Black Panther Party are long gone he is still a Panther at heart. This book was a surprise, and I am glad that I decided to add it to my library. The Black Panther Party, borne in a turbulent time in American history, stands as an example of the people rising up and saying, “no more”.
“I have no regrets about my ten years as a soldier in the Black Panther Party. In the end it is the memories that make life worth living, particularly the good memories. My memories of Huey P. Newton are of a young, rebellious, brave, captivating, eloquent genius who ignited a flame that will never die. My memories of the Black Panther Party are of men and women rising in unison to carry that flame, taking up a position of defiance, of sacrifice, and of undying love, infused with passion and determination to write a new, bold future for Black America. That eternal beacon will shine on, lighting the way for future generations and illuminating the past, helping us remember a time when the possibilities for humanity were endless.” – Aaron Dixon