My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain – Aaron Dixon

DixonOn 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


To Die for the People – Huey P. Newton

HueyRecently, I had been revisiting material regarding pivotal moments in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  My focus became trained on the Black Panther Party, led by the late Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) and Bobby Seale.  The Party has been viewed in both positive and negative lights depending on the view of the person assessing its rise and effect on American society.  Newton, who later earned a Ph.D., was a charismatic and gifted orator who in turn used those skills in the form of the written word.  His autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide‘, became a classic and is widely praised by those committed to revolution both in the United States and abroad.   The book was mainly an autobiography that follows Newton from his early life Louisiana to the City of Oakland, California, where he would make his name famous and infamous.   To Die for the People takes a different approach and contains no autobiography by Newton. Instead, what we find, is a collection of selected writings and speeches by Huey, showcasing his intellect as he tackles the issues of race, class, gender and even homosexuality as they relate to the movement to which he committed his life.

The book is shorter than Revolutionary Suicide but packs a punch on its own that is powerful yet dynamic enough to reach readers from all walks of life.  Early in the book,  the Party’s 10 Point Program is included as a reference. The program serves as the basis for what follows in Huey’s words that are frank and accurate.   Most of the writings come from the period of 1968 – 1971, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the Civil Rights Movement was still moving ahead in the midst of deadly political turmoil in the United States.  Hauntingly, we can still apply his words to events that take place even today.

Newton possessed a sharp analytical mind and here he breaks down many topics and assigns terms to the concepts to make them even clearer to the reader.  I thought the discussion regarding Revolutionary Nationalism and Reactionary Nationalism was highly interesting and profound in many ways.  Anyone who’s read Newtown or heard him speak, knows that he sometimes had a flair for dramatics.  However, here he is focused and determined.   There is no room for distractions, Huey is breaking things down one portion at a time.  And the he is done, it is very clear why the book is called To Die for the People.

The Party itself is also a focus of the book. Huey does not shy away from trying to understand where the Party went wrong and what is truly needed for revolution to be successful.   He touches on subjects that have proven to be an issue within the movement such as ego, different goals, religion and even the LGBT movement.  He rightly understood that unity could transcend cultural and class lines.  It could also transcend international borders.   For Huey, the revolution here was in direct relation to revolutions everywhere and this is explained under what he refers to as revolutionary intercommunalism. To Huey, the world had to undergo revolution in order to rid itself of the grip of what he feels is the largest empire on earth: The United States.

Some readers may be apprehensive about Newton’s feelings about the United States.  But I believe that in order to understand what he means, it is necessary to view it through a much different lens.  At no point in the book, does Newton say he harbors ill will towards his own country.  But what he is saying is that the actions of a select group of people have resulted in foreign policy that has helped to destabilize and nearly destroy nations worldwide.  His words were later confirmed when the CIA was forced to admit many dark secrets of covert assassinations programs and plans to move against many governments abroad.

I was curious to see what he had to say about the Party itself and he provides some insight into the falling out with Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) and the actions of Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998).  These sections highlight the unfortunate incidents that served to undermine the movement and the message of the Panthers.  Huey is quite frank and his accusation against Carmichael might surprise some readers.   There is no truth to them as far as I know but there are undoubtedly many secrets that are taken to the grave.  And sadly, neither Huey, Eldridge or Stokely are alive to discuss what really did happen.  Regardless, each played a critical role in the movement and Newton recognized this as both became affiliated with the Panthers.

As sort of a bonus, Huey’s review of the Melvin Van Peebles film ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song’, released in 1971.   The independent film touches on many social issues regarding Black Americans and is not the usual run of the mill production from its era.  Newton was impressed with the film and goes into detail about why he felt it was so important to Black America and his belief in the genius of Melvin Van Peebles.  If you have seen the film, you may agree with Newton or challenge some or all of his observations. Regardless, I think all can agree that the film will certainly never be forgotten by those who were part of the movement in a time where strong Black characters were needed across the country.

It has been over thirty years since Newton was gunned down on an Oakland street corner, but his wisdom, words and persona remain integral to any discussions of the Civil Rights Movement and the events in California during the 1960s.  I can only imagine what Huey would think today with regards to the current political climate and recent events across the globe.  I am sure that he would have much to say and write about where society is going wrong.   I do not know if he envisioned his premature death when he wrote but it does seem as if he knew his words would still be relevant nearly fifty years later.

ISBN-10: 0872865290
ISBN-13: 978-0872865297

Revolutionary Suicide-Huey P. Newton

huey“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man” -Huey P. Newton.

Those prophetic words spoken the late Huey P. Newton serve as a reminder of the fate is to be accepted when one decides to become a revolutionary intent on change through armed struggle.  Successful revolutions throughout history were often violent with climactic endings that forever changed the history of the nation in which they were executed.  Here in the United States, some would argue that the revolution for civil rights has never ended.  The faces may have changed but the age-old problems remain.  While the days of Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao have long passed, their efforts, successes and failures are case studies for the positive and negative effects of armed struggle.  The 1960s proved to be a turning point in both American and world history as young men and women found an ideology they could relate to in the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Engels.  The Black Panther Party emerged during this decade giving African-Americans and other minorities a source of pride and confidence against systemic discrimination.   Created by Huey and Bobby Seale, the party later became a target of the FBI’s illegal COINTEL program which helped contribute to its self-destruction.

Revolutionary Suicide is Huey’s autobiographical masterpiece takes us deep inside his mind and conscience which was always on and moving in several different directions at once.  Functionally illiterate by the time he graduated high school, he would eventually learn to read and write and became a voracious reader resulting in one of the sharpest analytical and political minds the civil rights movement ever  produced. Earning a Ph.D from the University of California in Santa Cruz, he evolved into a gifted writer full of energy and raw emotion and his words and thoughts are conveyed in an engaging matter bound to keep the reader engaged.  His life was anything but ordinary and he was charged and tried for murder more than once. Known to have a hair-trigger, he admits his past mistakes and his disdain for authoritative figures.   It was a trend that would continue his entire life. Defiant and stoic, this is Huey in his own words.   And if you like this you might also like David Hilliard’s Huey: Spirit of the Panther.

ISBN-10: 0143105329
ISBN-13: 978-0143105329