For the last five decades, the Black Panther Party has been synonymous with Black freedom and resistance—a legacy that endured even after co-founder Dr. Huey P. Newton was murdered in 1989 in Oakland, Ca., the organization’s birthplace.
Over the weekend, the organization celebrated its 55th anniversary and unveiled a bronze bust of Newton. The Associated Press reports that it is the first permanent piece of art to honor the revolutionary and Black Panther Party in Oakland.
The monument took two years for sculptor Dana King to create in a West Oakland studio, according to ABC 7 News.
“The reason he’s looking up and out is because he was a visionary, he saw into the future,” King said.
King first sculpted Newton’s likeness out of clay with the help of fellow Black Panthers and Newton’s widow and co-founder of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, Fredrika Newton.
“She’s come into my studio and it’s been so helpful because she puts her hands on him. She remembers what his jawline felt like or she looks at him and says, well, his lips were a little thicker right here,” said King.
“It just glowed, like he did,” Newton said about watching the bronze caster finish the bust of her late husband. “His skin just glistened.”
According to AP, the bust is located at the corner of Dr. Huey P. Newton Way and Mandela Parkway, the intersection where Newton died on Aug. 22, 1989, seven years after the party dissolved.
Newton was the subject of public ire as he aimed to unite the poor and oppressed in a fight against an unjust system that divided people based on race and class. He and Bobby Seale founded the BPP in 1966 to address the plight of Black people in the North and West of the U.S., which they felt the Civil Rights Movement spearheaded by Southern Baptist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had failed to do.
“Huey was maybe the only man I’ve ever known that was a truly free man,” said his older brother, Melvin Newton. “He was universal. He felt that no one could be on his back, if he stood up. And he always stood ram-rod straight.”
As a brief primer on the Black Panther Party’s work, here’s more from ABC:
In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and would launch a deadly effort to infiltrate and dismantle the party.
But the Panther’s were more than armed resistance to police.
Shortly after its creation, the organization launched a free breakfast program that fed thousands of hungry youth and would eventually be the blueprint for the federal government’s free and reduced meals plan at public schools.
This would be one of the first of many social safety net programs created by the panthers like a free ambulance program, free health clinics treating diseases disproportionately affecting the Black community such as sickle cell and HIV, and an escort and transportation service for seniors.
In 1968, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an Oakland officer who had pulled him over. Newton, who maintained his innocence, was also shot in the confrontation. By the time his conviction was overturned in 1970, chapters of the Black Panther Party were founded all over the country, AP notes.
Newton was the youngest of seven children and taught himself how to read after spending most of his formative years nearly illiterate. With sheer determination, he would go on to earn a doctorate in social philosophy from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. After the dissolution of the Black Panther Party in 1982, Newton suffered an addiction to drugs and alcohol, AP notes.
“I would like for people to see him as a total human being,” said his widow, according to AP. “That he wasn’t just an iconic figure in a wicker chair. This was a man with vulnerabilities, with feelings, with insecurities, with frailties, just like anybody.”