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This article was co-published with Oakland Voices, a nine-month program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.
The rain didn’t dampen Sunday’s celebration for the unveiling of the bronze bust in honor of Dr. Huey P. Newton, co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party. “The rain is very symbolic of the struggle and the obstacles that become our fuel,” said Oakland native and musician Fantastic Negrito, who performed during the ceremony.
In West Oakland at the intersection of Mandela Parkway and Huey P. Newton Way on Sunday, Oct. 24, an assemblage of Black Panther members, family, and neighbors—a mixed group but predominantly Black—gathered in the rain to share remembrances and stories at the statue unveiling, a culmination of events in Oakland celebrating the Black Panther Party’s 55th anniversary. Mingling in the crowd were many artists including musician Dwayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné!, musician and Oakland arts commissioner Kev Choice, developer of augmented-art applications Damien McDuffie, and Bobby McCall, a Black Panther member and the father of Digital Underground co-founder Money B.
“You are all here today to witness history,” said Gina Belafonte, the event emcee and daughter of actor Harry Belafonte, a longtime financial contributor and supporter of the Black Panthers. Belafonte shared the origin story of the Black Panthers as an organization. “Public art is incredibly important. It is a way in which we can build a dialogue around telling accurate history.” The Huey P. Newton bust, Belafonte noted, is one of the first permanent pieces of art honoring a member of the Black Panther party on public land in the city where the organization was founded.
There was a sense of reverence for the speakers, who included Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. (son of Chicago chapter Black Panther Fred Hampton), and Dr. Melvin Newton, Huey Newton’s brother. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also spoke in support of the art and the Black Panthers; however, she was met with some derision and boos from several crowd members as soon as she took the podium. Each speaker gave praise to the fortitude of Fredrika Newton, widow of Huey and co-founder and president of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. Fredrika was a prominent presence throughout the festivities—speaking, greeting, and taking photos with elder Black Panther Party members.
The bust unveiling closed out a full month of Black Panther Party celebrations marking the organization’s 55-year anniversary—including a memorial dedication on Saturday at Bobby Hutton Park, and the reopening of The All Good Bakery—and honoring the organization’s contributions, which are still influencing life and culture in Oakland and throughout the world.
Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in 1966. The party is best known for its 10-Point Program, which many say is still relevant today: a platform and manifesto outlining issues such as wanting freedom, full employment, healthcare, education, housing, and an end to wars, among other things. In addition, the party started a free breakfast program for children, medical clinics focusing predominantly on African Americans, housing cooperatives, art, and a newspaper. Huey Newton attended Oakland Tech High School, Merritt College in Oakland with Bobby Seale, and later received a Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz in social philosophy. Huey was killed in 1989 in Oakland, not far from the spot where his statue now stands.
Artists and community activists noted the importance of the Black Panther Party’s contributions both worldwide and locally in Oakland, where the organization was founded.
“It’s very humbling and it’s also progress saying look how we can continue to keep moving forward and honoring those that may not have taken the traditional route,” said community organizer and Oakland rapper Stanley “Mistah F.A.B” Cox.
Artist Rachel Wolf-Goldsmith was also present. Wolf-Goldsmith painted the large-scale mural on a West Oakland home honoring women members of the Black Panther Party. “Even with the rain and the wind it feels like the spirit [of Huey] is with us,” said Wolf-Goldsmith, also known as Wolfe_Pack. The recently completed mural, just two blocks from the new bust, contains hand-painted names of the women of the Black Panther Party who stood on the front lines creating programs to have the basic needs, such as the free breakfast program and childcare, and who are often overlooked. The house is also a museum for the Black Panther Party.
The Huey P. Newton Foundation-supported bust was created by Dana King, former journalist and the sculptor behind Monumental Reckoning in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Guided by Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. King’s grandson told her about a dream he’d had of a panther in her studio after a conversation with Fredrika Newton, and thus began the journey of creating the bronze bust that became one of the first permanent artworks honoring the Black Panthers.
A few weeks before the unveiling, this reporter visited King’s art studio, where multiple pictures of Newton surrounded her. When King talks about creating the bust, she refers to it as though Newton is with her inside her studio.
King, a former KPIX reporter, said she went into detail to make sure the bust was representative of the Black Panther Party co-founder. She invited Ken Diamond, who used to cut Huey’s hair, to look at it. “He came over to my studio to make sure that it was right. I felt compelled to create him as authentically as I could…and as detailed as I could because I want people to look at him. I want them to look into his eyes and I want them to question where did that come from to co-create the Panthers.”
The general sentiment of the attendees was that the late Newton was present during the festivities. The rain and wind, although challenging, was a statement of perseverance through adversity, a sentiment that has continued as part of the legacy of the Black Panther Party.
Once the bust was revealed and hugs were exchanged, there still wasn’t a sense of calm nor did the clouds part. While attendees continued to dance, sing, and converse in the rain, the bust unveiling festivities were about the need for continued progress, equity, and community being able to weather the storms of change. For a celebration that was 55 years in the making, a rainy day wouldn’t keep Oakland away.