Huey P. Newton: The Black Panther Party and the press
How the most notorious African American liberation group used PR to impact change
By: Ana Santos
Social and racial justice topics are ingrained in the everyday language that public relations professionals use in 2021. Nowadays, companies and corporate entities actually want to be perceived as socially conscious. The clients that outsource public relations are placing a priority on being known for contributing to equity in America.
It was not too long ago that taking a stance against racism and inequality was unthinkable for corporations and unaffected individuals. African American communities were buckling under the strain of the absence of social support programs and the threat of violence from the police.
Foundations of the Black Panther Party
Huey P. Newton was a 24-year-old recent graduate of Merritt College when he co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 in Oakland, California. The group was formed to protect the black community in the area, as well as create social programs for the underserved regardless of race. Not only was the party responsible for the creation of over 60 community support programs (including their own ambulance service), Newton used the party to advocate an agenda of “revolutionary humanism” to the press.
Newton and the press
Journalism students study well-revered news reporters and pioneers in public relations, but rarely focus on the leaders of social movements. Gaining momentum for a revolutionary organization requires a lot of publicity, and the Black Panthers were often covered but not in a positive light.
“The media, like most of white America, was deeply frightened by their aggressive and assertive style of protest,” said Jane Rhodes, an African American studies professor at the University of Illinois.
The very first time that the New York Times covered the Black Panther Party was a 1967 report titled, “Armed Negroes Protest Gun Bill” and the paper used “antiwhite” to describe the party. This is obviously a gross misrepresentation of the Panthers and their initial goal, which was to end police brutality against black people.
Utilization of Negative Media Coverage
Days after the first NYT article was published, a reporter from the paper visited Newton with the intent to profile the young leader. The resulting profile was inflammatory and focused mainly on the Black Panthers’ use of firearms for self-defense. This coverage skyrocketed Newton’s public image and solidified his name as a prominent civil rights leader. He used this to his advantage and gave speeches, visited city council meetings and led protests that were all covered widely.
This had little to do with outstanding support from the majority of the public for civil rights or revolutionary politics. Newton used his infamy and notoriety to drum up excitement and coverage of the black power movement. This is incredibly impressive when considering how much danger he faced from white supremacist terrorists. New chapters of the Black Panther Party began to arise, and more and more programs were put in place.
Huey P. Newton was an integral figure in the early coverage of the civil rights movement. His legacy as a leader who used the hostile media to advance equity in America should be recognized as revolutionary in itself.
About the Author: Ana Santos is a young public relations professional based in Denton, Texas. Santos is studying journalism at the University of North Texas and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in December 2021.
This material was written for and provided by AGENZ PR, a student-led PR firm specializing in matters of diversity, inclusion, and the Gen Z perspective. AGENZ teams are comprised of PR students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, all of whom are dedicated to providing clients with insightful and digitally innovative work products to enhance business practices. Students learn and excel by getting hands-on, professional experience in the public relations industry.