All Aboard: Off the Pig 

On the Black Panther legacy Tour, history sits in the back of the bus

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998

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Hilliard's forebodings were borne out: Death, prison and exile left the Panthers leaderless and stalled until Newton was released from prison. Cleaver's "revolutionary" violence was too costly, and Newton renounced it. Panthers wouldn't flaunt their weapons anymore; there would be an end for a while to engagements with the cops. Instead, Newton proclaimed, the party would serve the poor black community by setting up model programs - an alternative school, a free clinic, free shuttle service for prisoners' families on visiting days.

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Surprisingly, the legacy tour skipped most of those sites, in particular the most prestigious - the Panther alternative school on East 14th Street, which flourished for a time with kudos from educators and state politicians. The explanation here may be that Hilliard, the tour's creator and interpreter, had by then been expelled from the party by a paranoid and vengeful Newton.

For Hilliard, mustachioed and muscular, the roseate portrait of the Panthers has proved to be worth more than just a place in history. He and Newton's widow recently managed to sell, through the Huey P. Newton Foundation, a collection of Panther papers to Stanford University for a six-figure price. And while Hilliard has failed so far to secure city funding for the tour, he did land a job last month as mayoral candidate Jerry Brown's new chief of staff.

In fairness to Hilliard, no bus tour could ever capture the troubling duality of what the Panthers became under Newton's later direction. A bitter personal and political split with Eldridge Cleaver led to a killing vendetta nationwide between the two factions (fueled by cheap FBI dirty tricks), and a mounting body count charged, in deliberate lies, to the FBI and police. Newton himself spiraled for years into a gangster/crime-boss mode, with hand-picked street toughs culled from often-dedicated Panther enlistees who joined with the best altruistic yearnings.

The Panther tour acknowledges simply enough the sorry, but all too familiar, fall from grace to ruination that even the great Huey Newton succumbed to. Hopeless addiction to crack cocaine drew him to the spot where he hoped to score with insufficient funds. He made a nuisance of himself once again, provoking a younger dealer who couldn't care less about Newton's stature - or even envied it - to blow him away.

Hilliard has owned that it was he who introduced his childhood friend Newton to the more addictive smoking of crack cocaine that finally claimed him, though Newton had sniffed prodigious amounts of coke for many years.

But on the bus tour for kids, he chooses to play a familiar note of conspiracy many in the black community believe - that crack cocaine was deliberately spread around big-city ghettos to enslave black people and keep them down. Many black people viewed Newton's addiction and death as part of that conspiracy. "They finally got him" was a commonly voiced view in '89 when he died.

It's a final prevarication, a fitting close to a tour that skirted the favorite haunts of the Panther leader, the hometown boy who loved his night sorties with his thuggish praetorian guards. The tour never touched those places, but they were as much a part of Oakland Panther lore as any other stop along the way.

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