Let Panthers Lie

TWO black men were shot to death last week. The murders had little in common. Yet Huey Newton and Yusef Hawkins are linked, not only because the shootings made national headlines, but also because it would be easy for blacks to draw from Mr. Newton's life the wrong response to Mr. Hawkins's death. Hawkins, 16, was killed in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y., by a gang of white youths. They were prowling for minority men thought to be dating a local white girl. Hawkins didn't know the girl; he had come to see a car for sale. But the whites surrounded Hawkins, brandishing baseball bats, until one drew a pistol and fired.

Huey Newton had died the day before, in the early morning hours on a mean street in Oakland, Calif. The circumstances of his death weren't newsworthy - it may have been drug-related, and the accused assailant is black - so much as Newton's fame. He was a co-founder in 1966 of the Black Panthers, an organization that stood first for black pride and self-help but then, increasingly, for black violence. Photographs from the period show the young Newton posing defiantly, heroically with a shotgun and a beret. Though the Panthers were once known for health and food plans, they quickly spun out of control and into blazing gun battles with police. By the end, in the early '70s, most Panthers were little better than criminal renegades under a patina of revolutionary rhetoric.

If the Panthers discredited themselves, though, the aspiration to ``Black Power!'' they stood for hasn't perished. It remains a strain in contemporary black thought, beside the more meliorist legacy of the civil rights movement.

In the wake of the Bensonhurst tragedy - with its parallels to the Howard Beach incident in 1986 - will more blacks ask themselves, ``Was Huey right?'' Will they see the civil rights effort as having failed, and will they entertain new temptations to the clenched fist?

Pantherism self-destructed and took many blacks down with it. It's not the answer to the abhorrent murder of Yusef Hawkins.

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