By Kevin Newhouse
It was May 10, 1978, on a Wednesday night, when The Mediterranean Bar in Seacliff (265 Center Ave., Aptos) was the scene of a violent bar brawl. No big deal, right? This type of event would hardly be newsworthy except this was no ordinary bar brawl. This fight led to the arrest of three men, one of whom was Black Panther Party leader, Huey Newton.
Newton was a political activist who, along with Bobby Seale, formed the Black Panther Party in October 1966. The two men were deeply influenced by Malcolm X who had been assassinated the year prior. The Panthers were heavily involved in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They had hoped to bring about social change and “freedom by any means necessary,” even if it involved violence or the threat of violence.
This approach had often led Newton to trouble. He had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Oakland Police officer John Frey in 1968. He had been accused of murdering 17-year-old Kathleen Smith and had also allegedly assaulted his own tailor, Preston Callins, by pistol-whipping him.
Newton was not perfect, by his own admission, but he was, however, a very intelligent and well-educated man. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1974 and in 1980 he earned his Ph.D. in the history of consciousness.
It was during his time at UCSC that the 36 year old Newton and his two associates, 29 year old bodyguard Robert Joe Heard, and 43 year old former black-activist William Henry Moore, were at The Mediterranean Bar on the night of May 10, 1978.
Kenny Hall, a 26-year-old Aptos resident, was also there that night. One of Hall’s friends, Mike Johnson, must have said something that Newton and Heard didn’t like. They approached the table where Johnson was sitting and told him “stand up if you want to do something about it.” As the man stood up, Newton punched him in the face. Hall, defending his friend, grabbed Newton by the throat and pushed him backwards towards the window. According to Hall, Newton said, “Do it. Use it.” This was an instruction to Heard who at this point was holding a gun. Heard, who stood 7 feet tall and weighed 300 pounds, replied by saying, “I don’t need a gun to whip his ass.”
After handing the gun to Newton, Heard and Hall began fighting. A gunshot was fired by Newton who was holding a gun straight up in the air. Newton then fired a second shot, this one toward Hall. Nobody was hit by any of the shots that were fired. However, during the melee, Hall suffered a bleeding head injury. He decided to call it quits by walking to a back room in the bar. While attempting to close the door, Newton tried forcing his way in while “waving a gun.” Newton and his two associates decided to leave The Mediterranean Bar just as a sheriff’s deputy arrived. Witnesses ran from the establishment yelling, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!”
The deputy drove after the trio and arrested them a short time later in Seacliff. Moore was found inside the getaway car. Heard was found on the porch of a nearby residence. Newton was caught hiding in an open field where a loaded and cocked .45 caliber gun was also found.
Newton was charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. Judge William Kelsay who declared, “This case is a can of worms”, eventually dropped all three charges. The incident took place during a bar fight where there is a lot of noise, a darkened area, a late hour, “and most importantly we have people who are drinking” said Kelsay. Conflicting statements from witnesses also played a significant factor in Kelsay’s decision.
In 1982, Newton had decided to disband the Black Panther Party after he had been accused of embezzling $600,000 of state aid to the Panther-founded Oakland Community School. The charge was dropped in 1989 after Newton pleaded no contest to a single allegation of cashing a $15,000 state check for personal use and was sentenced to six months in jail.
On August 22, 1989, after leaving an alleged crack house in West Oakland, Newton was shot down by 24-year-old BGF (Black Guerrilla Family) member and drug dealer Tyrone Robinson. Robinson was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Newton’s last words, as he stood facing his killer, were, “You can kill my body, and you can take my life but you can never kill my soul. My soul will live forever!” He was then shot twice in the face by Robinson.
For more information about the Aptos History Museum, upcoming events, or becoming a member of the museum, please visit www.aptoshistory.org. Today the Mediterranean Bar is a popular (and much safer) local sports bar.