OAKLAND — Time forgot Gene McKinney, the former Black Panther who died in relative obscurity this month.
But to members of the party, McKinney was a legend as the man who twice saved party leader Huey Newton.
It was McKinney, they recall, who dragged a bleeding Newton to safety after he was involved in a street shootout that left a policeman dead. And it was McKinney who later came out of hiding to testify in Newton’s defense.
“He was a hero to us Panthers,” said former Panther chief of staff
Like Hilliard and Panther co-founders Newton and Bobby Seale, McKinney was born in West Oakland. Hilliard and McKinney went to McClymonds High School together, where McKinney played football and graduated in 1960.
On the night of the shooting, Oct. 28, 1967, McKinney had been helping Hilliard with a party to raise bail for Seale. Seale was in jail after taking a gun to the state Capitol to demonstrate the Panther’s vow to resist any abuse of police authority.
McKinney and Newton had gone to replenish party food supplies when they were pulled over by police. There was a confrontation, then shots were fired. Newton was hit in the stomach, and Officer John Frey was mortally wounded.
McKinney got Newton away by commandeering a passing car at gunpoint, Hilliard said. Newton later was taken to the hospital for treatment, where he was arrested. McKinney went into hiding.
Six months later, McKinney appeared at Newton’s trial for Frey’s murder. He was promptly arrested, put on the stand and asked by the defense if he had shot Frey. McKinney caused a sensation when he responded by taking the Fifth Amendment.
“He drew suspicion to himself which at the same time raised some questions about whether Huey Newton had killed the policeman,” said Clayborne Carson, a Stanford historian and director of the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. McKinney got six months in jail for failing to testify, but was freed after about three months by a ruling from the state Supreme Court.
Newton was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, a conviction that later was set aside. He was freed in 1970 and in 1974 went into self-imposed exile in Cuba. He was shot to death by a drug dealer in 1989.