Black Panther Party Marks 35 Years


WASHINGTON (AP) — His fellow Black Panther Party members will gather soon in the nation's capital to recall the days when they battled their own government, their comrades were slain and their revolution failed.

At the same time, 21 miles away, Marshall ``Eddie'' Conway will rise from his bunk at the maximum-security Maryland House of Corrections convinced of his innocence, as he has done for the past 32 years, and greet another day behind bars.

Conway won't attend the 35th anniversary reunion of the black power organization that scared the devil out of white America with rhetoric as searing as the fires that burned in Newark and Watts at the time.

But Conway has something to say to his old mates in the struggle: Please, don't forget the Panthers who are still behind bars.

``I want them to get serious about a national strategy to help us get out,'' said Conway, fingering his salt-and-pepper sideburns and raising his voice above the din in the prison visiting room.

``Guys are getting old, guys are getting sick and dying off,'' said the self-described political prisoner. ``And a whole lot of us are innocent.''

Up to now, small circles of family members and advocates have worked to win freedom for individual Panthers, but organizers of the Panther reunion hope to raise the issue's profile.

The three-day gathering will be held at the University of the District of Columbia, starting Thursday. It was postponed from last fall because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Several hundred former Panther members and supporters are expected to gather to view a photo exhibit, take in a film festival and share a buffet dinner.

They will also discuss topics like police brutality, Marxist-Leninist thought and youth organizing, issues that helped define both the Panthers and the turbulent times in which they grew to a membership of more than 5,000 in branches around the nation.

Possibly the most visible of the 1960s' radical groups, the black-bereted Panthers were unique within the burgeoning civil rights movement. Their embrace of weapons in defense of a black community they saw as under siege provided a stark contrast with the nonviolent tactics of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the Southern civil rights establishment.

Mostly forgotten is the vision the Black Panthers exhibited in establishing free breakfast programs for poor children, health clinics and pest control services for those who needed them.

It was the high-profile appearances of Panthers bearing rifles — often licensed and legal — and the gun battles with police, which took lives on both sides, that have fueled their legend.

Conway, convicted in a police killing in Baltimore, is among the 40 or so Black Panther Party members who are still in prison for convictions that occurred during the long hot summers three decades ago, according to the Jericho Movement, an advocacy group for people it terms political prisoners.

``I know I didn't kill anybody,'' said Conway, a grandfather of 10.

The prosecutor of his case insists the evidence showed Conway did.

``I don't have a second thought about that,'' said Peter D. Ward, now a criminal defense attorney in suburban Baltimore. ``We didn't try it as a special case or a political type of case. It was a homicide, and I'm convinced he did it.''

Prosecutors in criminal cases involving other ex-Panthers say much the same.

The Panthers' appeal on inmates' behalf comes at a time when Americans feel heightened fears of terrorism and violence. There was no public outcry when another radical from a generation ago, ex-fugitive Sara Jane Olson, recently received a strict sentence.

``If the focus of the reunion is to get criminal cases reopened or get people pardoned after 9-11, that's going to have a real hard time gaining any traction in America today,'' said Emory University historian David Garrow.

``Maybe, just maybe, some of them could have gotten a pardon when President Clinton left office in 2000 but now its hard to see how any governor, much less President Bush, would give any pardons in the absence of dramatic new evidence in a case.''

But advocates for Panthers said they are undeterred.

``No matter what you think of their politics, you have to look at the trials with some concern,'' said Robert J. Boyle, a lawyer who represents several imprisoned Panthers. ``They never got real trials. People didn't know about COINTELPRO at the time but the whole criminal justice system was infected with misconduct during that period.''

In 1967, the FBI launched a counterintelligence program — COINTELPRO — against what it termed ``black hate groups'' as well as other activists such as the Weathermen and the Socialist Workers Party.

Agents were assigned to ``expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists...,'' said FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a once-classified memo to field agents.

The program's most controversial efforts may have been instigating a bloody feud between the Panthers in Los Angeles and a rival black organization known as US.

``It is ... no exaggeration to say that Hoover's FBI waged war on black America,'' wrote Kenneth O'Reilly in his 1994 book ``Black Americans: The FBI Files.''

Crystal Hayes cannot remember details of the day she says marred her life — the day New York City police burst into her parents' apartment, shot at her father, Robert Hayes, and charged him with murder.

Crystal was just 3 years old that day, the last day she saw her father free.

He is still behind bars nearly three decades later, and his daughter, a politics and African-American studies major at Mount Holyoke College, wants to know why.

``I don't know what he did or didn't do. All I'm saying is that the atmosphere was so poisoned then, nobody knows for sure what happened. Thirty years is enough,'' she says.

Were the Panthers singled out for more severe sentences, or have they been held longer, because of their political activity? Even Boyle, the attorney, said it is hard to argue that because the vast majority were convicted of murder — a crime that can draw the death penalty.

``The severity of the charge makes it hard to compare,'' Boyle said.

Still some Black Panther prisoners have successfully challenged their convictions and imprisonment.

In 1990, Dhoruba Bin Wahad (previously known as Richard Moore) won his freedom after serving 19 years in prison. A New York state judge found the FBI had suppressed evidence that could have helped clear him in his 1971 murder trial.

Bin Wahad received a $1 million settlement from state police and the FBI and has moved to Ghana, said Boyle, who represented him.

In a celebrated case, ex-Panther Elmer ``Geronimo'' Pratt was released from prison in 1997 after serving 25 years for murder.

After numerous appeals, a judge granted Pratt a new trial in 1997, saying the credibility of a prosecution witness, who testified that Pratt had confessed to him, could have been undermined if the jury had known the man was an ex-felon and police informant.

The Panthers were founded in 1966 when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale began the practice of trailing police in Oakland, Calif., and witnessing arrests of blacks.

Panther ideology was a stew of leftist and black nationalist thought, rooted in the quest for racial equity and underpinned by Malcolm X's call for black self defense. The group's 10-point plan included demands that sound familiar today — from an end to police brutality to restitution for slave labor.

The Panthers sought exemption from military service for all black men, ``who should not be forced to defend a racist government,'' and the release from prison for all black people ``because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.''

The 10-point plan, however, was not what brought the Panthers acclaim in many parts of black America, primarily among youth. Some considered their uncompromising talk of self-defense and willingness to back it up with bullets as a dramatic counterbalance to mainstream civil rights leaders' nonviolent philosophy.

``We weren't about overthrowing the government, as some thought. We wanted to transform the condition black people lived under,'' said Kathleen Cleaver, former Panthers communications director and former wife of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

Garrow said, ``The image of the Panthers taking rifles into the (California) state capitol shocked the nation. It was a big, big, big stretch from what Martin Luther King and the Southern civil rights movement represented.

``The Panthers were very explicit champions of defensive violence, and maybe more than defensive violence,'' he said.

That is what prosecutors convinced a jury of in 1970 in Conway's case.

Conway was convicted in an April 1970 ambush in West Baltimore that killed one police officer and wounded a second. Police said at the time the shooting was an initiation rite for new members. Two other men were convicted in the attack.

An officer at the scene said he chased a gunman into an alley, a gunman he later identified as Conway. Conway says he wasn't present at the shooting site but he was convicted and sentenced to life plus 30 years.

Last year, the Baltimore City Council, passed a resolution urging Gov. Parris N. Glendening to pardon Conway. This prompted angry denunciation by city police officials, and the governor hasn't taken any action.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office said no one in the office is familiar with Conway's case and the file has been archived.

``We haven't seen any paperwork that would cause us to pull his file but we encourage anyone who feels they have been unfairly convicted to pursue their post-conviction motions and hearings to pursue their case,'' said Margaret T. Burns, an office spokesperson.

The Panthers gathering in Washington will be a bit grayer and a little paunchier than in their hellraising days. But they continue to claim a connectedness and commitment to civil rights.

Bobby Rush, who helped organize the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968 and is now a Democratic congressman from that state, said, ``One thing that unifies us to this day is our membership in the party and our passion for social justice. The issue of Panthers who are still unjustly behind bars is part of the same struggle.''

He said the reunion ``could be the genesis of a national focus on imprisoned Panthers across America.''

Other former Panthers have thrived, and some have faded away.

Eldridge Cleaver died after a heart attack in 1998. Huey Newton battled drug addiction before being shot to death by a crack dealer in 1989. Bobby Seale, who wrote a 1988 cookbook titled ``Barbeque'n with Bobby,'' makes the rounds on the public speaking circuit. Assata Shakur, who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper, escaped from prison in 1979 and now lives in exile in Cuba.

Kathleen Cleaver teaches at Emory Law School in Atlanta

Back to home page