Students of 1960s history will remember Eldridge Cleaver as the young revolutionary in the black beret, the spokesman for the Black Panthers, the prison-educated Marxist with a gun who believed the only way to oppose police violence was to shoot back.
Now listen to this:
"Truly, the United States of America is the free-est and the most democratic country in the world. . . . I love this country."
That was Eldridge Cleaver speaking yesterday at Anne Arundel Community College, 26 years after he fled the country after a shootout with police in Oakland, Calif. He's 58 now, wearing a gray goatee, wire-rimmed glasses and a dark suit, and advocating compassion and racial harmony.
"I'm happy and proud to be able to stand up in the United States and speak freely," he told a capacity crowd of about 360 in an appearance sponsored by the Black Student Union in observance of Black History Month. For children of the 1960s, it was like hearing Timothy Leary do a "Just Say No" radio spot.
The violent approach embraced by the Panthers was right in its time, he said, but that time has passed.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense sought justice against what it considered systematic and violent persecution of black Americans by police in Oakland and elsewhere. Blacks still suffer police brutality, Mr. Cleaver said, but it is at least possible for blacks to find justice -- through the legal and political system he worked to tear down.
He said he renounces divisive racial politics, regardless of who practices it. In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Cleaver condemned the anti-Semitic, anti-white rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, to which he once belonged. He said the group led by Louis Farrakhan is constructive in advocating black economic independence and "clean living" but that "if we accept a racist doctrine, we put ourselves on the same level as the Ku Klux Klan."
Mr. Cleaver, whose autobiographical best-seller, "Soul on Ice," was published in 1968, fled the country that year after being charged in connection with a shootout with police that left one of his friends dead and several police officers wounded. He spent seven years in Cuba, Algeria and several countries that at the time were part of the communist bloc.
When he returned to the United States in 1975, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer and performed 2,000 hours of community service.
Mr. Cleaver had served prison terms in the 1950s and 1960s for sexual assault and for possession of marijuana.
He said his experience overseas persuaded him to renounce communism and to think better of the United States.
"I began to appreciate my own country. . . . You think we have racism? Go to Bosnia. You go to other parts of the world, they have primitive racism."
He encouraged young people to take advantage of the "wonderful, great opportunity" they have for education, to reject the temptation to quit school and work a job for the short-term gain.
But make no mistake, Mr. Cleaver still holds some views that might not be considered mainstream.
For one thing, he advocates legalization of drugs combined with intensive education about their harmful effects. He says narcotics laws have served chiefly to make millionaires of international drug chieftains and criminals of many young urban blacks.
"I don't mind people using drugs," he said in an interview after his hourlong speech. "I put it on the same level as alcohol."
He calls the war on drugs a "sham" and says the federal government has surreptitiously conspired to foment violence in urban neighborhoods by hiring agents to carry out drive-by shootings.
"I do not believe that it is a natural phenomenon" as a result of drug peddlers' turf wars, he said, referring to drive-by shootings.
He said Congress should investigate the role of the FBI and the CIA in urban violence, much as a congressional committee looked at the FBI's role in intelligence-gathering against radical groups such as the Black Panthers in the 1960s.
Asked what evidence he has of the government's secret activities, Mr. Cleaver said, "Just in my daily life, seeing what goes on."