Let's not mince words. When I heard that former Black Panther misleader Eldridge Cleaver had died last week, my immediate reaction was, "Damn! Stupid Negro died 30 years too late!"
Of course, that's not very nice. When someone dies, you're supposed to say all the smarmy, heartwarming, touchy-feely things that make us all fuzzy inside. Sorry, I can't do it for Cleaver, who'll forever be at the top of my "Least Favorite Panther" List.
Cleaver never met a profane word he didn't like. In an age when leftists had an inflated sense of self-importance, Cleaver racked up frequent-flier miles on Ego Trip Airlines. He seriously proposed assassinating Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Toure) and James Forman for their lack of devotion to Panther revolutionary idiocy. He was the very personification of the guy all kids' parents tell them to avoid when they grow up.
This is the character who, within days of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, was leading armed Panthers on a mission to ambush Oakland, Calif., police. When the police, predictably, won the ensuing shootout, Cleaver was cowering in a basement with the idealistic but very naive 17-year-old Bobby Hutton. Cleaver and Hutton surrendered and came out of the basement with their hands raised. When Hutton stumbled and reflexively lowered his hands, police opened up on the youth and killed him.
It was Cleaver who should have received those bullets. It was Cleaver who, at age 33, should have shown some restraint, caution and wisdom in the wake of King's death. Instead, he led a boy on a suicide mission. That, perhaps, was the greatest of Cleaver's sins. But it was by no means his only one.
The Black Panther Party started out with a noble mission: policing the Oakland Police Department. Panthers would follow police around, monitoring their activity and making sure their mission of "serving and protecting" did not include the brutality that made Oakland police notorious. (Oakland police were so bad, Hugh Pearson wrote in his "Shadow of the Panther," that in the years immediately after World War II they would lie in wait for black Oaklanders who cashed their checks at liquor stores, arrest them, beat them and then steal their week's wages.)
Armed Panthers policing the police did not endear them to the power structure. But in so doing the Panthers carried out the most revolutionary act in American history. Yes, that includes the Founding Fathers' revolt against British authority. Challenging a police department that was brutal, corrupt and racist and suggesting that poor black ghetto residents had rights as American citizens was a powerful revolutionary statement.
And downright American, I might add. Today, we see armed right-wing militia groups popping up across the country complaining of federal government repression. It might be tempting to call them descendants of the Panthers, but right-wing militias really haven't seen government repression - not the way the Panthers saw it.
But it was Cleaver, more so than any other Panther, who steered the group away from its original mission. After the Panthers became nationwide causes celebres - mainly due to Cleaver's efforts through the Panther newspaper - their mission expanded to include advocating overthrowing the "capitalist-pig" U.S. government and replacing it with a Marxist-Leninist one.
That such a revolution was a fatuous delusion never dawned on Panther leadership. Soon their revolutionary passion degenerated into dogmatism. Panthers often provoked FTC confrontations with black nationalist groups. On the West Coast it was the US organization (with an assist from the FBI's COINTELPRO program). Here in Baltimore it was the S.O.U.L. School; in Philadelphia, the Nation of Islam.
Cleaver tucked his tail between his legs and bolted for Cuba when his parole (he was a convicted rapist) was revoked after the shootout with police in which Hutton was killed. Later he went to Algeria before returning to the United States, loudly proclaiming that Communist regimes "strapped the most repressive regimes on people."
No kidding, Eldridge. The loutish liar knew that before he even left the country. It was right in his own Panther Party newspaper that he expressed admiration for the way Josef Stalin had purged Trotskyists from the Soviet Union. I guess he figured no one had read it.
But here's something we should pass on reading: those sappy Cleaver obituaries that have cropped up in the past week.
Pub Date: 5/06/98