Jail walls can't halt bond of dad, son

The Baltimore Sun

Marshall "Eddie" Conway has been a better father behind prison walls than a lot of guys who are outside of them.

Eddie Conway is many things to many people. For some, he's a former Black Panther. A militant. A revolutionary. A leader in the Baltimore chapter of an organization that was described by some federal government officials as being the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And there are some who call him a cop killer.

On the night of April 24, 1970, Baltimore police Officers Donald Sager and Stanley Sierakowski were gunned down in an ambush on Myrtle Avenue.

Sager died of his wounds. Conway and fellow Black Panthers Jack Ivory Johnson and James Powell were convicted.

The state's star witness against all three was jailhouse informant Charles Reynolds, who testified that Eddie Conway told him details only a guilty man would know.

For Ronald Conway, Eddie Conway is simply "Dad," the man who, though behind prison walls serving a life sentence, still managed to scrounge up the money to buy Ronald his first computer, a Commodore 128. (Paul Coates, a book publisher and former captain of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party, said that Eddie Conway sent him the money -- a combination of prison earnings and donations -- to buy Ronald's computer.)

Others -- mainly a loyal cadre of supporters -- think of Eddie Conway as something other than a cop killer.

Freedom fighter. Hero. Martyr. A victim of one of the most outrageous frame-ups in the annals of COINTELPRO, the FBI operation used to neutralize black radical groups and prevent the rise of a "black messiah."

For Ronald, his dad is the loving father who gave him a reality check when the younger Conway made the football team at Walbrook High School and thought he had a serious shot at making the pros. It was Eddie Conway who sat down with Ronald again years later, when the son was playing basketball at what would become Coppin State University.

"I played basketball at Coppin for 2 1/2 years," Ronald said. "I was getting C's. I had a little talk with my father again. We both agreed that my getting a degree was more important than playing basketball."

Ronald quit the team. He boosted his grade-point average and graduated as a Ronald McNair Scholar with a degree in computer science. Then he headed to Bowling Green University and earned his master's degree in computer science in 1992.

Eddie Conway is more than a hero or martyr to Ronald; he's the man who, more than any other person, is responsible for his son being a professor of computer science at Bowling Green University.

Ronald speaks in a calm voice and seems to have a quiet demeanor that's the very antithesis of the era that spawned him. He was born in September 1964, the same year three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. He was still in diapers when Malcolm X was assassinated and the Watts area of Los Angeles erupted into one of the worst riots in the nation's history in 1965.

These were events that helped steer Eddie Conway into the Black Panther Party. Yes, the group was militant and advocated revolution, but Ronald dismisses out of hand the notion that his father is a cop killer.

"I once asked about the informant in his cell," Ronald said of one of the many discussions he's had with his father. "After a brief explanation of how insane it would have been for him to ever speak to this guy, the conversation turned to where the informant lived now and his health condition. It turns out the guy lives near me. I asked if I could talk to him to get him to recant his testimony. My father didn't want me to do it. For the longest time, my father's goal was to keep me out of the political climate and have me focus on my education."

Ronald hasn't stayed completely out of the political climate. That's hard to do when Eddie Conway's your father. When his dad was moved last month from the Maryland Correctional Training Center at Hagerstown to the Western Correctional Institute at Cumberland, Eddie Conway's cadre of supporters swung into action, seeking to get the former Panther sent back closer to Baltimore.

Ronald was instrumental in that effort, talking on the phone to supporters and telling them about the reasons corrections officials gave for the transfer. The efforts of the supporters paid off: Eddie Conway was moved back to Hagerstown this week.

"I am very happy about the news that my father has been moved back," Ronald said. "I am more happy to see his support system hard at work."

No doubt Eddie Conway is thinking of his return to Hagerstown as an early Father's Day gift, courtesy of his supporters and one persistent, dedicated and loving son.


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