Release of Black Panther leader renews decades-old debate

Marshall "Eddie" Conway was convicted in 1970 killing of officer

  • Marshall "Eddie" Conway is seen this file photo from 1970.
Marshall "Eddie" Conway is seen this file photo… (Baltimore Sun )
March 08, 2014|By Jean Marbella and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Arthur Turco had defended members of the Black Panther Party across the country, but it was in Baltimore that he would be arrested and jailed — on charges that he and members of the militant group had killed a suspected police informant within their ranks in 1969.

After a year in Baltimore's jail and a mistrial, Turco said he was offered a deal: plead guilty to a misdemeanor and go free on time served. After discussing it with his associate, William Kunstler — the radical lawyer who defended such brazen civil disobedients as the Chicago Seven and the Attica prison inmates — they decided to take the offer and run.

"'Let's just get the hell out of Baltimore,'" Turco remembers the famed lawyer saying.

Baltimore was a racially and politically tense city then, a period of immense tumult that came flooding back last week when Marshall "Eddie" Conway, a Black Panther leader convicted of killing a police officer in 1970, was released from prison.

"It was a time of revolution in the streets," recalled Thomas D'Alesandro III, who was then Baltimore's mayor. "It was a time of change and confrontation in every aspect of life. That was reflected in the mood of the people."

Conway, now 67, has always maintained his innocence. His supporters believe he was framed as part of a law enforcement campaign to destroy the Panthers, building their argument in large part on declassified FBI documents and other revelations that have demonstrated the depth of government efforts to stem the group's influence.

The Conway case touched off an intense crackdown on the Black Panthers, who clashed frequently with law enforcement and called police "pigs." But police union officials and the family of slain officer Donald Sager say they're convinced that Conway was the killer, regardless of the political sentiments of the time.

In the city that Conway has returned to, the Panthers no longer exist — but issues that they confronted, such as inner-city poverty and harsh police tactics, still resonate.

Also lingering is the controversy over connections to the group: Just last week, a nominee to head the Department of Justice's civil rights division was blocked by the Senate because of legal work he had done on behalf of a former Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer.

And then, as now, there were fears of government surveillance. When Turco, for example, sees the current revelations about government spying from the likes of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, he has to shake his head.

"We went through all that in the '60s," he said. "We hear what goes on today with the spying. It's the same as back then, the only difference is it's more sophisticated now."

Panthers in the city

The Black Panthers grew in prominence as they preached a message of economic and political empowerment in the years after 1968, when riots erupted in Baltimore and other cities following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The group offered community services such as free breakfasts for poor children and health clinics in underserved neighborhoods.

They also stressed self-defense against what they considered a brutal and repressive police force. Law enforcement agencies, however, considered the Panthers dangerous, prompting them to spy on the group and frequently arrest members.

Each side would point to the violence committed by the other: the police killing of Fred Hampton, a leader of the Illinois Panther group, as he slept; the conviction — later overturned — of Panthers founder Huey Newton in the shooting death of Oakland, Calif., police officer John Frey.

The Panthers in Baltimore and elsewhere continually worried that local and federal authorities had infiltrated their ranks. And indeed, once-secret documents from the FBI's counterintelligence program reveal that Baltimore agents kept tabs on black activists, developing informants and placing moles.

Their objectives: "exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting or otherwise neutralizing the activities of black nationalist … organizations."

One heavily redacted memo from Dec. 2, 1968, reads, "It is felt that the Black Panther Party can be effectively controlled in the Baltimore area."

Members complained that police harassed them — raiding their offices, breaking up peaceful rallies and arresting those associated with the group. Steve McCutchen, a former Panther, said in an interview he never had any problems with police when he was growing up in West Baltimore until he joined the group as a 19-year-old.

"The pigs came for us again," McCutchen wrote in an October 1969 entry in his diary, which was published years later as part of a book by Black Classic Press in Baltimore, started and run by former Panthers leader Paul Coates. "They don't want the Party to operate here. We must be doing something right."

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