- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

Eldridge Cleaver never had a business card.
But he may well have if he made an appearance at the 35th anniversary reunion of the Black Panther Party, which commenced yesterday at the University of the District of Columbia.
In fact, many of those registering for the three-day event had scrapped their trademark black berets and leather jackets for polo shirts and Dockers.
They have high blood pressure and diabetes and glaucoma. They have sagging bellies and see-through hair.
Even if one used to refer to police as "pigs," and even if peers and colleagues in revolution died or were sent to prison, there is still that universal human curiosity: "How is so-and-so?"
The reunion was spawned during a pool party in Sacramento, Calif., after all, and even though there were plenty of vintage '60s greetings grappling of hands rather than grasping and T-shirts on sale still carried messages "It's Right to Rebel" there is now a genteel manner about the survivors.
Mr. Cleaver's best-selling 1968 autobiography, "Soul on Ice," fueled the Panthers the most militant black movement in American history.
"But he backed off, lightened up, as most of us do with age," said Elbert Howard, 64, who was Mr. Cleaver's right-hand man when the Panthers became a powerful and persistent force in the nation's black-power movement.
While Mr. Cleaver later embraced Christianity and renounced his radicalism, Mr. Howard embarked on a successful career in retail management.
"People now have to deal with what's happening," Mr. Howard said, perusing an impressive collection of black-and-white photos on exhibit in the lobby of the college auditorium. "You can't be picking up a gun all the time."
For the most part, the Black Panthers, like the hippies and other iconoclasts of the era, grew up, got jobs and had families.
"We're still activists," said Billy Jennings, a key figure in putting together the reunion. "It's just that you still have to have a J-O-B, and people have families to support, things to do and so the only time they can do things is on weekends."
But the old posters and photos that lined the auditorium gallery remind that this was an organization that was never taken lightly, from its inception in 1966 almost until its dissolution in the early '80s.
One poster advertises a memorial to Panther Bobby Hutton, "murdered by Oakland pigs April 12, 1968." Another simply reads "Power to the People" imposed over an afro-sporting black man, his clenched fist at the end of an arm draped in a chain.
The biggest difference between the Panthers and their peers in activism is that more than a few graduated from institutions with names like Angola and San Quentin. Despite that lineage, some Panthers even went on to teach at institutions with names like UCLA and Harvard.
While Mr. Cleaver lived to the age of 62 before succumbing to a heart attack four years ago, many other Panthers ended up in prison or died in violent confrontations with police "assassinated" say their friends and family.
Being a survivor made Akua Njeri a celebrity at yesterday's opening. She is the widow of Fred Hampton, a Panther who was killed by Chicago police during a raid.
It was the first time Mrs. Njeri has ever attended a Panther alumni function, although she has made a living as a speaker and advocate since Mr. Hampton's death in 1969.
"The Black Power Movement opened the door for the gay liberation movement, the women's movement, all those other rights groups came through the door we opened," she said.
She beamed proudly at her son, Fred Jr., who got out of prison in September after serving nearly 12 years for arson.
"I don't think the Black Panthers will ever be seen in the same light as the rest of the '60s," she said. "The Black Panthers changed the terrain and the ability to resist oppression."

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