15 March 2011

Jonah Raskin : Don Cox, the 'Wistful' Panther

Former Black Panther Field Marshal Don Cox -- shown with his son in exile in Algiers -- died last month. Image from Black Bird Press.

Donald Cox, 1936-2011:
The beauty of the moon
and the passion of the Black Panthers

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / March 15, 2011

It was sad news that former Black Panther, Don Cox, died in France, February 19, 2011, at the age of 74, but I had to laugh at The New York Times obituary by Bruce Weber that described the Panthers as “the socialist movement founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., in 1966.” True, the Panthers were founded by Newton and Seale in 1966 in Oakland, but they were not a socialist movement, not by any stretch of the imagination.

They did for a time provide breakfast for children and they did want community control of institutions, such as police departments and schools, in black neighborhoods, but they did not advocate socialism.

They were part of the Black Nationalist movement that made allies with young, radical whites, and they also shared optimism and the political tactics of the anti-colonial upsurges that spread across the Third World in the 1960s.

I met Donald Cox -- “DC” as we called him -- and got to know him, briefly, in Algiers in 1970. I had gone to Algiers with a group of Yippies to meet Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy Leary, both of whom were wanted by U.S. authorities and were living in exile.

DC was the mellowest. DC was the coolest, and much less of a megalomaniac or egomaniac than Cleaver or Leary. In fact, he wasn’t a megalomaniac or an egomaniac at all. He didn’t want to change the world with guns or LSD and he didn’t want to run it either. Like Cleaver and Leary, he was also wanted by the FBI and considered “dangerous,” but he seemed wistful to me.

From left, Black Panthers Big Man, Don Cox, and June Hilliard at Panther national headquarters, Oakland, California, 1970. Image from gothamist.

In Algiers, he was concerned about the security of the Panthers and their Embassy because CIA agents monitored their activities. He was also a gracious host who took us -- Stew Albert, Anita Hoffman, Brian Flanagan, Jennifer Dohrn, Marty Kenner and me -- on a tour of the city, pointing out historical landmarks. He brought us one afternoon to the Place du Martyrs and explained that the French had executed suspected Algerian guerrillas here and then dumped their bodies into the harbor.

He turned to Jennifer Dohrn and asked her, “What color is that water?” She looked down. I looked down. We all did. “It’s reddish-blue,” Jennifer said. And indeed it was. It looked like the sea was awash in blood. “The Algerians say that it’s their blood that gives it that color,” DC explained. “The red blood of the guerrillas changed the color of the Mediterranean.”

At a feast at a seafood restaurant, DC was our official host and sat at the opposite head of the table from Cleaver. He ordered food for everyone -- shrimp and fish and white wine. DC was also made uneasy by two African Americans at the bar who said they were from San Francisco, and whom he suspected worked for the CIA. Sekou, one of the Panthers, spoke softly.

“I got us all covered,” he said. And indeed he did. I looked under the table and saw that he had a gun in his hand. I was confident he’d use it if need be. He had hijacked an airplane at gunpoint to get to Algiers.

DC didn’t have a gun in Algiers. I never saw him with one, either under a table or on his own person, though I did see Cleaver with an AK-47 in his lap. In 1970, DC expressed concern about living in exile. He hoped that he would not have to remain for the rest of his life outside his own native country. He missed San Francisco.

He did live in exile for the next 40 years of his life; his widow noted that before his death, exile had begun to wear on him. I’m sure it did and yet what strikes me most about DC now is his longevity. He lived longer than many of the Black Panthers, such as Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver, who became a born-again Christian, a Republican, and a crack-head in the 1990s in Oakland.

DC never turned his back on his ideals, his passion for justice or his appreciation of beauty.

One night, we all looked up at the moon and admired its beauty.

“In Babylon, you can’t appreciate the moon’s beauty,” DC told us. “But here you have the time and space to dig on it.” That’s the way I’d like to remember DC, the Black Panther Field Marshal, who lived more than half his life in exile, and who learned in exile to appreciate the beauty of the moon.

[Jonah Raskin teaches at Sonoma State University and is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman.]

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