by Susan Larson, Book editor, The Times-Picayune
May 13, 2009
This story begins with an unlikely friendship between an Uptown woman
buying pralines for a Thanksgiving family gathering and a
praline-maker who was freed from Louisiana State Penitentiary at
Angola as one of the famous Angola 3.
When Orissa Arend -- social worker, mediator and journalist -- met
Robert King Wilkerson (who now calls himself Robert Hillary King),
she knew a good story when she saw it. Arend made King's candy-making
business -- he calls his confections "Freelines" -- the subject of a
National Public Radio feature and began to write about King in
several columns for The Louisiana Weekly.
Arend gathered stories as she continued to visit King. One day, he
introduced her to his friend Marion Brown, who was a student at
Newcomb in the 1970s. "I happened to have my tape recorder with me,"
Arend said, "and Marion started telling me the Panther story."
One thing led to another, one person led to another, and after 44
columns for The Louisiana Weekly, eventually published as a booklet
in 2003, Arend has a fleshed-out, full-length book.
"Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans"
(University of Arkansas Press, $29.95) is an illuminating look at the
Black Panther Party's history in New Orleans, the turbulent racial
climate of New Orleans in the 1960s, and the founding of the local
party, which was committed to improving the lives of local
African-Americans by challenging discriminatory white political power
Arend's story builds to a description of the 1970 shootout in the
Desire public housing development, the "thirty-minute war," when
police attempted to evict the Panthers from their office there. At
the end of the day, almost unbelievably, there was only one casualty,
Kenneth Borden, who was shot in front of a nearby grocery store.
There was a subsequent daylong standoff between Panthers and police
Arend, who was one of the organizers of a 2003 forum commemorating
those events, one which brought together principals from both sides,
still thinks we have lessons to learn.
"I can't figure out why this story was completely repressed and taken
out of memory," she said. "And as a psychotherapist it holds a lot of
lessons for today.... I would hope that one lesson would be that if
we have the will to do it, we can actually discuss the difficult
issues and surmount the misunderstandings so we're not sweeping these
horrible problems under the rug anymore. That was one thing that the
Panthers accomplished and we certainly wouldn't want it to be
accomplished that way again. Oppressed people -- and there are many
oppressed people in New Orleans -- finally felt that their reality
was being acknowledged, not really dealt with, but at least they
weren't invisible any more.
"Then, being New Orleans and having had Katrina, we can't pretend
that we don't need each other, that we're not one city. Extreme
problems with race and crime and poverty are realities, not realities
we can ignore."
King has also been hard at work on a book, "From the Bottom of the
Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King" (PM
Press, $24.95), begun in Angola, where he said reading, writing and
exercising eased his days in solitary confinement.
"In Angola I came in contact with books and authors I didn't know
anything about: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison," he said, speaking
from his post-Katrina home in Austin, where he still makes his Freelines.
"I didn't know anything about the great writers of Africa and Europe
and the Harlem Renaissance and all the people who go with it. And,"
he laughed, "I read Louis L'amour. I read every last one of his
cowboy books and enjoyed them. I didn't discriminate. I used to love
to find the release and relief in thinking."
His autobiography was hammered out on a manual typewriter. (When
Arend learned this, she told him, "Get to a Kinko's immediately!")
"From the Bottom of the Heap" is a powerful story of growing up poor
in New Orleans, Gonzales and Donaldsonville; King's various struggles
with the law; his long incarceration (29 years); his relationship
with human rights activist Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop;
and his release from prison in 2001.
It has all the makings of a classic of the African-American
experience: the struggle against long odds, the sense of prison as a
possible destiny and the final triumph of the spirit.
King stays in touch with his friends Albert Woodfox and Herman
Wallace, the other members of the Angola 3, three young inmates who
tried to expose segregation, corruption and abuse at Angola.
"I want to keep the focus on prisons," he said of his book. "People
seem to have the idea that somehow prisons are acceptable entities in
any society and some people feel that the way they are is inevitable
and there shouldn't be any change or reason to change. My experience
tells me there is a reason to refocus on prisons and try to change them."
For a man released after such a long, unjust incarceration, King
seems remarkably centered and generous.
"What brings me the most joy? After having gone through some of the
things I've gone through, I guess it's giving hope to people who
remain in the places where I've been," he said. "I find joy in giving hope."
The two will appear together at two community forums in the coming
weeks, along with others who either participated in the events --
such as priests William Barnwell and Jerome LeDoux; Bob Tucker, who
worked for Mayor Moon Landrieu; and Malik Rahim, one of the founding Panthers.
Arend ends her book on a wistful note of reaching across the divide,
suggesting that perhaps we all have a bit of the internal Panther.
"I fell in love with them," she said. "I'm still in love with them. I
fell in love with the strength their beliefs and principles gave
them, their ability to survive.
"But I'm not a revolutionary, I'm a really committed pacifist. I'm
not a historian, I'm a mediator. This is not my story, it's their story."
Orissa Arend ('Showdown in Desire: the Black Panthers Take a Stand in
New Orleans') and Robert King ('From the Bottom of the Heap: The
Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King') will appear at
several upcoming events:
Panel discussions: "Free the Angola 3 and All Political Prisoners:
Strategies, Insight and Wisdom,' May 20, and 'Black Panthers Speak to
Post-Katrina New Orleans: Survival Programs -- Past and Present,'
June 3, both 7 p.m. at Ashe Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle
Book signings: tonight, 6:30 p.m., Trinity Episcopal Church, 1329
Jackson Ave.; Tuesday, 4 p.m., Amistad Research, Center, Tilton Hall,
Tulane University; and Friday, May 22, 6 p.m., Community Book Center,
2523 Bayou Road