After nearly 50 years in exile, former KC Black Panther leader Pete O'Neal speaks from Africa
He took a bullet on Troost Avenue, spewed Marxist rage, declared war on police and tried to start a revolution.
Funny what would now make a guy like that happy.
“They are building me a goat house,” Pete O’Neal says in a telephone interview from a village between two east African mountains.
He’s at home in his old chair, surrounded by 21 children who call him “Babu,” meaning grandfather, though he is that to none of them. In photos and videos, he doesn’t look like much of a fugitive; no “go bag” in sight. He’s 76 with a degenerative spine, cataracts and prostate issues. A body worn out except for the smile.
But if he were to leave Tanzania, where he’s lived nearly 50 years, and travel to the U.S., he would likely be arrested for a gun conviction dating to when he led the Black Panthers during the 1960s in Kansas City. He might be the last black militant of the era still at war with the U.S government.
He was a street kid and ex-con. Smart, gifted with charisma. His call for armed revolution served as a clarion to those like him and they followed him into the fray.
Most everybody else feared him, or hated him — him in his beret and sunglasses, disrupting polite company, barging into hallowed chambers, denouncing the way things had always been. He crashed a church service, brawled at police headquarters and stormed a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington.
Kansas City had never seen anybody like him. And it hasn’t seen him for a long time.
But a year ago, a new push began for a presidential pardon for O’Neal, who in 1970, facing four years in federal prison — and fearing the same bloody end for himself as for other dead Panthers — fled the country.
First to Sweden, then to Algeria and finally to Tanzania, where O’Neal and his wife, Charlotte, run the United African Alliance Community Center and school, which they founded in 1991 to serve the poor families and children around Imbaseni village.
“That’s what the Black Panther Party originally set out to do, and we are continuing that work here,” he said. “People remember the guns and rage. We were so much more than that.”
Visitors from all over the world, including study-abroad groups from American schools, visit the community center.
Leading the pardon effort is U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who is O’Neal’s third cousin. Others joined in with letters and emails to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department. But now less than a week remains before President Barack Obama, thought to be O’Neal’s best hope, leaves office.
Cleaver, who first sought a pardon 25 years ago when he was Kansas City’s mayor, said Thursday that he had not heard any news of a pardon, so one seems unlikely. He says O’Neal was not even in the car where authorities found a shotgun, but that he, like other black militants of the time, had been targeted by police and FBI agents.
“Mr. O’Neal was wrong to flee the country, but he felt that he would be railroaded to federal prison or even killed while in police custody,” Cleaver said. “This is a nonviolent 75-year-old man who has done remarkable things in Africa.”
Quiet during all this? O’Neal.
He’s not asked for a pardon. A greater cause than himself, he said, is recent police shootings and what he sees as America’s continued social injustice and inequality.
“That’s where you will hear my voice, and that’s where I hope to hear yours,” he said in a recent Facebook post.
Certainly not everybody supports a pardon. Cleaver acknowledges that O’Neal made lots of mistakes back in the day — some that people will never forgive. One that stands out is a Black Panther article that spoke of jubilation when an off-duty Kansas City police officer, John Dacy, was killed trying to stop a robbery.
Dacy’s son has made clear over the years that he opposes a pardon, saying he has no sympathy for O’Neal, and if he wants to return to Kansas City, he should come back and face his punishment like a man.
In recent months, Obama has issued more than a hundred pardons and commutations, mostly for people sentenced to lengthy sentences because of mandatory minimum terms. But some big names are out there for other offenses: Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, Native American activist Leonard Peltier and government surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.
O’Neal’s younger brother, who was there at 3 a.m. when Pete and Charlotte made their escape by crawling on their bellies down an alley and into the trunk of a waiting car, thinks a pardon now wouldn’t mean much.
“Pete has done so much good in Africa — he is content and his life is fulfilled,” said Brian O’Neal, who lives in Kansas City. “But he could have done it here. Whether he talked to one person or 10,000, people reacted to him. What happened to Pete is Kansas City’s loss.”
He paused for the brother he hasn’t seen in 30 years.
“And certainly my family’s loss.”
Don’t get Pete O’Neal wrong — he would accept a pardon. He would very much like to see his 96-year-old mother, who lives in a nursing home here.
Other than that, he says he’s been gone too long.
“I’ve lived in a remote African village for the majority of my life. Quite frankly, the thought of returning would terrify me. This land is my home now.
“I stopped dreaming about Kansas City a long time ago.”
The last time he did dream of his hometown, police with lions on leashes were chasing him through derelict buildings.
Battling the police
As a boy he ran the streets of a segregated city. He didn’t know he was running toward an explosion.
This was Pete O’Neal’s time.
Riots, marches, police dogs and shootings. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for nonviolence was undercut by a bullet on a Memphis balcony. Black nationalism sounded across the land.
Two days after King’s assassination, Black Panthers and police shot it out in Oakland. Then the same thing happened in Los Angeles. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
On Jan. 30, 1969, O’Neal, 29, announced the formation of a Black Panther chapter for Kansas City. Where did he do this? Where else — in the hallway on the fifth floor of Kansas City police headquarters.
He wore a black leather jacket, white turtleneck, beret and a “Free Huey (Newton)” button. As 30 or so supporters looked on, as well as a bunch of police officers, O’Neal read a list of demands, including “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.”
A news reporter asked: “You do advocate violence?”
O’Neal: “We advocate self-defense.”
He told a Star reporter that he was basically a petty criminal and street hustler until the riots in 1968 after King’s assassination. That sent him on a mission to lead the fight against “the racist power structure and their arm, the police department.”
That first year brought numerous confrontations with police and arrests of Panther members. O’Neal later admitted his intent was to start a war.
In May 1969, he and other Panthers crashed a Sunday service at the Linwood United Methodist Church, where then-Kansas City Police Chief Clarence Kelley attended. A melee ensued as O’Neal commandeered the microphone and another Panther took down the American flag.
That fall, O’Neal and other Panthers disrupted a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington with shouts that Kelley had provided guns to a white supremacist group. Nothing came of the claim, and Kelley later became FBI director.
In December 1969, Panthers tried to enter a press conference at Kelley’s office at police headquarters and fought with officers. The Panthers argued that they represented the chapter newspaper.
O’Neal ended up face on the floor, handcuffed. Reports differed as to blame for the fight.
“The sound of a club against a head or bone is not pleasant, but they (officers) were doing what they had to do to get them handcuffed,” said a WDAF reporter.
A KCMO reporter said the police used excessive force.
Kansas City Star reporter Harry Jones agreed the force used by police seemed excessive, but added the officers were clearly provoked and that the Panthers had constantly tried to test officers’ cool.
“Two or three officers flunked that test,” Jones said.
Fleeing the country
The next year O’Neal was found guilty of transporting a shotgun across the state line. He’d also used a false name to buy the weapon. Already a felon from a decade-old charge of receiving stolen property, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Like other militants and radicals from the era, he insists the prosecution was politically motivated.
“Anybody who goes quail hunting in Kansas takes a shotgun across the state line,” he said in a recent interview. “But they were determined to get me because of my old nemesis Clarence Kelley.”
O’Neal was allowed to go free until he was due to report to prison. That made him worry. Panthers and police by then had engaged in at least nine gun battles nationally, resulting in multiple deaths on both sides, including Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was killed at his apartment.
“I knew it was time to get out of Dodge,” O’Neal said last week.
Arrangements were made for cash and phony passports for O’Neal and his young wife. Before they left, he told Charlotte she didn’t have to go. They might never come back.
She smiled. She was just 17 the first time she heard him stir a crowd, and her heart.
“Of course I do,” she said. “I’m down for double.” (Mel Torme song lyric, look it up.)
With police watching the house, they sneaked out to a car that took them to St. Louis. From there they flew to New York. The safe house sat across from a Jewish deli.
“I watched from the window and saw a young black boy go in,” he said. “The man who ran the place patted the boy on the head when he left with a sack.
“That’s my last memory of the country where I was born.”
‘He gave us this school’
Pete O’Neal is happy this recent day.
The children who call him Babu have come home. There will be a feast.
Chicken, rabbit sausage and cake. There will be music, and the children will dance.
“Every year they go to their homes for two weeks to maintain a sense of who they are — we call it village home stay,” he said by telephone. “This is the day they come back. I like it when they come back.”
The 21 children are part of the center’s Leaders of Tomorrow program, which takes in youths from poor tribal areas. They attend school so they can go on to a university. They learn hygiene, physical fitness and traditional arts and music.
“He takes care of us,” said Alima, a young girl. “He’s a good man. He gave us this school.”
Other children in the area also attend the center’s school.
“They want to improve their lives — they study science, computers and tailoring,” O’Neal said. “One wants to be a member of Parliament.”
Students from Stony Brook University in New York visit often. One said a stay there changed her life.
“Pete and Charlotte bring amazing lessons to the students and the watoto (orphaned children),” she wrote. “There is an immediate sense of ease and belonging when you pass through those gates.”
American actor Sean Penn has been there. Jude Law, too. A school group from Winston-Salem, N.C., spent time there for a summer session.
“You are all going to be leaders,” Charlotte, known as Mama C, told the students. “Someday I will read about you in the newspaper. You will be doctors and lawyers and artists. We will miss you all.”
Brian O’Neal wonders sometimes if it all didn’t turn out for the best. Look at the good things his brother has done in Africa. And there’s his own story. In 1982, Brian traveled to Africa to see Pete. While there he met a woman he would marry and bring back to Kansas City. They have four sons.
“None of that would have happened if Pete hadn’t run,” Brian said.
Charlotte would like a pardon for her husband, but sees the gift of exile.
“People come from all over the world to see Brother Pete and I see these children sit at his feet and they learn from him,” she said. “Carrying on the work of the Black Panthers is a great and powerful revenge.”
Pete O’Neal knows he did things back then that were hurtful. They haunt him, and he apologizes for them. He chalks it up to volatile times and an anger he never seemed to run out of.
Now he says he has nothing but love for Kansas City. If he could, he would like to sit on a bench along the Paseo and watch the people pass.
But he knows he left the city of his birth behind forever when he crawled down that alley on his belly.
He says it is now the African sun that warms his face, that he’s just an old man, trying to get a bunch of kids through school.
“Then I will walk into oblivion and Pete O’Neal the Black Panther will cease to exist.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182