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Former Black Panther leader Michael 'Cetewayo' Tabor passes at 63

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 5:25 p.m.

As a member and leader of the New York Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Michael Tabor chose "Cetewayo" as his nom de guerre. And like his namesake, a 19th-century Zulu king and warrior, Tabor was a fearless freedom fighter, a selfless soldier in the battle for total liberation of his people. Tabor/Cetewayo joined the ancestors on Sunday, October 17, in Lusaka, Zambia, according to his wife, Priscilla Matanda Tabor. He was 63.

"He had been ailing since August," Mrs. Tabor said in a phone interview, "and was still recovering from three strokes." Her husband of 21 years was afflicted with several ailments, she said, including high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver and clogged arteries.

It would take a multitude of ailments to bring Tabor/Cetewayo down because he was as robust and tough as he was a brilliant thinker and writer. "Right to the end of his life he continued to write and host his radio show," Mrs. Tabor added. That indefatigableness characterized his life, particularly those days coming of age in Harlem, where he was born, and his tenure with the Panthers, which ended on these shores in the early '70s.

"Cetewayo Tabor joined the Harlem Branch of the Black Panther Party several weeks after it opened its office in the fall of 1968," said Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, a former Panther who was wrongly convicted and served 19 years in prison. "A former heroin addict who derived political consciousness from the Panthers and the Young Lords approach to hard-drug addiction as social strategy to destabilize African-American communities, Cetewayo became an articulate exponent of the BPP philosophy of self-defense.

"Possessing a booming bass voice reminiscent of Paul Robeson, Cetewayo was employed by the Harlem branch as a political education instructor, and later as a member of the Harlem branch's security detail assigned to BPP duties under Harlem's branch leader Lumumba Shakur," Bin-Wahad continued. It was Bin-Wahad, then New York State BPP Field Secretary, who brought Tabor's talents to the attention of the National Leadership of the BPP, Huey Newton and David Hilliard.

Tabor/Cetewayo gained national and international attention when he and twenty others became known as the Panther 21 and charged with conspiring to murder police officers and to bomb five department stores. The trumped-up charges did not stick and the Panthers were acquitted after a brief jury deliberation.

During the course of the long trial, however, Tabor/Cetewayo, Bin-Wahad and Jamal Joseph were out on bail, mainly to raise funds for their incarcerated comrades. But a fracture in the Party, instigated and fueled by the FBI's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) and its misinformation campaign, made it expedient for the three to flee for their lives upon learning a contract was out on them. "I was acquitted in absentia," Bin-Wahad wrote. He, like Tabor/Cetewayo and Joseph, was warned that they were targeted for assassination.

Forced into exile, Tabor/Cetewayo and his wife, Connie Matthews, lived for a while in Algiers, where Eldridge Cleaver and other Panthers had sought asylum. After leaving that safe haven, the couple settled in Lusaka, Zambia. Eventually they divorced and Matthews returned to her native Jamaica, where she died in the late '90s.