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.
Despite being exonerated from the conspiracy charges, Tabor/Cetewayo was content to make Africa his home. “He wanted to be an African, and had no intentions of ever returning to the States,” said Mrs. Tabor.
From very humble beginnings, Tabor/Cetewayo attended St. Aloysius Roman Catholic High School, where he starred in basketball. In fact, according to several who played against him, he was a superb athlete with great leaping ability.
“He was very strong and agile,” recalled Myra Bennett, the mother of his two children, Che and Carlos. “I met him in the late ’60s during the Panther days, and he was totally committed to the struggle.” After losing contact with him for years, she was glad to speak to him days before his death.
“Michael was a voracious reader,” Mrs. Bennett told the ITALAmNewsITAL. “He would be up until the early hours reading and writing.”
That discipline followed him throughout his life, and was never more meaningful than during his incarceration, where he wrote a revolutionary pamphlet “Capitalism + Dope = Genocide.” “There are file cabinets full of his manuscripts here in Lusaka,” said Mrs. Tabor.
“The lying devious puppets of the bourgeois ruling class, the demagogic politicians of Capitol Hill have now passed a law which gives narcotics agents the right to crash into a person’s home without knocking, on the pretext of looking for narcotics and ‘other evidence,’” is a sample from the pamphlet. “This law was ostensibly passed to prevent dope dealers from destroying the dope and ‘other evidence.’ Now, anyone who thinks that this law will be confined to just suspect drug dealers is laboring under a tragic and possibly suicidal delusion. To assume that only suspected drug dealers will be affected by this law is to negate the reality of present-day America. To allow you to think for one moment that this law only applies to suspected drug dealers is to deny that the laws being passed, the policies being implemented, and the methods and tactics of the police have become blatantly and shamelessly fascist.”
This pamphlet became the inspiration and foundation for the second takeover of Lincoln Hospital on November 10, 1970, by the Young Lords Party and supporters, which is when the Lincoln Detox–the “people’s drug program”–was founded.
His attorney Bob Boyle was among many friends who knew of his prolific literary production and tried to encourage him to publish his essays. “But to no avail,” said Boyle. “I wonder how much of it would be of interest to a publisher.”
In Lusaka, Tabor/Cetewayo became a popular and respected figure and continued writing on politics and culture for various publications. His distinctive voice allowed him to transition into radio, and for many years he hosted programs that featured jazz, African and world music on several Lusaka radio stations.
But it was his time in the Party that most people in Harlem will remember; it certainly was a period of lasting memory for Assata Shakur. “My closest friends in the Party were Dhoruba, Cetewayo and Jamal,” she recalled in her autobiography. “I learned more from them in one night than I learned at City College in a month.”
A memorial service is planned by former Panthers and, according to his widow, his funeral and burial occurred last Wednesday.
He is survived by his wife, Priscilla Matanda Tabor, daughter, Che Tabor Raye of Atlanta, sons, Carlos Tabor of New York City, Michael Ahmad Tabor, Michael Chikwe Tabor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and niece, Invera Tabor. He was predeceased by his sister, Lorraine.
Those interested in extending condolences or making a donation can do it in care of Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, P.O. Box 380-122 Brooklyn, NY. 11238.