May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
During the fall semester of 1970, I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. It had been just two years since the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and since the violent confrontation between antiwar protesters and Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention. Appealing to his “silent majority,” Richard Nixon had won the election against Hubert Humphrey.
In Philadelphia that September black radicals had organized the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Convinced that the document drawn up in 1787 had been designed to oppress African-Americans and other minorities, they planned to draft a new social contract proclaiming the rights of people of all races and classes. The highlight of the conference was an all-day meeting on Saturday, September 5, at Temple University’s gymnasium. Like many other twenty-somethings at the gathering, I doubted the event would lead to anything meaningful, but I was reluctant to miss any excitement.
I arrived early at the gym but stood in line for hours waiting to be admitted. Thousands had turned out for the affair, and the crowd outside began to grow impatient. As we drew closer to the door, we discovered that Black Panthers wearing combat fatigues and berets were frisking everybody for weapons. No one really liked this idea, but most of us accepted the nearparanoia of the times among radical whites and African-Americans alike. Not only were organizers fearful of right-wingers, such as the American Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, but they were just as wary of assassination attempts by the CIA or the FBI. Doubtless the Panthers would have preferred to restrict the conference to a blacks-only crowd, but Temple’s administration had granted permission to use its facility with the proviso that the conference be open to the public.
After searching us, the Black Panthers led us in groups to bleacher seats in the upper tiers of the gymnasium. Over the sound system came a steady stream of acid rock and Motown interspersed with recorded diatribes on political repression, the police state, Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, fascism, and the like. As we waited for the first speaker to arrive, I noticed a lone figure leaning against one of the building’s massive concrete columns. His arms were folded, his expression was detached, and his head was covered in a mane of electrostatic curls. To me and many other white students, he was instantly recognizable as Abbie Hoffman. But most of the African-Americans who filed past ignored him. He was, after all, not a particularly imposing figure, being of slender build and average height. Seeing him in person for the first time, I found it hard to believe that this was the same man who had stood trial in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom only a year earlier, one of the celebrated Chicago Seven.
At a similar gathering of antiwar firebrands, Hoffman would have been treated as a founding father. However, to most blacks in the audience that day, he was just another white boy. Although he had spoken out many times in support of groups such as the Panthers, his concerns and methods were foreign to most urban blacks.
Still, if he was not well known, he was not unknown either. After several minutes a young man sitting next to me got up from his seat and approached Hoffman, exclaiming, “Hey, my man, how ya doin’?”
Hoffman turned and squinted. He obviously didn’t know this fellow. The young man held out his hands, palms upward, and Hoffman, quickly recovering, slapped them. The gesture, the universal greeting of African-American youths at the time, was reciprocated.
“Jerry, baby, you talkin’ today too?” the young man asked. He had mistaken Hoffman for Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s kindred spirit in the antiwar movement.
The Yippie icon started to correct his inquisitor, but by then the young man had signaled to a friend nearby. Soon three or four blacks were crowded around Hoffman, and I saw him smile awkwardly as a pen was pressed into his hands. Hoffman, who was easily a dozen years older than his admirers, graciously autographed their conference programs. The young man returned triumphantly to his seat next to me.
Intrigued, I asked him if I could see his program. On it Hoffman had written: “Everything I ever needed to know I learned from Abbie Hoffman. Peace, Jerry Rubin.”