Letter from Oakland

“There’s a hawg in the stream!” shouted the Reverend E. E. Cleveland. He was holding a portable microphone in his hand as he swayed back and forth in the pulpit of the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Oakland, California. “There’s a hawg in the stream and the hawg is muddying up the cool water. God put in the stream! You got to get the hawg out, you got to get the hawg out of the stream or you cain’t get a cool drink of water.”

“Amen,” shouted some of the congregation, the older women with black or white hats, the older men in suits with white shirts and dark ties, appropriate funeral clothes. But many others in the church, especially the young ones, sat in silence as the man in the pulpit took off his jacket and continued preaching in his shirtsleeves with his suspenders and belt showing. The teenage girls and a few of the women were bareheaded, with “natural” haircuts.

Two separate funerals were going on simultaneously in the church on Alcatraz St., almost at the dividing line between Oakland and Berkeley. (In spite of its grim name, Alcatraz is a pleasant street; middle-class whites live at its western end up in the hills, and the residents grow blacker down toward the much poorer eastern flatland that borders on the bay. Even there the neighborhood is more prosperous than most of Oakland’s black ghetto. The Ephesian church itself is “modern” with stained glass windows of abstract design.) One funeral was a religious ceremony while the other was political, but both were for Bobby Hutton, the eighteen-year-old Black Panther who had been killed by the Oakland Police a few days earlier as he emerged, hands in the air, from the house where he, Eldridge Cleaver, and a group of other Panthers were under siege by the police.

The religious funeral was conducted in the traditional Negro style: hymns were sung, the minister preached the Gospel, while the older mourners moaned Bobby’s name again and again, and an obituary of Bobby Hutton was read aloud, which mentioned every church choir group of which he’d been a member in his short life, but which said nothing of his membership in the Black Panthers.

The other funeral for Bobby was given him by the Black Panthers. They stood alongside the walls on both sides and back of the church, some wearing their black berets, all staring silently, almost stolidly, at the casket in front of the pulpit. The Panther services for Bobby were led by Bobby Seale, the Panther chairman, who spoke briefly and then introduced another Panther leader who talked for a few minutes of how Bobby Hutton had died to help save his people.

Neither of the two Black Panthers mentioned God or patience. And although they used the Minister’s allegory of the “hawg in the stream,” their message about it was that black people couldn’t wait any longer for someone else to get the “hawg” out of…

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