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Archive for Sunday, August 22, 1993

COMING HOME

August 22, 1993

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By DELIN CORMENYSpecial to the J-W

Leonard Harrison fled.

He fled a criminal conviction by an all-white jury. He fled the probable mercy of a white judge, and he fled a nation gripped by racial tension.

He also fled two sons and his wife for a small nation halfway around the world: A nation where he could teach and inspire Africans from his perspective as an exiled black American.

His prosecutors describe him as a black militant and felon. His friends and the presiding judge describe him as a victim of racism and the chaotic era of the late 1960s and early '70s.

But that is a time now past.

On July 19, Gov. Joan Finney signed Harrison's pardon, the first she has granted.

After 22 years in exile, Harrison, the former Kansas University teacher, student and activist, is coming home.

The pardon caused no more noise than a pen's whisper on a certificate, greatly contrasting the uproar that surrounded the conviction it forgave.

Close to midnight on May 12, 1969, then-Sedgwick County District Judge Bob Stephan signed an emergency order.

The jury had convicted Harrison and five other defendants of first-degree robbery.

Stephan feared a violent reaction.

The Black Panthers, whose members were as widely recognized by their berets and leather jackets as they were by their militant philosophy, surrounded the Sedgwick County Courthouse in Wichita. Stephan was told they planned to come in.

Stephan, who is now the state's attorney general, signed the order to move Harrison and the others immediately from the jail to the Lansing State Penitentiary.

"I remember that case like it was today," Stephan said recently. "There isn't any question that in those days there was a great deal of concern about black militants."

He said the jury made no mistakes convicting Harrison and the others. Technically, they were guilty, he said.

But the case disturbed Stephan -- enough for him to submit a letter to the governor recently, supporting the pardon.

"I thought they were all a victim of circumstances and part of a failed policy on the part of the U.S. government," he said.

The feared voice of change

@sc: "We've got to come to grips with the problem of white America," Harrison told a crowd of 250 gathered at the Kansas Union in October 1968. "The new black man can no longer call for nonviolence."

Harrison had been speaking out against racism since he arrived in Lawrence in 1967. He was known around the state and in FBI and KBI files as a militant leader and an admirer of Malcolm X, the slain civil rights leader who once supported a doctrine of black power "by any means necessary."

"If you're black and don't believe in Black Power," Harrison said during the speech, "you're either insane or a damn fool ... the same goes for whites."

He traveled extensively in the Midwest, urging blacks to unite, take control of their lives and country, and assert themselves as people.

"Leonard was like a tornado that blew through," recalled Judith Thompson, who worked with Harrison at the Ballard Community Center. Harrison was the director of the social service agency in 1968-69.

"He wanted to rile things up a bit in Lawrence," she said. "He felt it really needed it. Black people simply weren't getting their due, and he wanted to help."

His voice instilled fear in those who did not know him, said Cynthia Turner, who also worked with Harrison at Ballard.

"(Martin Luther) King prayed and Leonard demanded. That's quite different," she said. "I think they were scared of him. That's what made people hate him, and I think frame him."

Out of prison on bond while appealing his conviction, Harrison, who lived at 1005 Ky., taught a 1970 fall semester course at KU, which he called "Black Revolutionary Thought."

Harrison later claimed the course was discontinued because the topic was considered dangerous.

Just how dangerous people considered Harrison had been made clear on Oct. 29, 1968, when he and eight others were arrested.

A trial during tumult

@sc: Harrison was charged with extortion and first-degree robbery, stemming from an Oct. 17 meeting with representatives of Kansas City's Joint Action Committee.

One of the representatives, Andrew Gutierrez, testified that Harrison and the others threatened to throw him out of a 15-story building if Gutierrez didn't write them checks totaling about $1,100.

The money allegedly was compensation for consulting fees and travel expenses incurred during a joint effort to recruit minority and disadvantaged youths into the federally funded Job Corps.

Harrison claimed there was no coercion and that he and the others were entitled to the money. He personally received $252.

During a seven-week trial in Wichita, Harrison and the other men were linked repeatedly to a militant Philadelphia-based black activist group called the Black Guard.

It was time of violent protest, spurred by both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Riots in 100 cities had killed 46, including a Kansas City pastor and his son. Protests in Lawrence ultimately culminated in the shooting deaths of two students, one black and one white. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. came six months before Harrison's arrest.

The prosecution used the defendants' clothing -- fatigue shirts and pants, combat boots and Australian bush hats -- to link them to the Black Guard.

"That was the irony of the whole thing," Alferdteen Harrison, Harrison's ex-wife, said. "They absolutely had no connection."

Harrison's pardon application, prepared pro bono by KU law professor Dave Gottlieb, claimed the defendants' clothing and the relationship of the men to the Black Guard had absolutely nothing to do with the crimes at issue, extortion and robbery.

It stated that Harrison and the others were on trial only for political reasons.

"It was clear that the defendants were being tried for more than extorting checks from Andrew Gutierrez," the application stated. "It was obvious that the prosecution was trying to turn the defendants' political views into a major issue."

The pardon also asserted that Keith Sanborn, the Sedgwick County prosecutor at the time, used the publicity surrounding the case to win votes for re-election.

Sanborn categorically denies these charges. In a phone interview from his Wichita home, he said, "It's just not true. (The charges) were an attempt to poison the whole jury pool. It wasn't tried as a cause. It was tried as a criminal case, which it was."

Stephan sentenced Harrison and five other defendants to 10 to 21 years in state prison.

Two others were found guilty of third-degree robbery, and one was acquitted of all charges.

Sanborn won re-election and served eight more years as prosecutor. In 1981, he was elected Sedgwick County District Judge. He retired in January.

He said he opposed the pardon because Harrison was not wrongfully convicted.

"They were convicted because they were guilty," he said. "It was proven beyond any reasonable doubt. They weren't being persecuted."

But Harrison felt sure he was being persecuted -- so sure that he and three others fled to Tanzania, a small east African country.

`Kinetic energy' in exile

@sc: Jacob Gordon, director of KU's Institute for Black Leadership Research and Development and Harrison's friend, said he thought Harrison made the right decision.

"He was judged even before the trial," Gordon said. "He knew the system and he didn't want to be buried, so he escaped. It completely demoralized this man to have to leave this country that he loved so much."

However, Stephan said he would have granted probation to Harrison and the other three men had they stayed in the country. The four defendants who remained served less than three months in prison before they were granted probation.

"With all the surrounding circumstances, I don't think it was appropriate that they should have to serve the sentences.

"They shouldn't have (fled)," Stephan said. "I suppose they didn't trust the white man on the bench."

Harrison left his wife, his 9-month-old and 2-year-old sons behind.

"I felt cheated," Alferdteen Harrison later said. "Leonard had no choice. He felt then and he feels now he did not have a choice."

Harrison has been working as a livestock farmer since 1971 outside Tanzania's capital city, Dar es Salaam. He has raised chickens, hogs, cattle and horses, but he also has continued to raise consciousness about racial injustices -- not limited to the United States.

He has been involved in the freedom movement in Africa, and said he and other black Americans were considered the "kinetic energy" of that movement.

"We were the privileged ones with opportunities to sit with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats," he said. "We had open invitations to the freedom fighters' camp, access to the leaders. Of course, in the process of countries becoming free, some of those same individuals became prisoners and detainees."

He said that although he and his family have suffered, he is relatively happy living in Tanzania.

"Tanzania is to freedom fighters what Rome is to Christians; what Medina and Mecca are to Muslims," he said.

Now he plans to return to America.

A father and his sons

@sc: Most of Harrison's friends have not seen or heard from him since 1971.

He has seen his former wife once and his sons, Malcolm and Odinga, twice since he left the United States. His sons are both in college now.

"They, of course, have missed having a father," Alferdteen Harrison said. "Odinga has no memory of his father."

Harrison remarried in Africa. Alferdteen Harrison said she probably would never remarry.

This week, she said Harrison would likely return within a year and that the family would see each other again, at least briefly.

In an interview from Tanzania, Harrison said he wanted to get to know his sons.

"I would enjoy the opportunity to see if they would have the same idealism as I had," he said. "And to see if my reactions would be the reactions of my father when I told him as a young man that I was joining the movement."

His father, Harrison said, told him white people would never change.

Harrison praised his wife for raising the boys.

"Alferdteen is a very courageous sister," Harrison said. "She made sure that the children were educated and had taught them that if their father had been at another place and another time, he would have been considered as a national hero."

He waited until recently to apply for a pardon, he said, because for a long time America had forgotten about civil rights. The election of Bill Clinton renewed his optimism.

Harrison's co-worker at Ballard, Cynthia Turner, predicted the government would keep tabs on Harrison when he returns.

"I think whatever Leonard did, the price has been paid," she said. "But I feel he will be watched from the day he steps into the United States till the day he's put six feet under."

She said civil rights awareness has reawakened recently, especially since the Los Angeles riots.

"We're finding out the Leonard Harrisons of the '60s aren't anything compared to the black children of the '90s," she said.

Although he acknowledged that his pardon application reached the Kansas Parole Board's office as the buildings in Los Angeles still smoldered, Harrison said he remains optimistic about America's future.

"I think the long night of men being allowed to subvert America's institutions, of men being allowed to take the law into their own hands, has come to an end," he said. "But we are embarking upon a very strange course. We must meet the challenge. There's wrongful call and rightful call, and you have no other choice but to meet the challenge. ... The hottest place in hell is where men sit idle, sit neutral in a time of crisis."

-- Journal-World staff reporter Peter Lundquist contributed to the reporting of this article.

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