Except for the angry knot of hecklers shouting epithets at him from the back of the room, he might have been campaigning for a seat in the House of Delegates.
He wore conservative black pants, a blue shirt and tie, and a pastel blue jacket with an American flag pin in the lapel. He delivered to his 300-member audience a fairly simple plea to reject communism and militance for belief in God and America.
But he was Eldridge Cleaver, 47, a former Black Panther leader and convicted rapist turned lecturer, who spoke at the University of Maryland yesterday, courtesy of a student group affiliated with Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
And nothing he had ever said or done since renouncing the Panthers escaped the rebuke of the disenchanted.
"As a representative of the Black Student Union, it is [my] responsiblity to denounce you," said Lawrence Bell, president of the BSU, and the first of about a dozen vocal critics who weighed in during the question-and-answer period. "We understand that you were brought here to discredit and demoralize the black community . . . We smell a rat when it's placed under our noses . . . For you to come out here and tell black people to embrace this country after all we've gone through is shameful!"
"This happens wherever I go," Cleaver calmly explained after the three-hour session. "Especially [as] someone who comes from a background of militancy. They don't like someone who has rejected that."
Emotions ran so high at times yesterday that a scuffle broke out between a heckler and another member of the audience. At another point, hecklers, who punctuated Cleaver's address with shouts of "Uncle Tom" and "bull ----", were shouted down by a black woman who yelled, "You're embarrassing me as a black woman."
It was the first leg of a projected 60-college tour that Cleaver is to make for the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, a wing of the Unification movement aimed at students and others associated with the academic community.
Michael C. Smith, East Coast CARP director and spokesman for the group, said Cleaver would receive all expenses and a fee of about $500 for each group of lectures delivered in designated regions of the country, starting at Maryland yesterday and continuing through November. Neither he nor Cleaver would say how many talks would be given or the amount of money involved.
"I really don't feel that's anybody's business, frankly," said Cleaver.
Cleaver, who was called upon to defend his connection with Moon and the church throughout the session, said, "I don't let anybody tell me who to hang around with," adding that he was not a member of the church. "But Reverend Moon is doing more to solve the problems of the world than most other people."