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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Margaritas and Soul on Ice
by Rachel Rubin Green, Revelle ’76

If you have any stories about your years at UCSD, we would love to hear them.
Email the editor

In 1968, I was the 20-year-old president of the Associated Students at UCSD. The afternoon of October 4, I received an invitation from Walter Munk (see page 11), chair of the Academic Senate, to a cocktail reception at his home that evening featuring Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. Cleaver would speak earlier that evening to a standing-room-only crowd in the newly-opened gymnasium; a speech best remembered for Cleaver leading the audience in a three-word chant (F**k Ronald Reagan) directed at the then governor.

Earlier that summer, students and faculty at UC Berkeley organized a class—Sociology 139X—for which Cleaver was the featured lecturer. Cleaver was author of the best-selling Soul on Ice, and an iconic figure for both White and African-American radicals. Public backlash to Sociology 139X ­mobilized Governor Ronald Reagan and members of the UC Board of Regents to demand Cleaver’s class be banned, and later led to a high-profile confrontation when The Regents met on the UCSD campus in November to debate Cleaver’s involvement.

Cleaver’s UCSD speech was only one in a series of politically-charged events that rocked the campus that year, starting with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and ending with student demands for a college focused on Third World Studies (which eventually grew into Thurgood Marshall College).

For many of us who lived through those years on campus, there was a recurring feeling that confrontation and conflict might pull the institution apart. I was going through a personal struggle to reconcile my sympathy for those advocating change with a desire to preserve the institution and to channel our energies toward constructive outcomes.

Walter Munk and his wife, Judy, had a reputation for their hospitality to visiting academics and dignitaries, and they felt Cleaver was deserving of similar treatment, regardless of his politics, and ­organized a reception following his speech. When I arrived that evening at their home, I was greeted by several armed members of the Black Panther Party, who were patrolling the Munks’ property as a security precaution. This led to one of the more remarkable confrontations I’ve ever witnessed, when a neighbor, alarmed by the security detail, called the San Diego Police. It’s unlikely anyone other than Walter Munk, speaking with his calm and gentlemanly Austrian accent could, under those circumstances, have convinced the arriving police officers that everything was under control and there was no cause for concern.

But the most vivid memory of that evening was Eldridge Cleaver sitting in the Munks’ living room, drinking margaritas and engaging faculty and students in far more thoughtful conversation than his speech earlier that evening might have suggested.

Perhaps it was the Munks’ warmth and graciousness that night, or the unspoken assumption by faculty and students that person-to-person dialogue could bridge political chasms. Perhaps Cleaver just appreciated a break from his public persona. Or, maybe it was the margaritas. Whatever the reasons, it was a magical evening.

In the months and years that followed, Eldridge Cleaver’s life took some strange turns, from a deadly shoot-out with Oakland police, to exile in Algeria and eventual return to the U.S. as a born-again Christian.

For me, I realized that night that civility and respect were still possible—in spite of all the pressures driving us apart—and that has stayed with me ever since, informing my approach to politics and life. I felt I was part of a very special community, and it’s among my most treasured memories of UCSD.

Tom Shepard, Muir ’70, is a San Diego-based political consultant and former mayor of the City of Del Mar. He was president of the UCSD Alumni Association 1976–1978.