The Fleury Four Hijacking Hope

Selma Bekkai & Saliha Benkechida

In the presentation we prepared for the “The Black Arts Movement in
the United States and Algeria” conference at Abdelhamid Ben Badis
University of Mostaganem, Algeria, in November 2019, we addressed
the conference’s objective of linking the African American liberation
struggle in the United States to anticolonial, liberation movements on
the African continent. Our research brings attention to the Black Panthers’
presence in Algeria from 1969–1972. Concentrating on events
from the organization of the First Pan-African Cultural Festival of
Algiers to the Fleury Four hijacking incident, we attempt to connect
African American liberation struggles of the mid-twentieth century to
African national liberation movements of the same time. We understand
these movements and their efforts to transform former European colonies
into independent African states as inspiring a new sense of political
consciousness among Black Americans and promoting new levels of
identification with Africa and African cultural heritage.

Our study draws on The Skies Belong to Us (2013), Brendan I. Koerner’s examination of airline hijackings that occurred between May 1961 and January 1973, the so-called “golden age of hijacking.” We use Koerner’s work to discuss the June 1972 hijacking of a Western Airlines Flight 701—originally scheduled to fly the Los Angeles–Seattle route—to Algiers. We recognize the improbable success that allowed Roger Holder and Catherine Kerkow to reach Algeria and understand
that the couple’s arrival in Algeria inspired five members of the Black
Liberation Army to hijack a Delta Air Lines flight—originally bound for
Miami from Detroit—to Algiers just a month later in July 1972. Our research also examines Nous, Noirs Américains Évadés du Ghetto . . . [We, Black Americans, Escapees of the Ghetto . . . ] (1978), a collection of narratives written by these African American revolutionaries—Melvin Mc Nair, Joyce Tillerson, George Brown, and Jean McNair—as they awaited trial in France at Fleury-Mérogis prison, for taking Delta Air Lines Flight 841 to Algiers. These narratives of the Fleury Four, published originally in French, to our knowledge, have no English translation. Our project, thereby, seeks to shed light upon the complex set of interrelations linking Africa, the United States, and Europe that played out in Algeria against a cultural and political backdrop of both the Black Power and Black Arts Movements.

During the later 1960s, a newly independent Algeria, which sought to repay debts to those who supported it during its victorious efforts in the war of liberation, became known as the refuge of progressive revolutionaries from across the continent and around the world. Houari Boumédiène, Algeria’s second president, had extended the nation’s unconditional support to liberation causes in Palestine, Southern Africa, and Western Sahara. Establishing close ties with Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC), and Fidel Castro of Cuba, Boumédiène’s diplomatic initiatives earned Algeria the reputation of being a revolutionary haven or a “Mecca of Revolutions.” Writing in her memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers (2018), Elaine Mokhtefi explains that “Once independence was achieved, no one forgot. Algeria adopted an open-door policy of aid to the oppressed, an invitation to liberation and opposition movements and personalities from around the world. All were welcomed” (ch. 4).

During the late 1960s, international political discourse along with dialogue within the United States was being shaped by deepening American investment in the military activities in Southeast Asia; therefore, it is not surprising that Boumédiène’s Algeria and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) established contact and moved together along a series of political pathways that would ultimately bring members of the Panthers, including BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, to Algiers. These connections—which begin to pollinate and ultimately bloom during the excitement of the First Pan-African Cultural Festival—would ultimately bring two hijacked American airliners along with numerous international legal questions and policy issues for President Boumédiène and Algeria.

The BPP developed from an ideologically undeveloped Black Nationalist organization to an internationally conscious, anticolonial Black left organization committed to self-determination, inspired by Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, Mao Tse-Tung, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Al Fatah. At the Party’s 1969 “United Front against Fascism” conference, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale made clear that the Panthers were committed to class struggle and the application of a theory that combined Revolutionary Black Nationalism with Third World adaptations of Marxism–Leninism. As a result, the BPP made alliances with Third World revolutionary groups and helped internationalize New Left Activism in the United States during the late 1960s.

By 1969, the Black Panthers also had been subject to a series of vicious attacks by law enforcement officials in the United States led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). BPP members faced trumped-up criminal charges, imprisonment, and violent repressions such as the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. This campaign of political repression forced many BPP members to seek exile, including Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver clandestinely left the United States and fled to Cuba to avoid prison for his involvement in a violent confrontation between BPP members and the police in Oakland, California, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Initially, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information planned to establish a political and military base for the Black Panthers in Cuba. Although the idea was welcomed by Fidel Castro, its feasibility quickly fell into question. By July, Cleaver secured an invitation to the First Pan-African Cultural Festival and was on a flight from Havana to Algiers.

Arriving in the city of the Battle of Algiers in the days leading up to the festival, Cleaver did not formally announce his intention to establish residence in Algeria. However, the BPP’s international stature among the New Left global network accounts for the revolutionary welcome that Cleaver received among the many groups gathered for the festival in Algeria. This warm reception ultimately facilitated the formal establishment of an International Section of the Black Panther Party, headquartered in Algiers. At the invitation of President Boumédiène, Cleaver and the BPP were allowed to operate freely in Algiers. On the eve of the PANAF festival, the Panther’s Minister of Information made his intentions known publicly, and on the opening day, he held a press conference to take questions about his decision. Cleaver spoke about the African American struggle in the United States and expressed his excitement for being in Africa and in Algiers, proclaiming:

“We [Black Americans] are an integral part of Africa’s history. White America teaches us that our history begins on the plantations, that we have no other past. We have to take back our culture.”“Oppressed people need unity based on revolutionary principles rather than skin color,” he said, adding: “Our goal is to break the system.” He closed with, “Our struggle is revolutionary.” (Mokhtefi ch. 4)

The First Pan-African Cultural Festival is viewed as a cornerstone of the pivotal change that occurred to the history of the African American and African freedom movements’ linkages. Thanks to it, African and African diasporic intellectuals, artists, activists, and students were able to voice their important ideas and worries through a bilateral intellectual exchange (Meghelli, “From”). The Pan-African festival took place at a critical moment in the history of African and African American freedom struggles; it explicitly linked pan-African culture with an ongoing global process of political liberation from Western colonial rule (Meghelli, “‘Weapon’” 168). This attracted several other Black American radicals to Algiers; thousands of official delegates and visitors from Africa (more than thirty African nations), North and South America, the Caribbean, East Asia, and Europe were brought together to the festival (Meghelli, “‘Weapon’” 168).

According to Elaine Mokhtefi, an American who served as a liaison for the Algerian government during the festival, the event became “an explosive outdoor extravaganza” (ch. 4). Mokhtefi explains that along with the musicians, writers, and artists who gathered in Algiers between July 21 and August 1, 1969, for concerts, exhibitions, and performances by African peoples, including African Americans, intellectuals, and activists assembled for “symposia and conferences on cultural and economic themes” (ch. 4). Like so many other groups from throughout the diaspora, the BPP was situated in a storefront in central Algiers; however, “their Afro-American Center became one of the festival’s focal points” (ch. 4).

In the wake of the festival, Eldridge Cleaver had established an International Section of the Black Panther Party in Algiers. Accompanied by his pregnant wife Kathleen and a number of other members of the Black Panther Party, Cleaver made the BPP’s presence felt in Algiers (Koerner 162). President Boumédiène and the people of Algeria provided the BPP with political and financial support for a period following the festival; thus, the Panthers received office space and a small stipend from the Popular and Democratic Republic of Algeria. Being in Algiers gave the BPP members direct access to the diplomatic officials of the socialist nation; however, despite being among other revolutionary groups who were making “Algiers the Capital of the Third World,” the International BPP was chronically underfunded. Confronting the realities of their financial situation as a revolutionary organization in exile, Cleaver and the International Section of the BPP in Algiers were momentarily uplifted, imagining themselves to have become beneficiaries of Roger Holder and Catherine Kerkow’s remarkable skyjacking incident.

On June 2, 1972, as the thirteen-week trial of academic and political activist Angela Davis came to its conclusion in San Jose, California, Holder and Kerkow executed the dramatic hijacking of Western Airlines flight 701. In The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner chronicles the couple and their effort to seize control of this flight, scheduled to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle, while demanding the cash and the release of Davis. Holder, a 23-year-old African American veteran of the Vietnam conflict, conceived of the plan and invited Kerkow, a 20-year-old white woman from Oregon, to join him. Wearing his Army dress uniform and carrying a briefcase with an abundance of visible wires, Holder gained control of the flight by stating that he, along with four accomplices working with him on the flight, had bombs and guns. They were looking to exchange the passengers for Davis’s release and cash. Holder imagined that he could take the plane to North Vietnam, where Davis would be safe, and then fly to Australia and establish a homestead with Kerkow.

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