In celebration of Prison Fellowship’s 40 years of ministering to prisoners and their families, we will be taking a look back at the early days of the ministry and remembering the people and the stories that have helped to make Prison Fellowship the nation’s largest prison outreach. In the following excerpt from founder Chuck Colson’s book, Life Sentence, Chuck talks about the time a former Ku Klux Klan extremist and one of the early leaders of the radical Black Panther movement met over dinner as new brothers in Christ.
In the early 1960s, Tommy Tarrants, obsessed by hatred of blacks, Jews, and communists, became an extremist. Expelled from college, he went underground. A crack marksman and explosives expert, Tommy became a coldly efficient terrorist, joining the White Knights, the most violent wing of the Ku Klux Klan.
Trapped by the FBI while attempting to bomb a Jewish businessman’s home, Tommy and a friend were caught in a gun battle. His friend was killed and Tommy’s bullet-riddled body was rushed to the hospital where the doctors gave him little chance to survive. Miraculously he recovered, and was later tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Prison, in Tommy’s words, was like “living in a sewer.” After a few months he escaped. Again there was a gun fight which left Tommy’s accomplice dead; Tommy was back in prison, this time in a solitary cell for one year. There, his reading progressed from extremist propaganda to philosophy to the Gospel.
Guards and inmates alike soon noticed the change in him. The intensity of his hatred was redirected to a passionate hungering for the Lord. Tommy became a model prisoner and soon a leader among inmates.
Getting Tommy released to attend our fourth prison seminar was a major problem. A call to [Mississippi] Governor Cliff Finch finally cut through the paperwork. Tommy’s furlough into our custody was approved—his first time out of prison in seven years. …
… Then came an unusual phone call. “Chuck, you won’t believe this one.” [Ministry partner] Fred Rhodes burst into my office, waving a piece of paper covered with notes. “Billy Graham wants you to talk to a new Christian and give him a little coaching.”
“We can do that. What’s the big deal?” I answered.
“The big deal is that the new convert is Eldridge Cleaver—one-time bomb-throwing Black Panther, that’s who!”
In late 1975, Cleaver, a fugitive exile for eight years, voluntarily returned to the United States and surrendered himself to stand trial for his role in a 1968 Oakland shoot-out with police. Sketchy press reports indicated that Cleaver had experienced a conversion in an Oakland, California, jail. I had written Cleaver an encouraging not but had no answer …
We set up a meeting with Billy Graham at Fellowship House for Saturday night [a night before Cleaver was scheduled to appear on the national television show Meet the Press]. … A dinner with the 11 members of our inmate class was also planned for that Saturday. Since Cleaver had spent eight years in prison, Fred and I agreed it would be good for the inmates and Cleaver to eat together.
Naively, I never once gave a thought to Tommy Tarrants, the one-time Klansman terrorist who had so violently hated Cleaver and everything he stood for!
Accompanied by his wife … Cleaver arrived at Fellowship House on Saturday shortly after 5:00 PM.
“Eldridge, I’ve been looking forward to this.” I stuck out my hand.
“Me too,” Cleaver replied, shaking it firmly. …
When Fred interrupted us with the announcement that dinner was about to be served upstairs, I realized that I hadn’t even explained to Eldridge and his party our plans for the evening.
“Hope you don’t mind eating with eleven convicts, Brother,” I quipped.
“Hey man, you’ll make me feel right at home,” Cleaver said with a broad grin.
Then I remembered Tommy Tarrants. How stupid of me! We had deliberately not told the inmates about Cleaver’s visit in case of preferred anonymity. If it was hard for Cleaver to accept me, what about a Klansman who bombed the houses of blacks.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I said and then bounded up the stairs, two at a time. Tommy was in the kitchen, his tall gangling frame leaning over the stove.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Tommy, there’s a new brother here for dinner with us. I want you to meet him.
“Sure, Chuck.” Tommy wiped his hands on the white apron covering his front. “What’s his name?”
“Ah—sure,” he muttered weakly.
Eldridge was gracious when I introduced the two and briefly outlined Tommy’s background. “We both have a lot to live down, don’t we?” Eldridge said, gripping Tommy’s hand and looking straight into his eyes.
As I stared at the two men standing under the glow of the chandelier in the center hall, for a moment I was frozen in time. This could have been the first meeting between two of the original apostles, Matthew and Simon the Zealot. Matthew was a despised collaborator with the Roman Empire, Simon a fervent Jewish nationalist working for the violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors. Anywhere but in the company of Jesus, Simon would have thrust a knife into the hated Matthew.
The dinner was unforgettable. … Several inmates, including Tommy Tarrants, told of their own experiences with Christ. Cleaver stared at Tommy, trying to look into his soul. [Cleaver’s wife] Maxine, who had explained that she was a nonbelieving Jewess, sat wide-eyed, hardly touching her food. Sensing that the deeply spiritual talk might be offensive to her, I walked around the table to where she was sitting. “I suppose we may seem a little strange to you—a little crazy, perhaps.”
Maxine looked up. “Well, if you are, then the whole world ought to be crazy like this.” …
What a strange collection of people. … Here were men who represented opposite poles culturally, politically, socially; it would be unthinkable in the world’s eyes that they could come together for any purpose. Yet on this night they prayed together, wept together, and embraced—joined together by the power of the Holy Spirit in a fraternity that transcends all others.