Salvation Melts Former Black Panther's Fire



Roscoe Dabney speaks softly, never reacting, often laughing, as he tells the story of the wild ride that has been his life -- years fraught with pain, sadness, anger and ultimately redemption.

He's a Vietnam veteran, a former Black Panther, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, an ordained minister, a professional musician, a television producer, a spiritual healer and now, a police officer for the Tonto Apache Tribe.

"I'm a miracle," Dabney said, "God had a plan for my life."

Dabney, now 59, came of age in the mid-1960s in segregated Tulsa, Okla. -- a time and place quivering with racial tension.

The area's unrest jelled during the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Thousands of whites joined together and leveled 35 blocks of the black neighborhood; dozens of African-American residents died, while others were interred in prison camps.

"The civic boosters used a trumped-up attempted rape as the platform, but it was really about taking black people's land. It took declaring martial law to bring it under control," Dabney said. "The effects still linger today."

As a young boy, Dabney's life was defined by Jim Crow laws -- separate but equal. He ate at blacks-only lunch counters, drank out of blacks-only water fountains and rode in the blacks-only section of the bus.

He remembers living near a white neighborhood, and a sign at the entrance of that community warning intruders, "Nigger, don't be caught coming into this neighborhood after dark."

"I always knew I was a first-class citizen," Dabney said. "Not a second-class citizen. I was angry about what was going on."

Dabney joined a nonviolent civil rights group in his early teens and hopped on Freedom Rides -- a rolling movement by blacks to enforce desegregation legislation.

"I worked in the south, integrating white restaurants," Dabney said. "I went to jail 22 times in 1964."

Two years later, Dabney received his draft notice and joined the Marines, where he was introduced to the Black Panthers, a militant ultra-liberal political group grounded in Marxist philosophy.

"I found out about it by reading ‘Playboy,'" said Dabney. "Later I became influenced by Eldridge Cleaver's, ‘Soul on Ice.' I started coming to the conclusion that nonviolence wasn't the way."

Cleaver wrote a collection of essays in prison, espousing the need for blacks to take control of the economic and political systems that continued to oppress them.

"In the Marine Corps, they teach you to be a fighting machine, and my attitude changed," said Dabney. "I knew I could be a fighting, killing machine."

After being discharged from the Marines in 1969, Dabney headed to Kansas City, Mo. and joined the Panthers.

"They had an official boot camp," he said. "Lots of indoctrination in Mao Tse-tung. We had to read Marxism, Leninism. We had to carry the quotations of Chairman Mao. If we got caught without it, we'd be punished."

Dabney eventually returned to Tulsa and started the city's Black Panther chapter.

"I had a black beret, a big afro. I wore a bullet on a chain around my neck, black boots ... everything black," he said.

The young activist found comfort in the Panther's axioms -- black unity, no religion.

"One reason I joined the Panthers was I didn't want anything to do with God. I equated God with white people," he said. "I was raised in church, but there were a lot of questions they couldn't answer."

Dabney stayed with the Black Panthers until the early 1980s. During his 11 years as a Panther, he fostered his drug addictions and alcoholism that began in Vietnam.

"I used to carry a rifle everywhere I went," he said. "I was filled with hate and rage. What I didn't know was I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

Through it all, Dabney continued to foster the passion that never died: music. He played his first professional gig as a drummer in 1961. He was 16.

"My first pay was $5 and a half pint of Old Crow bourbon."

Dabney tramped around jazz clubs during his teens and 20s, and jammed with blues legends BB King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Lowell Folsom.

The Wilson brothers, Dabney's high school classmates, and the backbone of the Gap Band, known for their R&B hit "You Dropped the Bomb on Me," started their careers in Dabney's group, the Magnificent 7.

"The band needed a trumpet player, which was Ronnie Wilson (of the Gap Band)," Dabney said. "I begged Ronnie's parents to let him play in our band."

After years on the road, drug and alcohol addiction, and a contract on his life, Dabney said "enough" and left the Panthers. He found salvation in January 1983 at 3 a.m. in the office bathroom of music producer and rock star Leon Russell.

"I was looking at myself in the mirror," said Dabney. "I was weeping uncontrollably. And I apologized to God and asked Jesus to come into my life."

In sobriety, Dabney has suffered elation and grief.

He became an ordained minister. He worked as a master control operator for the Trinity Broadcast Network in Southern California. He said he healed a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer. He lost a son, his job and his home, and then moved to Payson in the summer of 2004. His friend, minister Roger Martin, and God, called him to the Rim Country.

"I'm not religious at all," he said. "I'm spiritual. I was willing to be obedient to him. I developed a relationship with God."

Dabney is currently working on projects -- books and documentaries -- about his life, and he said he loves living in Payson.

"The people have been very friendly," he said. "Out of all the places I've lived, this has been the friendliest. I am blessed."


Name: Roscoe J. Dabney, III

Occupation: Police officer

Employer: Tonto Apache Tribal Police

Age: 59

Birthplace: Lakewood, N.J.

Family: Wife, Sarah; children: Ricky, Lynnette, Kimberly, Roscoe IV, Tyrone, Terrilyn, Joshua (deceased).

Motto: I don't want the whole hog, I want my share.

Inspiration: God -- Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Greatest feat: Produced a TV documentary of Mohammed Ali.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Trains.

Three words that describe me are: Caring, compassionate and approachable.

I don't want to brag, but ... I have a great family.

Luxury defined: Train travel with my family.

Dream vacation spot: The Bahamas.

Why Payson? Great people, plenty of fresh air.

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