The Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, and the question of revolutionary politics today: An interview with Kathleen Cleaver
Platypus Review 113 | February 2019
On July 25, 2018—after a meeting at a symposium hosted by King’s College London, entitled 68 and its Legacies—Sophia Freeman interviewed prominent 1960s & ‘70s radical Kathleen Cleaver via Skype. In 1967, following a secretarial job with the New York office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party, where she became Communications Secretary. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Sophia Freeman: In 1966 you were working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), before later moving to San Francisco to join the Black Panther Party (BPP). Can you describe your initial politicization in the lead-up to becoming professionally involved in these organizations? What originally drew you to them?
Kathleen Cleaver: Let’s get started from the very beginning. When I was born my parents had both been involved with Civil Rights Movements. My mother was in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and my father worked in Texas to desegregate the all-white primary. The parents that I had, from when I was born in 1945, were already activists. They did not stop being activists when they became my parents, but they did become more academic, more stable. They had friends, and it was the environment of the 60s. I was brought up in an environment of challenges to civil rights, and standing for civil rights, and suing for civil rights—SNCC was born in 1960 and I think I was 15 or 14—when I encountered them. My parents had come to Atlanta for some meeting, and I was on the Spelman campus—and I will never forget, I saw this sign—and that was where it started. I walked right through the same building that SNCC was started in, and four years later I am on their staff.
I was drawn in by the activities of SNCC. Later on, when I was a little older and could read newspapers, I saw, and I was drawn in by the activities of the women students of Georgia in Albany who were arrested because they refused to sit down—it was some transgression of segregation. They were all girls and they were hauled off in a paddy wagon. This particular photograph was in a newspaper where I was living called The Philadelphia Inquirer. I saw these teenagers who were high school girls on the front page of a newspaper, but the thing was that they were singing. And I thought, well what is this? These are girls going off to jail, and they are singing. I got very fascinated, I read about them, and I was totally impressed. They were risking their lives because they were challenging racial segregation in Georgia, which is actually a very dangerous thing to do. So that is what triggered it: I was in high school, and they were in high school; they were girls, and I was a girl; but they were in a paddy wagon, and I was in a dormitory in a boarding school! But I was inspired, and a lot of people were inspired. A whole movement was inspired by that, and they had been inspired by someone else doing something.
SF: What did Marxism mean to you at the time of your early politicization in the 1960s?
KC: We were not particularly concerned with Marxism during the era of nonviolent protest against segregation. This was a movement based on principles of non-aggression, forms of practices called nonviolent protest. Marxism is not a protest discipline. Marxism is an analysis. So the people who were involved in protest could have had different analyses, and I know they did. Some may have been Marxists, some may have been Christians, some may have been teenagers who just wanted to go along. So Marxism did not have anything to do with the sit-ins—transgressions against racial segregation. The principle is called direct action. There was a professor—I think from Tennessee State—who had classes in which he discussed how you disrupt systems, and how you have a protest, etc. So the people who took his class started having nonviolent demonstrations in Nashville, because the lunch counters were segregated. So the idea of a sit-in is at the beginning of that time frame, and in Albany it was something that they ended up being put in jail for.
SF: Would you say that the early ‘60s Civil Rights Movement was founded on a nonviolent approach?
KC: That is very correct. The organization that I joined was called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, by the time I was a member of the group—which was very early, in ‘66—they said that we are the non-nonviolent, non-coordinated, non-student, non-committee. So the movement had outgrown the discipline and the ideas of the last four years, but they had not changed their name, and they never changed their name.
SF: In a wider sense, one could say that the early ‘60s Left was characterized by a nonviolent, integrationist approach to discontents. For instance, SNCC had a mixed membership until its white members were later dismissed from the Committee in 1966.
KC: Wait a minute, you are exaggerating. I am not saying that you did not read that, but that is not what happened. What happened is that SNCC had a membership, and it had a leadership, and the leadership was called the Executive Committee. And a vote was taken in a membership meeting that all the members of the Executive Committee had to be black. That does not mean putting white people out of SNCC. That means consolidating all the leaders of the Black Power Movement in SNCC, as black people. The leadership was voted in. The leadership was made up of candidates. So there was already a central committee. The central committee at a staff meeting could have a vote and make changes to the membership of the leadership.
SF: So the whole of the Committee was voted on, by all of the members. . .
KC: The whole of the membership was there by two in the morning. The meeting started around let’s say 4 a.m., and it went on to 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock and 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock, and some people were arguing, and some people had left and gone to sleep, etc. So by the time that we had these votes, there was not as many people as there were at the beginning. I was there the whole time. It was the first meeting that I had ever been to, and I was totally captivated by what was going on, so I would not miss a minute.
SF: How would you characterize this change? What did that mean for the Left? What did that mean for SNCC at the time?
KC: You are asserting something that is inaccurate! You say, “What does that mean for the Left?” SNCC is not, quote unquote, “the Left.” The Left is a multiracial, multi-regional group of people who are organized for different reasons. That is the Left. In the Left, there is an organization that is Southern, that is Student, and that is very radical and becoming revolutionary called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that lead to the creation of something called the Black Panther Party. That is not the Left. I would never say SNCC is the Left. I would say that SNCC is radical, youth, Black Power organizing. You cannot define radical, youth, Black Power organizing as the Left, as there is a lot of other stuff in the mix. So it is confusing, and it is inaccurate, and you may think that, but I do not think that. I do not associate the Left with the Black Power movement, which was extremely Southern. In the United States there are more people in the Left in New York City, in Seattle, in other places. The Black Power movement had Left support, but the Black Power movement came out of something called the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which is not necessarily synonymous with, quote unquote, “the Left.”
SF: How would you consider the BPP in relation to the Civil Rights Movement? Or SNCC?
KC: The BPP started in California—I think that is the one that you are referencing—however, before the BPP in California was started, there was an organization created by SNCC in Alabama, in Lowndes County, as a voting rights group called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). Every party at this time had a symbol. The Alabama Republican Party symbol was a white rooster. The LCFO’s symbol was a black panther—which is a local animal. They had a slogan that the black panther would eat up the white rooster. This being because in Lowndes County 80 percent of the population is black but most of the black people had never voted, and so this was a party that was representing black voters. This is where the idea of a black panther came from, but the organization that I became part of called itself the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense because it was not connected to the voting rights group, and it was not in Alabama, it was in California, and it did not really have anything much to do with voting.
SF: Would you consider the BPP as an advancement on the Civil Rights Movement?
KC: The Civil Rights Movement was based in the South, which was a challenge to racial segregation, which is very vicious, and basically an overgrowth from slavery. There was a black population in the South that became free that then became segregated, etc. The Left, which includes things that are going on in California, has to do with voting rights; it has to do with Communist organizing, all sorts of stuff. The Southern civil rights activity is not really very comprehensive about the Left, and the Left is much bigger. The BPP is not Southern, but it is very focused on black exploitation, on racial discrimination, and things that are exclusively done to black people, even though it is not in the South. It is a different type of organization, more like a liberation struggle against colonialism. It is modelled on the ideas and the activities of the people in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, but the BPP had its own ideas and its own techniques. The Civil Rights Movement took place in states that were based on concepts and laws of segregation, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, the Deep South, Texas, and Florida being some of the worst offenders. The BPP was created in California, where they do not have these kinds of laws. It is not about segregation. It is about the ways and manners in which people are actively treated, not about the racial discrimination and segregation in law. So it is two separate types of activities. The black people in California were responding to something different.
SF: What does it mean to use revolutionary violence as a tool for the transformation of society?
KC: It is not an abstract question. What does it mean to who?
SF: For the Left?
KC: I cannot speak for the Left. I’m not on the Left. I was in the BPP. I was in the Civil Rights Movement. I was in the liberation struggle. I can speak for those movements, and it is one of the tools. There is a lot of violence directed against anti-colonial and anti-racist small movements. They tend to get more violence as being targets than as being perpetrators. However, that is the origin of these notions such as ‘guerrilla struggle’ and ‘subterranean’ ways of struggling against imperialism, etc. The BPP arose after a lot of that had developed out of South America and in West Africa and in other places. We were, for all purposes, mostly an aboveground legal organization that followed the laws in California. However, the laws in California are not the same as the laws in all of the states. Someone that might want to have a BPP in Oklahoma, or a BPP in North Carolina would have to respond to different laws, so it is a different type of situation. In the state of California, where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was started in the City of Oakland, the laws concerning weapons being carried openly were laws that affected hunting and fishing. You could not have unlicensed guns. It was essentially better to display them than to have them concealed, as to have them concealed you had to have a special kind of license. Those were the laws that were on the books, and the way that the Black Panther Party applied those laws was very startling to the city of Oakland. The Black Panthers, as black men, some of whom had beards, wearing berets, black leather jackets, black pants, and carrying guns, and going to the state capital in a group, made a statement on the law. But it was not illegal. Revolutionary violence is a tactic that would be adopted under certain circumstances, very, very specific to certain movements. Let’s say that it is the Vietnamese who are wanting to undermine and destroy French Colonialism. They would use revolutionary violence in lots of ways until the point that they gather an army that could actually take on and defeat the French Army.
SF: What would it mean to be tactically divided—for the Left—along racial lines?
KC: When you say “for the Left,” it has to have a geography. The Left where? The Left in Vietnam? The Left in France?
SF: In America?
KC: America is too huge. California has its own culture; Arizona has a different culture; Chicago has a culture completely 100 percent separate from everybody else. New York has another place. There are state laws concerning prisons, there are state laws concerning carrying weapons. In New York there are eight or nine different political parties.
SF: I mean for the strategy of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s?
KC: What is a strategy? A strategy of what? The social, physical and economic context, and political reality in the United States at the time the BPP was created—in 1966—was that black people were separated, tactically divided, segregated, set apart, etc. Legally in some places, and socially in others. For instance, Los Angeles does not have legal segregation, but it has black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, white police, you know, so it functions in a manner of racial discrimination. It is just not legally segregated. So that is the social reality in which the people who were members of the BPP joined the organization, made the rules, and did their work. That is the social practice of racial discrimination that the organization that was called The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was built within, and built to challenge. And that is a little bit different than what you are asking me about. I am trying to find out, who is the quote unquote: the Left? Are they people within the United States? Are they people who are within the Socialist Party, are they people in England? I mean that the Left is too vague to be able to answer a complex question of strategy or tactics, or philosophy! I would not say that I am in the Left. I would say that I was in a revolutionary movement, I was in a revolutionary struggle, I am a human rights activist, but I would not choose to identify myself as the Left only because I see something else that is more significant to me. Other people can consider me on the left, and I would accept that because of what they mean by the Left. Period. I would call myself a human rights activist, a revolutionary artist, or whatever, but I would not use ‘leftist.’ To me, ‘Left’ is very vague. We were in a movement that we called a black liberation movement. We identified ourselves as revolutionaries, and we read texts written by revolutionaries, and we looked at social revolutions around the world for a model for what we were doing.
SF: What was the aim of revolution?
KC: The aim of the revolution is social change, fundamental, permanent elimination of some types of discrimination and separation based on race, based on class, based on gender. It is fundamentally social justice, through methods which will change the social, political, and economic reality of the people who are choosing to participate in the revolution. The example we had was what happened when Algeria—which used to be in the imperial empire of France—liberated itself, and separated itself, and became its own country. That is our idea of revolution as separate and changed from the previous condition of subjugation to and by another power. That is the world that we were growing up in. That was what was happening in many cities and many places. There were revolutions. We were modelling what we thought on what we saw.
SF: What did Socialism and Communism mean for the BPP in the 1960s?
KC: They were references and quotes from the Red Book—that were considered quite significant. I think that it was overdone, and many people agreed with that, but the BPP started out after Bobby Seale and Huey Newton read Mao Zedong’s Red Book.
SF: How did the Black Panther Party understand the Socialist and Communist critiques in Mao Zedong’s Red Book?
KC: My work was in communication, so what I was doing, insofar as what is in the Red Book and in the world of anti-capitalist organizing—was communication: setting up events, programs, places where people would hear contrary analysis, hear critiques, be able to form organizations, and participate in activities that challenged injustice, all the things in the Ten-Point platform of the BPP: we want power to determine justice, we want our own elimination of economic injustices, etc. There was a litany of complaints that African Americans had about their discrimination, that they have had for the last century, and the Black Panther Party condensed this into ten points, and that was its organizing platform.
SF: How did official Communism—as in post-Stalinist Russia and the official existing Communist parties at the time—affect the self-conception of the Black Panthers in the 60s?
KC: The BPP was aware of the Communist views, it was aware of the revolution and Mao Zedong. It was much more inclined to be reading Mao Zedong than any other Communist—but they recommended a series of books, including works by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Karl Marx, and so there was an effort to educate comrades in a broader concept of ideology critique. But it was not a party committed to the ideology of Communism. It had a ten-point platform, and the first point was that we want the power to determine the destiny of our own community. So in our structure, it would be called a liberation movement for people who are structurally enclosed in a form of colonialism. So that is not necessarily what Marxism provides, you know, a way out of colonialism.
SF: How did you consider Malcolm X in relation to the BPP?
KC: Malcolm X was the inspiration of the BPP. He set it in motion. First of all, Malcolm X was in existence before there was any BPP. Bobby Seale pointed out: “Well, if Malcolm X hadn’t gotten killed, Bobby Seale may never have started the Black Panther Party.” He was very much an advocate and adherent of Malcolm X’s activities, and his follower. I do not know if he had actually joined a mosque. Eldridge Cleaver was in a mosque in prison, and he was a minister of the San Quentin mosque under Malcolm X. So Malcolm X directly influenced the people who made the BPP an organization.
SF: Was there anything inspiring or influential in terms of his thinking and writing and speaking for yourself?
KC: There is absolutely no person who had a bigger influence and inspiration in my generation at all. He talked about Africa; he talked about blackness; he talked about how you think; he talked about the reality. He was very, very plain-spoken, and he never bit his tongue, and he made you understand things. The people who were not as enthusiastic were terrified by him. He did not live long enough for those kind of questions to have a good answer.
SF: What was particularly captivating about the stakes he was making?
KC: He was very outspoken, very clear, and very direct. In one of his statements, he said, essentially asserting that black people came from Africa, “Where else did you come from?!”, breaking down the efforts to stereotype black people, to make them feel inferior, etc. I mean he was a captivating orator. So people listened to what he said. They listened to him on the radio; they listened to his records; they listened to his speeches, so perhaps the combination of the delivery, the clarity, and the time. There was no one else like it. He was it. He was that voice, and then he was murdered.
SF: What did he mean by saying that black people are from Africa?
KC: It is an enlightenment. To enlighten black people. That whether you know it or not, your ancestors are African. You are an African. He is trying to assert the reality of a black identity. This is where he was trying to get to. And he was confronting a problem, which we referred to at that time as being brainwashed. People who were living in America, who clearly had African ancestry, were brainwashed into thinking that was not true or something to that effect. So he was waking people—he said they were asleep—trying to get them to recognize their history, to recognize who they were, recognize what was going on in reality.
SF: What does that mean for a revolutionary organization like the Black Panthers?
KC: Bobby Seale said that if Malcolm X had not been killed he probably would not have started the BPP. Malcolm X articulated the principles on which the BPP was organized. These principles Bobby Seale and Huey Newton wrote into their program and platform, which was based very similarly on the Nation of Islam, which during Malcolm’s time, had been made more secular. Eldridge Cleaver came out of the Nation of Islam directly into the leadership of the BPP. Other Panthers did also, so there is a fundamental connection between what Malcolm X said, how he changed the way in which black people were thinking of themselves and thinking of their political place in the world, and what they could do in their own self-reliance. And all those kinds of ideas flowed into the minds of those who started the BPP, and also into the way the Panther Party was conceptualized.
SF: How did these principles that were coming from Malcolm X have meaning for politics?
KC: The basic fundamental principle that we gained was of a concept of black nationalism, that all the black people form a community, and that community is connected to Africa, and that community has a language, and it has a history, and it is being subverted by the subjugation of slavery, by poverty, etc. It was very clear, very simplistic. He said, “You say you don’t know nothing about Africa. Africa is where you came from!” This is supposed to be a revelation. Malcolm X was a person who had come to an understanding of history and subjugation of black people through reading in prison, through reading the bible. He interpreted it through the lens of the Nation of Islam once he got into that movement. But it was like a wakeup call when you are listening to his speeches. It is like he is talking to people on a first-person level, having to tell black people they are black because their ancestry is African, and this is a revelation. His most powerful analysis was when he was linking Africans to African Americans. And he travelled to Africa, he travelled in Ghana. He was trying to link up the African liberation and the black freedom movements himself, which is the last thing that the United States government wanted to happen. And I have seen that in a state department government document.
SF: What is the task of revolutionary politics today?
KC: I think that there are so many tasks that I would not be the one to ask. I mean it depends on which arena of the society your effort to revolutionize is directed to. At this point, there is an enormous amount of energy towards food, security, land, access, being able to protect the soil, etc. That is something very active that was not even on the radar when I was in the revolutionary movements. I have a very different perspective on what is important in life for me right now than I did when I was 18 or 19, with the social justice matters and the challenges to racial, sexual domination and the way that black men were getting shot and killed. That was one of the triggers to the rise of the BPP, when the leader was shot and left for dead. But he survived, and the policeman that he had a shootout with actually died. It was that kind of life-and-death context of challenging racism that the BPP came into being and that is actually a context that does not seem to disappear. It maybe can change, but it is still a context in the U.S.
SF: Has the need for revolutionary politics changed?
KC: Everything changes, that does not mean that it is not necessary. It means that it might be necessary for different reasons. You solve one problem, and you discover more! There are some other things here that we had not straightened out before. Segregation, the legal imposition, is over with. You cannot do it. However, it can be done without being part of the law. It can be done economically. It can be done with rotten neighborhoods and poor schools. The various forms of discrimination that you will discover those with Mexican ancestors have to suffer that you would not even know anything about. The United States social and political structure perpetuates exploitation, and it perpetuates discrimination, but it might not always be the same one at the same time. They have not stopped doing the things they did to black workers. They just do them to Mexicans; they do them to Chinese; they do them to some other kind of immigrant.
SF: There seems to be a lot of activism covered by the mainstream news media, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), March for Our Lives, or #MeToo.
KC: Listen. The BPP was an organization that challenged police brutality. They had offices, they had meetings, they had weapons, and they had programs, etc. I do not see BLM as programs or activities. “Stop police brutality”; that may be a goal, but what is the way it is being implemented? I mean, I do not see any evidence of it being implemented myself.
SF: What did being a party mean for the BPP?
KC: I will explain. You had meetings. You had assignments. You had a building. You would go to your assignment. I worked as what was called a communications secretary. My assignment was as Press Secretary. I would send out press releases. I would work from my own desk in our apartment for a long time, because I did not know how to drive. Eldridge was Information Minister. He would work in the office. Bobby Seale was the Chairman. We had different assignments, but a lot of what I did was sending out press releases. And then after that, it became making speeches and travelling and being a spokesperson. I worked in the arena of communications. There was aboveground work and underground work, and people coordinating different chapters. So it became a very national and international organization of activists in the Unites States and other countries.
SF: How does that differ from the contemporary Left activism going on?
KC: You tell me that something has major chapters from Asia to the United States? Across California? I do not see any international black activism connected on a social justice ten-point program. It is a model that seems to have not quite disappeared, but a model that has not been resurrected in any way that I can see in the sense of a nation-wide movement, an organization that is based on a set of principles, platforms that they all agree on, political activism domestically and internationally. I just do not see that right now.| P
Transcribed by Sophia Freeman
- Stalin dies in ’53; Khrushchev denounces Stalin in ’56 and calls for process of de-Stalinization.↩