POV: What drew you to the Black Panther Party originally
Kathleen Cleaver: I was already involved in the Black Power movement, the campus program of SNCC, which was the other most radical civil rights group, and Stokely Carmichael was the chair. The Black Panther Party came into being on the West Coast, while SNCC was based in the South. The Black Panther Party took its name from the organization that Carmichael and Rap Brown were starting in Alabama, with a panther as its logo. The Black Panther Party was another development of the same movement I was already a part of. Stokely was drafted as a field marshal, and he was the first person who told me about the Party.
Kathleen Cleaver in an undated photo from the 1960s.
We were on the same page in terms of our beliefs: how society needed to change, the impact of slavery and segregation on the black population, how radically society would have to be altered to achieve something like equality for black people. We had the same ideas about methods. One thing that was somewhat different, the Black Panther Party started as an all-black organization, whereas SNCC was in the process of becoming and all-black organization. SNCC was focused on rural areas, whereas the Black Panther Party was an urban organization.
POV: Many people have a settled idea of what the BPP was about. What do you think is something that people don't appreciate, or misunderstand
Cleaver: Many people have a stereotyped notion of the Black Panther Party. Most people have a distorted idea, because most people get their ideas from the mass media, from things that were in newspapers, magazines, or on television; things that were put there by people who were part of the apparatus of the government. The FBI put a lot of stories in the newspaper. There were three key points to those stories:
One, the Black Panther Party was violent. Two, the Black Panther Party hated white people. Three, the Black Panther Party was dominated by men, with women playing only supportive roles. Those are the ideas that many people still have. Take the issue of violence. The Black Panther Party was an organization dedicated to self-defense. The context in which the Black Panther Party was operating, for people born after World War II, all these young people came out of a family or community that had been subjected to the most horrendous levels of state-sponsored terrorism -- lynchings, police violence, insults and degradation. The nature of the relationship between black citizens and white citizens, mainstream government, over time, had been violent. The only way you can reach a conclusion that the Party was violent is that blacks are not entitled to defend themselves.
Secondly, the notion of hating white people. Seale dealt with that over and over. He said that what we hate is oppression. Blacks had a specific history in this county, analogous to colonialism, from slavery to segregation. We said we had been colonized, and that the members need to band together unify and struggle for liberation. That was our politics, which was different from the NAACP or the SCLC. All the members of the Black Panther Party shared that history, and were black.
Lastly, the notion that women played secondary roles. Most of the photographs that give people an image of the Black Panther Party were typically photos taken by men, selected by male editors, put in newspapers owned and run by men. The selection of images tends to be images of men because that's what these editors and publishers thought was important. There were tons of women in the Black Panther Party -- but photographers never came to our meetings. They came to show a threatening image that helped justify the way law enforcement treated us. From the beginning there were women within the organization, and as Huey Newton said, we do not have any sex roles in the organization. When the armed delegation went to Sacramento, there were women in the delegation. There's a presumption that any valuable action, if the action was worth paying attention to, it was done by a man.
POV: Has your approach to politics or community work changed since then
Cleaver: Of course. The BPP was shattered, riveted by dissension, much of which was aggravated by agents specifically sent in to do that. Any organization has disputes and disagreements. The time in which the BPP was operating, the war in Vietnam was at a peak, there were young people in Vietnam fighting against the US government. All over the world there were liberatory uprisings: people on the barricades in Paris, in Prague, young guerrillas fighting in Mozambique. Our movement was part of a worldwide youthful revolutionary movement. That is no longer the case, so you cannot use the same approach absent that global uprising.
The community we were a part of had been segregated and separated. That dynamic is not as powerful now. Young black people today are not necessarily people who feel physically or politically separate from the mainstream. The context has changed. Have I changed my views on how society needs to be changed? No. It needs fundamental root-and-branch improvement, not plastering over.
POV: Looking back at the Ten Point Program, do you think we've made progress towards those goals
Cleaver: The first point, the call for self-determination, what you will see in place of self-determination is a much broader base of blacks engaged in the electoral political arena. Whether in Congress, as state legislators, or as mayors. That's not exactly what we said, but that's a different manifestation. As for police brutality, it's not exactly the same, it may be more targeted, it may be more specific departments, specific units, like the Street Crimes Unit in New York City. But there has been some recognition that the way the police treated young black people was wrong.
The black middle class has gotten a lot larger, and middle class people have more access to education and access to better health care, and can make more choices about how they earn a living. There has been no progress towards a UN-sponsored plebiscite, and for some people that's still a goal. There is still some focus on the UN nowadays, but the focus is on economic justice, reparations, and environmental racism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said what we needed was a revolution in values. What the BPP talked about was what kind of values should be in place. Some of the more offensive denials of equality and human rights that were the norm have been ameliorated. There are improvements in living conditions and access to material benefits. On the core values, we don't see much movement.
POV: What do you think is the lasting impact of the BPP? What lessons can be drawn from it by someone doing community or political work today?
Cleaver: What I think is really important about the BPP is that the BPP represented and the young people recognized that their most powerful weapon was their imagination. That's something the Party emphasized. We could imagine how the world could be different and act to bring it about. Newton used to say we have to capture the people's imagination. That was a goal, to attract people into this movement. When you look at the Ten Point Program, it articulates the very same goals that have been articulated by free blacks after slavery, over and over. These were very mainstream goals: decent housing, justice, access to education, the ability to create wealth. These kinds of demands are very central, but the way the BPP is viewed is not in terms of an organization defined by its platform. It's viewed as an organization that repudiates the way in which the larger society thinks blacks should be treated. Which was correct. But as a consequence of that, we were called gangs and thugs.
The core belief of the BPP was condensed in our slogan "All Power to the People," which is pretty clear. And it has never been repudiated, so people may try to make fun of it or co-opt it, but it's still powerful. We're not saying only poor people, or only men, or only blacks. We're saying that the source of social and political power comes from the masses of people, and in this society that's something that it's hard not to come against one way or another. It's easier to get rid of all the people who believe it than to make that belief invalid.
I spend a lot of time talking to young people who want to be very involved in social justice work. In one conversation I just had, a young man said, "one thing we learned from the Panthers is that it's very important to maintain face-to-face relationships with people in the community." We were not merely a group of theoreticians who had a vision of what needed to be changed in the world. We were trying to help people, but also trying to use the way we helped them to illustrate that there is a failure in the society's organization, to empower them to identify their own goals and needs.
I think a lot of people don't realize how young the people in the BPP were. Young people can have a lasting impact on their world. Poor people, working people can engage in political activity, you can create solutions and attempt to implement them. One of the solutions was community-controlled police; another was free breakfasts for children. Sickle cell testing, which now goes on across the country, we started. Those kinds of ways to benefit and help and respect people are viable and doable and the last thing people should do is just sit around and say there's nothing I can do. That's the absolute worst. There is no excuse for apathy.
Kathleen Cleaver was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) before she joined the Black Panther Party in 1967. She served as the Party's Communications Secretary and was the first woman to join the Party's Central Committee. She is currently a senior lecturer at Emory Law School and at Yale University and the Executive Producer of the International Black Panther Film Festival. With George Katsiaficas, she was the co-editor of Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party.