Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s interview with Kathleen Cleaver, visiting professor at Cardoza School of Law.

 



INTERVIEWER: In retrospect, what was the Civil Rights revolution all about?

CLEAVER: By the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed by the United States Congress, the process of legal change and elimination of official racism was legally completed, but it was not socially completed.

The government that was interested in encouraging the end of restrictions on voting and education on the basis of race didn't do very much on the level of changing basic attitudes. So where you have a cessation of the implementation by law of racist practices, you really have never seen any major effort on the part of the government or the larger institutions to transform attitudes. And that is where we've failed.

INTERVIEWER: What was it that was appealing to you about the Black Panther Party?

CLEAVER: I encountered the Black Panther Party when I was in SNCC. I had gotten involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the same time that it articulated black power as its position. I was a student in New York, and I started working in the New York office. The Black Power Movement challenged all the preconceived notions of blacks not being able to determine their own destiny. It was essentially a very nationalistic self-determination position. And what appealed to me about the Black Panther Party was that it took that position of self-determination and articulated it in a local community structure, had a program, had a platform and an implementation through the statement of how blacks should exercise community control over education, housing, business, military service.

INTERVIEWER: Why did the Panthers-SNCC coalition fall apart?

CLEAVER: I think it was totally misunderstood on both sides, what was intended. When Stokely Carmichael was drafted by Huey Newton in May of 1967, as a member of the Black Panther Party, he was very proud of it. He went around showing his scroll. SNCC had a central committee that made decisions. Stokely Carmichael was becoming a very public and highly note notorious person, more so than anyone in SNCC had ever been. So there was a lot of conflict in SNCC about how decisions were being made. The Black Panther Party had a very small, tight central committee, and decisions were made by consensus. And the consensus in the Black Panther Party was that SNCC should be merged into the Black Panther Party. This was not discussed with SNCC. So when James Foreman was drafted as minister of foreign affairs and Rap Brown as minister of justice and Stokely Carmichael as prime minister, this was not something that had been ratified or discussed by the leadership structure of SNCC. And so the failure to understand the two organizational differences plus some intervention on the part of police agents that made sure it collapsed, led to the disintegration of it.

INTERVIEWER: We've been talking to various leaders of the Black Panther Party at various times, in part because it was the only group within the Civil Rights Movement that was dealing explicitly with class. Why do you think that class escaped the notice of so many figures and historical organizations in African American history?

CLEAVER: Well, first of all, I don't think the Black Panther Party was the only one. If you look at the Urban League, they were dealing with class also, but they were just dealing with ---

GATES: --With the upper class! (laughter)

CLEAVER: Middle class and corporate class. I think that the attempt for so many generations to create something that we called in the sixties "black unity", that effort towards black unity meant for many people, you would not look at divisions of class . To make an emphasis on class would cause a recognition that many leaders and organizations were not willing to deal with, a recognition that many of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement were essentially goals for easier assimilation for middle class people, and that working class people and poor people weren't going to get too much out of this.

Now, the Black Panther Party's base was focused on young, out of work, poor kids. There were a lot of middle class kids who were part of the Black Panther Party, and the leadership was significantly middle class, in the sense of Bobby Seale's family and Huey Newton's family. Not necessarily Eldridge's family. But as in all liberation movements, a highly-educated and articulate elite comes into the leadership of working class struggles as well. And that emphasis was part and parcel of the recognition that these middle class goals were not going to provide any benefit, because the entire social and political structure that oppressed black people had to be changed. We took our position on class from Malcolm X. And our positions on nationalism were what we called "revolutionary". We followed Fanon, and we also followed Nkrumah. And so therefore, there was much more of a Marxist or neo-Marxist analysis incorporated into the Black Panther Party than in the other organizations, which had essentially succumbed to red baiting.

INTERVIEWER: Were there class tensions within the Party?

CLEAVER: Not an enormous amount. I remember once getting into discussion in central committee meeting, and one of the women there said, "Oh, Kathleen, I never knew you were a bourgie." I mean, class tensions would come out if people behaved in a way that they were accustomed to seeing in class-dominated situations. But a lot of those middle class behaviors that people were uncomfortable with, those kinds of people tended not to join the Black Panther Party. As we said, you have to be down with the people.

INTERVIEWER: How would the world look different if the Panther Party, at the height of its power and authority, had won?

CLEAVER: Well, the Black Panther Party saw itself as part of a revolutionary struggle. And we were linked with organizations of native Americans, of Chicanos, of women, of Asians. And we were international. We would have been part of an international revolutionary vanguard that would have restructured the economy, restructured the educational system, taken the United States out of the role of world policeman, and made it the American people's revolutionary United States. We had the view of an American people's liberation front. We could not have succeeded without the success of these partners and these people around the world.

INTERVIEWER: Like who?

CLEAVER: Well, the Vietnamese would have had to won. The Angolans would have had to won. Many other liberation movements would have had to have won. And I don't mean seize power, because in many cases what happened was that they seized power, the independence came, and then the economic control of the resources of that country were restored to the power that initially had colonized it. So you have a form of neo-colonial shallow shadow governments in Africa and in South America. The imperial structure is very much in place, but it's not so much by government as it is by corporation. So that particular power base of corporate power being able to use governments to advance its agenda, was exactly what we were opposed to. So that is the world that we would not see. But of course, they had more resources. They had 15- and 20-year plans. They had billions and billions of dollars to get rid of us. And we had ideals, and we had commitment, and we had this glorious belief that the spirit of the people was greater than man's technology.

INTERVIEWER: In 1997, you have now graduated from Yale Law School with highest honors. You've clerked for very the most distinguished black jurist alive the the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham. And you've been an associate at Cravath, Swain and Moore , which many people would say the heart or the inner logic of the capitalist system. In retrospect, were the Panthers right?

CLEAVER: Yes. Yes. We were right. That's not sufficient, to be right. Tom Paine was right. But the American Constitution didn't reflect his views. You have to have institutional, corporate, financial, military power. And on the other hand, you have to have the mass support of people, their hearts and their minds and their beliefs. Now, the revolutionary positions that we took were not consistent with the beliefs of the majority of the American people, because the majority of the American people believe in the system as it is. They just believe the system didn't work right, but it should work right. What we believed is, the system was fundamentally corrupt and could never work right, and had to be replaced. Now, the educational effort that it would take to transform the society is something that the resources at the disposal of handfuls of youth organizations could not accomplish. We could have accomplished a far broader educational effort, had we not been so viciously sabotaged and attacked by a broad array of police agencies. The FBI had its police against us. The CIA had its police against us. The DIA had its police. The police have its own squad. So the forces arrayed against us -- not to mention our own internal confusion and dissension -- so the forces arrayed against us, a youth organization, coming into being in 1966, in which maybe less that one per cent of the people were over 25 -- we would have had to expand, incorporate broader and broader segments of the black community alighn ourselves with broader and broader segments of the working class and radical white community. We would have had to take two and three or four generations to do this.

INTERVIEWER: 1997. Largest black middle class in history. Largest black underclass. Black middle class has roughly tripled since the day King died, but 45 percent of all black children live at or beneath the poverty line. How did we get here?

CLEAVER: Well, one of the ways we got here was through the takeover by corporate interests of the legal and political structures that govern our lives. The ways in which, let's say, anti-trust law or tax laws used to prevent monopolies, have been shunted aside. The ways in which the information services that are supposed to be at the disposal of the people, now are at the service of corporate interests. The ways the educational system is supposed to be under the control of the community, at the service of at least not the communities I see. The radical gap in income and residence through the sub suburbanization. So many cities have this, what you call "donut shape". In the middle is a little black hole. And all on the outside, it's all the wealth and the tax money and the resources, where white people live. And so the economic disparity has widened. It's greater than any time since the 1920's. The opportunities for people at the bottom aren't there. In order to have opportunities, you basically have to have a graduate degree. Now, only certain kinds of people can get those. But those are the people through the Affirmative Action policies implemented by a lot of private corporations, not just the government, that have created this middle class.

GATES: So the system adjusted itself. Precisely when it was annihilating the Panthers, the system adjusted itself to expand the size of the middle class to a certain point, and then shut it down. So that's why the black middle class has tripled since '68?

CLEAVER: I wouldn't say the system adjusted itself. What I would say, it was there. On the one hand, there was a amount of opportunity available under certain conditions for a certain number of people. A large number of black people already met those criteria. They were barred by race. They were not barred by deficiencies in education, deficiencies in ability, etc., etc. So those people who could take advantage of those Remember the saying back in the sixties, the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Certain People?

And one thing that is important to understand is that capitalist form of democracy, or I like to call it the "commercial democracy", needs people like us, or needs a middle class to function smoothly. It doesn't need equality. What it needs is inequality. It needs a certain number of people at the elite level, a certain number of people in the middle level, and the rest of the people scrambling and hoping they could get there, all following the same zealous commitment to making money. Now, when you have people who are revolutionaries, they repudiate the commitment to making money, and say, "We want justice. We want change. We want truth. We want freedom." Well, that's not going to work if the structure is based on financial rewards and financial incentives. So we were at odds with the way the system worked. We had a different idea. We said, "Power to the people."

INTERVIEWER: Given the fact that there does not appear to be a socialist revolution imminent on the horizon, do you think that capitalism can adapt itself to change - what I think of as the bell curve of class - to get more black people into the middle class?

CLEAVER: They can adapt itself to become more and more fascistic, and more and more imperialistic, and more and more elitist. And instead of reform and expansion, it's going to use repression and exclusion. So I expect to see an increasingly repressive, racist, and economically exclusive society that's going to be less and less and less democratic.

INTERVIEWER: But how would that play out among within these two classes that we've just described within the black community?

CLEAVER: Let's look at some other communities. Let's look at Vietnam or look at African countries when it comes time to kick out the colonial power. There's always those people who don't want to kick out the colonial power, the French, because that's where their bread is buttered. So what's happening is, you have class conflict, or you have political conflict generated within dependent communities. And therefore, the leadership is either aligning itself with the status quo or annihilated, and essentially have a leadership vacuum. Because in order to be effective, you have to take positions that will be supported by the larger black community. In order to be heard, you have to take positions that will be broadcast by the mass media. Now, if the mass media will only broadcast positions that are supportive of the status quo, and the status quo is hostile to the vast majority of blacks, then essentially you're not going to have any effective leadership, which is where we seem to be now. We're at an impasse.

INTERVIEWER: Well, what is the best that we can expect, though? There are 27 million black Americans. We can't expect all black people to be in the middle class. Or can we? Or should we?

CLEAVER: Well, why should we be worried about the middle class? That's what I'm trying to say. What we should be able to expect is a democratic opportunity to use the resources of this country, and a use of the resources to value humans over property. That's the important thing. That's not what we have. If you valued human rights and valued human resources over property rights and property resources, then the equation would be different, and people would be first and property would be second. And that would benefit all the oppressed.

I don't think it's really about what happens to black people. It's what happens to the whole society. Black people are going to suffer or enjoy the benefits or the demerits of the society at large. It's just, blacks are in a more vulnerable position. So if there's benefits, they have the least hold on it. And if there's harm, they get the biggest share of it.

INTERVIEWER: Expand a bit on the crisis of black leadership today. What do you mean by that? Why do we have a crisis of black leadership?

CLEAVER: Have you ever heard of the term "brain drain"?

In colonial development, the colonial power creates a middle class, usually to control the colony for itself. So when you have the creation in black American communities of a class of physicians and managers and lawyers and judges, their education takes them away from the communities that created these people. These are not like my parents' generation, people who are trained in the black schools and whose talents are confined to the black community through a regime of segregation. These are people who are trained in the major institutions and are able to use their talents in the corporate and business structures of the larger society. Therefore they're not available to the poorer black communities.

With the collapse of essentially segregation and residential segregation on the basis of color, residential segregation now is on the basis of wealth. So in the past, black communities had integrated middle class, lower class working people all in the same area. Now, middle class don't live in the same area where poor people live. So the models and the leadership that is available on a community local level is no longer available. And therefore, the leadership that has developed out of the civil rights struggle, which is essentially reflecting middle class values and middle class concerns, does not deal with the problems of the underclass. And the isolation and the lack of resources of the underclass makes it very difficult to generate leadership that will be listened to by the larger society. And as a result, you have something like a hip hop movement, and you have people who are black leaders attacking the expressions of frustration and rage that come out of the hip hop, and joining hands with people like Newt Gingrich, to talk about how horrible they are.

So we have essentially class conflict instead of class progress.

INTERVIEWER: Both Bill Wilson and Cornell West have written in various ways- and a lot of other people- that the causes of poverty are both structural and behavioral. And so far, you've talked about the structural causes quite eloquently, but you haven't talked about behavioral causes. I mean, the causes that are self-inflicted within the black community. And what do we do about those? No one holds a gun at someone's head and makes you get pregnant at 16. No one makes you drop out of school. No one makes you rape an older woman. No one makes you violate a church. But what do we do about that?

CLEAVER: Well, I don't think that's the point at which you look at it. People who have parents and have families and have communities that love them and teach them principles, don't do those things. But what you're talking about is the consequence of a collapse of the community. All this dysfunctional behavior is for people who have no families, who have no parents, who have no one who cares about them. That's where that comes from. So the question is: How do you reconstitute communities that have no resources, that have no jobs, that have no future?

INTERVIEWER: How do we do it?

CLEAVER: We can't do it without the use of the resources that have been taken out of those communities. You have to have (I agree with Jesse Jackson) a Marshall Plan for America. When Europe at the end of the war was devastated, did they say, "Oh, well, Europeans, you just pick yourself up by your bootstrap, be responsible"? No. They said, "We have wealth. We're going to rebuild this community." These are communities that have to be rebuilt and have to be invested heavily by the government and/or the corporate The problem is, we don't have the political power to make this happen, and the corporations have no interest in making it happen. And the government is in the pocket of the corporations. So what we need is very fundamental change of political direction, in order to restructure the communities. Meanwhile, you do a lot of private small-scale things that people are doing, because the situation is so desperate.

INTERVIEWER: The Poor People's Campaign was about economics. And what happened to that whole movement? It's almost as if it wasn't it disappeared.

CLEAVER: Wait a minute. It didn't disappear. You might forget, Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. The Poor People's Campaign was supposed to go to Washington in April. So the organization that mobilized it was essentially decapitated and thrown into chaos about three weeks before it was supposed to happen. Those organizations were being As I said, once the Civil Rights Acts were completed, that was it. Government was through with us. They're not interested in restruct There has never been any interest in restructuring the economy for the benefit of the poor. I don't know ...bonus army, go back to Shay's rebellion? This is like the no-no... This is a capitalist society. It's built on inequality and avarice, in many ways.

INTERVIEWER: Can you imagine this system transforming itself?

CLEAVER: No. But I can imagine people transforming it.

INTERVIEWER: In such a way that you would find it humane?

CLEAVER: Yes!

INTERVIEWER: How's it going to happen, Kathleen?

CLEAVER: Well, you just have to get up and do it. And everybody has to agree that that's what they want to do and there's nothing more important. And it would take probably fifty-some years. Now, I didn't say I could imagine it in my lifetime.

I can envision a humane society in which everyone has food and everyone has shelter and everyone has a place to go and something important to do. That's not hard to imagine. There's an enormous number of corporate structures that control energy, oil, and other mineral resources that have enormous resources at their disposal, including the military and the intelligence agencies, that don't envision this. So yes, I can envision it. The question that's really important is: Can I implement it?

INTERVIEWER: Can you?

CLEAVER: Well, there's a lot of opposition.

INTERVIEWER: What are the obligations of the members of this new black middle class (the "talented tenth" as Du Bois would have put it) to the people left behind?

CLEAVER: To be honest, to do the best that you can do and to participate and contribute in things that strengthen your community, instead of being some shallow, flamboyant As Bunchy Carter said in a poem, he said, "Party, smarty. Your bourgois bubble will burst." He also said, "Do something, nigger, if you only spit." You have to have a commitment. There's always been within the middle class black community a sense of commitment and caring for the people we call the "less fortunate", the poor.

That was how we survived. This is the first generation that acts like they don't have an obligation. There are professors in major universities who actually write out in print that they have no obligation to the underclass. I think that's horrible. I think it's immoral, and I really think it's a disgrace. But there are people who feel perfectly comfortable in taking those selfish, distancing positions. And I just think that that's buying into the society beyond belief. That's taking it too far.

Interviewer: Is their plight something that you worry about? Or do you feel ever feel guilty about your own success?

CLEAVER: No! No. I feel stunned. I didn't set out to be successful. I set out to make revolutionary change, and really didn't think I'd live past 27. So every year past 27, it's like wow!

INTERVIEWER: What's the role of our churches in this social transformation that you envision? I asked Cornell West I said to him, "No one else but Farrakhan could have called the Million Man March." He said, "The black Baptist church could have."

CLEAVER: Farrakhan may have called it, but it's the church ladies that put them buses together and sent the people on the march.

INTERVIEWER: That's true. That's true. But you were busy trying to kill off the church when you were a Panther.

CLEAVER: I was not in any way, shape, or form trying to kill off the church.

INTERVIEWER: The Panthers were.

CLEAVER: No, we were not.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, you were.

CLEAVER: No!

INTERVIEWER: Eldridge Cleaver said

CLEAVER: How in the world are you going to say that? We were trying to defend our communities, emphasize What we were saying is that you weren't going to get any self-defense or community control by sitting up in church and praying. We weren't trying to kill off the church. Not at all. There's a very significant difference in saying their program will not lead to our goals, and then actively No, no. In fact, I think you've got it wrong. It's the police who were trying to kill us off.

INTERVIEWER: No, the police were trying to kill you off. But when I interviewed Eldridge, he said that he thought the biggest tactical error that the Panthers made (this is when I was with you all in Paris) was, you didn't sufficiently understand the role of the church. And the fact that any group that even appeared to be atheistic or appeared to be anti-religion, as he said you all were, would be would not be accepted by the people.

CLEAVER: Well, no. That that's true. But one of the things that the people in the Black Panther Party were very clear on, that there were religious organizations; there were religious groups; that our group had no religion; that whatever your religion was, as Malcolm said, you keep it in the closet; that this was a secular revolutionary social-political movement. Now, having said that, yes, being as young as we were, and in California in the sixties, we were oblivious to the significance of the spiritual aspect of the struggle that we were engaged in. And because we were oblivious, we have suffered enormously in ways that there is no repair for, other than spiritual. Many people have gone by the wayside. Their traumas or their injuries have such that they have become dysfunctional. But that's not because we were trying to attack the church. That's because we misunderstood the profoundly spiritual nature of the energy that we needed to accomplish what we set out to do.

INTERVIEWER: I remember great lines in the Panther paper about "porkchop preachers" and things like that.

CLEAVER: Well, that's because those preachers weren't doing the right thing. Father Neal , who was on our advisory committee, and who gave us his church for the breakfast program and for... We never attacked him. It was just the ones who were selfish, self-aggrandizing puppets of the power structure.

INTERVIEWER: Are we better off today, as a people, than we were in 1967?

CLEAVER: I think it depends on how old you are. If you take in 1967 a person who was 16 in 1967, looking at that person now, yes, that person is probably better off than they were in 1967. But in 1997, a person who is 16 now, in 1997, that person is worse off than you and I were when we were 16.

INTERVIEWER: What is I mean, do you have optimism about the future of black people in this country?

CLEAVER: Let's put it this way. There's so many black people, and we've been here so long, and we've been through everything that they have had conceivably to do to us, that we must have some pretty stable, powerful survival skills. And in fact, I think we should study what our skills and survival are, and try and expand on that.

INTERVIEWER: So you're optimistic about the future?

CLEAVER: That's pushing it.

INTERVIEWER: Kathleen, the Poor People's Campaign was all about economics. And of course, Dr. King was murdered, and that ended the Poor People's Campaign. But economics seems to have disappeared as a category of analysis for our conditions. And in fact, many people would say that it was the cultural nationalist element that succeeded.

CLEAVER: Well, I think those two things are intricately related. The relationship is this. If you attack the capitalist relationships of power and wealth, focusing on economics, and you fail to change them, the so-called cultural nationalist allows people to feel good about being black and having African ancestry, without attacking the economic structure.

So it's essentially a form of accommodation. It's okay. You can buy a card that has black people on it. You can wear earrings that look like you're African. You can chant. You can have an African religion. But when you go buy a car, you pay cash money to an American or Asian car dealer. You don't have a place where you can do for [self] in the economic realm. And so that's a form of accommodation. I'm not a cultural nationalist, by the way.

People will live with images of themselves that make them feel good, and cultural autonomy at some level within a capitalist political system, and not try to change it.

Cleaver dropped out of college in '66 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Soon after, she joined the Black Panther Party and married its Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. She became the spokesperson for the Black Panthers and the first woman on its Central Committee. A year after her husband fled to Algeria, Cleaver joined him in exile for six years. Returning to the U.S., Cleaver graduated summa cum laude from Yale Law School(where she became reacquainted with Skip Gates, who was then working with Yale's Afro-American Studies Dept.). She also served as law clerk to Judge A. Leon Higginbotham and worked at the law firm of Cravath, Swain and Moore. This interview was conducted Spring 1997

 

 

 
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