The Black Panthers scared the hell out of America in the 1960s. Emerging from the ghettos of Oakland, they scorned the establishment black leadership as Uncle Toms and took to the streets demanding "total liberty for black people or total destruction for America, " in the words of Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver.
In and out of reform schools and prisons since the age of 13 and an avowed "insurrectionary" rapist, Cleaver discovered radical politics and a flair for writing in Folsom Prison. Upon his release in 1966 he joined the fledgling Black Panther Party and started writing for the monthly Ramparts.
Cleaver burst upon the national scene in 1968 with the publication of Soul on Ice, a collection of his prison writings. Hip, revolutionary, and teeming with hatred for "everything American—including baseball and hot dogs, " Soul on Ice became the Bible of Black Power and Eldridge Cleaver the intellectuals' favorite black radical.
The Black Panthers' early rhetoric had been decentralist, but the organization soon degenerated into Maoist politics and senseless violence. On April 6, 1968, Cleaver participated in a shootout with Oakland police—'60s legend has it that three carloads of Panthers were ambushed while Cleaver was urinating in a side street—in which 17-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. (Cleaver offers a different version of these events below.)
To avoid being sent back to prison for his part in the Hutton shootout, Cleaver skipped the country, taking refuge in Cuba. He spent the next seven years wandering through the communist world, with sojourns in Algeria, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union before finally settling in France. But in 1975, homesick and deeply disillusioned with revolutionary politics, Eldridge Cleaver came home. "Pig power in America was infuriating," he wrote upon his return. "But pig power in the communist framework was awesome and unaccountable."
The repatriated Cleaver was denounced by his former comrades as an apostate, a turncoat, even an FBI informer. His conversion to Christianity and anticommunist pronouncements combined to give him a right-wing reputation—a reputation, as this interview makes clear, that is a far cry from the truth. Eldridge Cleaver lives today in a modest apartment in Berkeley, California, where he is hard at work writing a history of the '60s. A large American flag flies from his front porch. His wife, Kathleen, his partner in exile, is a student at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, where she lives with the couple's children, Jodu and Maceo.
Eldridge Cleaver was interviewed at his Berkeley apartment by REASON editors Bill Kauffman and Lynn Scarlett.
REASON: What do you think is the legacy of the 1960s? Was it a positive period?
Cleaver: Well, overall, I would have to say there is a lot of positive. There is a lot of negative, also. You have three things going on—a cultural revolution, the antiwar movement, and also the black liberation movement—and they were a mix, but America has been completely transformed because of them. We've gotten rid of the system of segregation, and that's a plus for America. We've gone down the road to completely demolishing that whole mentality. And the war is no longer with us in Vietnam. So I think there are some pluses.
The minuses that I see—I think we went overboard ideologically. I live here in Berkeley where my old comrades are now in power, and I find myself struggling against them. And this is the legacy, that the left became so ideologically attached to anti-Americanism and pro-communism and Third Worldism that I believe that we have a problem on our hands.
REASON: How do you look back on your Black Panther days?
Cleaver: With amazement. I am writing a history of what I call "the domestic wars." It's a history of the whole movement that we've been talking about. And I am impressed by certain things, such as the small number of people who were killed in that transformation that took place starting with the civil-rights decision by the Supreme Court in 1954. It was a very economical process in terms of blood being spilled.
I learned during the period in the Black Panther Party that in America one bullet fired really has the impact that large-scale battles have abroad. It has to do with the diffusion of information; magnified through the media, one bullet is like a whole fusillade. So an incident can take place where there is a little shooting, and it was as though the whole country participated, and people drew lessons or reacted or made decisions not only in the locality where the shooting took place but throughout the country.
The process was confrontational, it was frightening, it was terrible; but in the final analysis I think it is amazing that America had that ability to jettison structures that were demonstrably untenable and, you know, to walk away from some of those traditions.
I myself really used to be obsessed with—I used to really plan on how to kill Ronald Reagan. I'm talking about hatred, hatred that was blind to any other influence. I don't have that hatred any more. I've had opportunities to kill Ronald Reagan going around the country, and it never occurred to me to do that. And knowing my own heart and how I've walked away from hatred, I think other people have done the same thing. This is the hopeful thing, and I think that people all over the world can do the same thing.