Former atheist, Marxist & Black Panther
In 1981, former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver spoke at the BYU Freedom Festival about his conversion from being the Marxist, atheist, spokesman for the Black Panther’s party, to being a Christian, freedom loving, Founding Father appreciating, patriotic American. It’s an amazing journey Eldridge took and an important one for us to learn from.
The Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence) was an African-American revolutionary socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982. The Black Panther Party achieved national and international notoriety through its involvement in the Black Power movement and U.S. politics of the 1960s and 1970s
Founded in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale on October 15, 1966, the organization initially set forth a doctrine calling primarily for the protection of African-American neighbourhoods from police brutality. The leaders of the organization espoused socialist and Marxist doctrines; however, the Party’s early Black Nationalist reputation attracted a diverse membership. The Black Panther Party’s objectives and philosophy expanded and evolved rapidly during the party’s existence, making ideological consensus within the party difficult to achieve, and causing some prominent members to openly disagree with the views of the leaders.
The organization’s official newspaper, The Black Panther, was first circulated in 1967
His Journey from an atheist to being a Christian
(born 1935, Wabbaseka, near Little Rock, Ark., U.S.—died May 1, 1998, Pomona, Calif.) American black militant whose autobiographical volume Soul on Ice (1968) is a classic statement of black alienation in the United States. Cleaver was an inmate of correctional institutions in California almost constantly from his junior high school days until 1966 for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana to assault with intent to murder. While in prison, he supplemented his incomplete education with wide reading and became a follower of the Black Muslim separatist Malcolm X.
He also began writing the essays that would eventually be collected in Soul on Ice, and whose publication in Ramparts magazine helped him win parole in 1966. After being paroled, Cleaver met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had just founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif. Cleaver soon became the party’s minister of information. The publication in 1968 of Soul on Ice, a collection of angry memoirs in which Cleaver traced his political evolution while denouncing American racism, made him a leading black radical spokesman. In April 1968, however, he was involved in a shoot-out in Oakland between Black Panthers and police that left one Panther dead and Cleaver and two police officers wounded.
Faced with re-imprisonment after the shoot-out, Cleaver jumped bail in November 1968 and fled first to Cuba and then to Algeria. Having broken with the Panthers in 1971 and grown disillusioned with communism, Cleaver returned voluntarily to the United States in 1975. The charges against him were dropped in 1979 when he pled guilty to assault in connection with the 1968 shoot-out and was put on five years’ probation. In his later years Cleaver proclaimed himself a born-again Christian and a Republican, engaged in various business ventures, and struggled with an addiction to cocaine.
A 1982 interview with Eldridge Cleaver by David Mill
In 1982 I interviewed Eldridge Cleaver, former “Minister of Information” for the Black Panther Party. He had come to the University of Maryland on a lecture tour. The one-time gun-toting Marxist revolutionary was now a Reagan Republican and a fan of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Which made for a lively conversation.
I have no romantic attachment to the Panthers. In fact, I resent the simple-minded glorification of violent black radicalism. If Mr. Cleaver’s recollections can be trusted, my resentment is justified.
Cleaver died in 1998 at the age of 62. He certainly lived an interesting life, including seven years of exile in Cuba, France and Algeria (after a gun battle with Oakland police). This three-part interview covers a lot of ground. Stick with it till the end of pt. 3 and you’ll see perhaps the weirdest thing anyone ever said to me during an interview.
DAVID MILLS: It seems quite a change of heart you’ve had over 15 years. During the Black Power movement, you thought the primary crisis we faced was the American system. Now you say it’s the Communist threat.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: It’s not a total change, because the stuff I was preoccupied with in the ’60s is still true. American history is American history. I’m not trying to say America is utopia. Far from it. But I think that in the past I was oblivious to what was going on in Communist countries, or I didn’t believe what was said against the Communists.
”…We used to say that America’s enemies are our friends…”
I was really favorable toward the Communists because they made such a strong critique of capitalism and America. They were opposed to America systematically, so I viewed that as a source of strength or a source of alliances. Many people do this. We used to say that America’s enemies are our friends. …
What changed my whole point of view was that I had a chance to leave America and go live in Communist countries and see what was going on there. Without having that experience, I probably would still, like a lot of other people, be running around pushing the same line.
We have many problems in America, and some of them are absolutely outrageous. But with all our problems, we have more freedom in this country than any of those Communist countries.
So what I say today is we need to be more precise in what’s wrong with America. In the past we just used the shotgun approach, and just said burn it down, destroy it, overthrow it, that sort of stuff. Well, that’s very dangerous thinking. It’s not even thinking. It’s sloganizing.
Everybody admits that we have a huge economic problem, but the question becomes what do we do about it? Just close the curtain down, you know? Stop the show, change all the furniture around on the stage, and then let the show go on?
That’s one of my gripes with revolutionaries. Most of these revolutionary scenarios call for exactly that. But it’s like changing a tire on a moving vehicle; we have to figure out how to solve these problems while the thing’s in motion. So that means being very precise about what’s wrong.
MILLS: Let’s backtrack, because it’s ironic. Do you think that during the Panther movement when you were advocating revolution, that you and the Black Panthers were being used by the Communists?
CLEAVER: At different stages, you could say that. The Communists did not summon us into being. We grew up in our own community around our own issues and, as a matter of fact, against the activity of the Communists. They weren’t happy to see us come along because we were organizing people outside of their fold. They also had an attitude toward armed struggle that was more conservative than ours.
At a certain point, the Communists recognized that we were the ones having impact in the community. So they came to us. They offered us free legal representation – we always needed lawyers – and they would contribute finances to us. And we wanted to do this, because we were Marxists ourselves.
I think at a certain point, the Black Panther Party became the driving engine for a whole phase of the [Communist] movement. So in that sense, the Communists used us. On a worldwide basis, they used us propaganda-wise.
MILLS: What’s ironic about that is that was the FBI’s excuse to go after the Panthers, wasn’t it? That you were tools of the Communists?
CLEAVER: Well, it’s not against the law to be a Communist. But when you advocate the violent overthrow of the government, or when you practice it –
You know, many people lie about what they’re doing. And we used to lie, use falsehood, when we were describing our own activity. For instance, we would go out and ambush the police. Then, if we got caught, we’d say they shot at us first.
MILLS: And that was not true?
CLEAVER: It wasn’t always true. There were many times when we would shoot first.
And I say this because it illustrates the distortions that get involved when the people hate the police because they always see the police making trouble. But a lot of times, the police are not wrong. A lot of times, people did exactly what police said they did, but then they lie about it.
I think we were in that situation in the ’60s with the FBI. The FBI investigated us and came to the conclusion that we were a dangerous group.
MILLS: Was the FBI right?
”… I think it was right…”
CLEAVER: I think it was right. See, the problem gets into what does the FBI have a right to do to you? Once they make the decision that you are an enemy of America, then they consider you outside the law, so they use all their dirty tricks on you.
This got them into a lot of trouble. If they could have proven that we were systematically engaging in armed struggle, then they would have had less trouble with the public over what they were doing.
The whole thing is a mixture, because we were not always wrong. And we didn’t start out actually shooting at the cops. We were rebelling against a routine. We were rebelling against a whole history. We were rejecting America, America’s laws, everything like that.
MILLS: So the case could be made that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were justified in going after the Black Panther Party?
CLEAVER: I think a case could be made on the following points: that the FBI was not always wrong; that many of their accusations were accurate when it came to our use of violence, our use of bombs, our use of ambush tactics.
So if I would fault the FBI at all, it would be in its overzealousness in using CIA tactics on the American people. I say this because they did this to people who were not Black Panthers, or who were not involved in that kind of activity. Just people who dissented.
MILLS: There is still that kind of dissent in America. Why do you think that is?
CLEAVER: To really understand it, you have to go back to the Second World War. The Second World War was considered a patriotic war. America was solidly behind it.
But from that time on, there was a new kind of struggle, very controversial, with a new kind of political party which was not well understood, an international party coming in trying to change the government. That started the Cold War and what you call the “struggle for the minds of men.”
From that time on, we have had in America a preachment against the government, condemning the government, condemning the activity of the government in foreign countries – in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, all over the world. It was a whole period of decolonization that took place.
So we have in America a couple of generations of people who have grown up just hearing negative about America. This is amazing because it has a distorting impact. I think Americans have been bombarded with very powerful negative propaganda. … It has a brainwashing effect on people.
MILLS: What about black Americans? There’s nothing new about black dissatisfaction with America.
”…Blacks generally don’t feel part of America…”
CLEAVER: I think this is one of the very serious constituents of the black identity crisis. Blacks generally don’t feel part of America. I call it a fence-straddling mentality.
Even though you don’t have a strong “back-to-Africa” movement, you do have that theme that floats around in the community. The consequence is that you have people paralyzed on the fence. They neither go back to Africa nor do they participate fully in America. So you have millions and millions of blacks who are in a kind of catatonic trance over what to do.
The strong condemnation of America, the constant criticism of America, this has fixed a certain mindset. This is the mindset I have broken with, and it’s the mindset I encounter almost universally among middle-class blacks, which is what you find mostly on college campuses: America not being their home, or America being the worst country in the world, or everything being racist. Just racism, racism, everywhere is racism – not being able to draw some distinctions and to see some good in America as well as the bad.
Here’s more of my 1982 conversation with Eldridge Cleaver. This portion tracks his evolution as a radical.
DAVID MILLS: You have led a very dramatic life. I’d like to walk you through it, if you don’t mind, because it’s so fascinating and because of your new perspective on things.
Let’s start with your childhood. What were your feelings about race and America while growing up in Arkansas?
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I didn’t stay there long enough to get deep impressions. I left Arkansas when I was about 10 years old, so my memory of Arkansas is really about learning how to hunt with my dog, chasing rabbits, things like that.
MILLS: After moving to California, what kind of things influenced your political development?
CLEAVER: In growing up in L.A., I realized the existence of the white world, the black world and the Chicano world. I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Chicano, and the Chicanos, particularly at that time, had their own subculture which totally rejected white America.
I spent a lot of my time – my early years – as part of that view. And I think that had something to do with the strong withdrawal and rejection [of America] that I experienced.
MILLS: If you had grown up in a predominately black neighborhood, you might not have been so anti-American?
CLEAVER: I think so. And I say that because hanging out with the Chicano guys as a choice was, in itself, a rejection of what the blacks were doing – going along with the program.
In the ’40s, the Chicanos were involved in kind of a war in L.A. against the establishment, against the police. It was a very powerful reality in your life. The cops were always chasing them, they were outlaws. Living in that neighborhood helped sow the seeds of rebellion.
My parents wanted to guide me into being a minister. This was something that was really square as far as I could see, so I chose a rebellious direction.
MILLS: How many years of your life have you spent locked up?
CLEAVER: I add it up to be about 15.
I was sentenced to prison twice: once for possession of marijuana, and once for assault with a deadly weapon – not, as many people think, for rape.
When I was in prison, I wrote a book [“Soul on Ice”]. One section of the book dealt with the subject of rape, and I described some activity that I was involved in. And the way the press took it up, it was just sort of assumed that I was sentenced to prison for rape.
I was sentenced to prison for possession of marijuana, and I served two and a half years for that, then I was sentenced to prison for assault charges, and I stayed in there for 10 years.
MILLS: The first time you went to prison, how did that affect you?
CLEAVER: Well, I had some prior training for that by going to juvenile hall and the youth authority. So on that level I was already broken in to prison. But I think it had the effect of powerfully fixing my rebellious path.
I went to prison when I was 18 years old, and that’s a very delicate age for a young man. It’s an age when your sap is beginning to flow. And being locked up at that point is really one of the worst kinds of experiences.
That’s when I really began to be filled with hatred, and I think I became much more violent in prison. I believe that prisons, in that sense, are schools for crime.
I became a Communist in prison. I studied Marxism in prison.
MILLS: When you came out after that first term, you spent about a year on the outside before your second conviction. And during that time, as you revealed in “Soul on Ice,” you set about raping white women as a principle of black rebellion.
CLEAVER: I wrote this in prison. And I wrote this because I was trying to describe my own feelings, my own attitudes, and the attitudes of a lot of black men. At that time, this was something that was not really written about, talked about. It was kind of scandalous. There was a lot of denial in blacks who had these feelings.
MILLS: What feelings? Sexual attraction to white women?
”… interracial relationships were rising…”
CLEAVER: People used to deny that. The whole phenomenon was raging at that time because this whole black consciousness thing was coming in, interracial relationships were rising.
One of the old bugaboos of race relations in America has been black rape. It has been a big problem down through history and continues to be a problem. For my own part, I think there is often a lot of denial in that. But I think the facts will support a case that there is quite a bit of black rape.
MILLS: How come?
CLEAVER: Well, it has to do with social dynamics – I’ve said what I have to say about that subject in “Soul on Ice.”
MILLS: Looking back on that period now, how do you feel about your own activity?
CLEAVER: What I would do if I wrote about that again would be to put it in a larger context. At that point, I was trying to describe the motivations of the black rapist – what goes on inside his head, what he was thinking – whereas today I am very concerned about male violence against women. That was not what I was addressing in my essay. I would not repeat today what I said 20 years ago because the context is different.
MILLS: You have said that your affiliation with the Black Muslims and the solidarity of that group kept you going while in prison.
CLEAVER: I think it was very important in prison because everybody is organizing, like little armies, for survival. Racial tensions were really high in prison because of things that were going on outside. Consequently, we had a lot of riots in prison.
The prisons in California used to be segregated, and there were struggles inside the prison to break up some of those traditional practices. So there was a lot of motivation for people joining together in these kinds of groups. And the one that appealed to me was the Black Muslims.
You had the Mau-Mau, the Blood Brothers, just little cliques of people taking different names. But I had liked the concern of the Black Muslim organization, and the fact that it was an organization that was more legitimate than some of the cutthroat activity.
MILLS: But all during that time, you didn’t accept the Black Muslim philosophy that all white people were devils, correct?
”…Elijah Muhammad was just full of that demonology…”
CLEAVER: That’s why Malcolm X appealed to me, because Malcolm was more political. He had more of an economic analysis, whereas Elijah Muhammad was just full of that demonology.
Sometimes we would really wonder about the truth of Elijah’s teachings, because it was very easy to believe the whites were devils, particularly the way the information was organized. And it was very appealing to believe that. One man said that it was necessary to teach the black that the white man is the devil in order to get him to stop believing that the white man is God.
MILLS: After leaving prison in 1967, what attracted you to the Black Panthers?
CLEAVER: The fact that they were armed. When I left prison, I didn’t know anything about the Black Panther Party. But I left with the conviction that blacks had to take up guns.
The civil rights movement was turning violent already. I was still in prison when Watts went up in rebellion, and all the major cities across the country were experiencing those rebellions. So what I was aware of in prison was a lot of black people were being killed. And police were using police dogs, cattle prods, water hoses, all these things on the people. We in prison used to look at that news.
And we were already violent people. We were in prison for involving ourselves in criminal violence, nothing political. So it was very easy to transfer those attitudes. You began to just live for the day when you could get out and get involved.
One of the first things I did when I got out was to get some guns. And shortly thereafter, I met the Black Panthers at a meeting. When they came into this meeting, they had their guns. It was like love at first sight.
MILLS: What did you think of Martin Luther King during this period?
”….I actually sort of hated Martin Luther King…”
CLEAVER: At that time, I was very negative. I actually sort of hated Martin Luther King for preaching non-violence, and for being a Christian preacher. Martin Luther King to me was the embodiment of a lot of problems for black people.
”I used to want to kill Martin Luther King…”
I used to want to kill Martin Luther King. I thought it would be good if he was out of the way. I thought he was holding up the movement. Non-violence was never popular among the majority of black Americans from the very beginning. …
MILLS: Looking back now, what do you think of Dr. King?
CLEAVER: Well, looking back, for a long time, I have come to really admire him. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got busted two days later [in Oakland]. The gunfight I was involved in was part of the whole atmosphere that was reacting to his assassination.
When Martin Luther King was still alive, we were sort of waiting in the wings impatiently because we saw that non-violence was on the way out. Non-violence worked mostly in the South. When things moved toward the North, they became violent immediately. …
I remember when the media was anti-NAACP. They thought the NAACP were the most extreme people to come along, and they were for a while. But after a while, the media started loving the NAACP.
That’s because each extreme point, calibrated on a spectrum, tends to legitimize the ones it has eclipsed, if that makes sense. Like Martin Luther King and his direct-action movement, even though it was non-violent, eclipsed the NAACP’s legalistic tactics.
And when Martin Luther King came along, he started getting busted and going to jail, and the NAACP started getting invited to the White House. Then, when more violent people came along, Martin Luther King started getting invited to the White House.
Here is the last of my 1982 conversation with former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. (I had saved my question about “the pants” for the very end.)
I interviewed Cleaver at the University of Maryland before he gave a speech. During that speech, Cleaver got heckled. It didn’t surprise him. He had been getting that a lot on his college tour…
DAVID MILLS: Kwame Toure – whom you knew as Stokely Carmichael – has come to this campus a few times. He was sponsored by the Black Student Union, which I would guess sympathizes more with his pan-Africanist philosophy than with your conservatism.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I would guess so too.
MILLS: What do you think of that?
”…a lot of them think I’m an FBI agent or a CIA agent…”
CLEAVER: This is a problem I’m working on. First of all, I don’t think [black students] have heard what I’ve got to say. But there have been very powerful condemnations of me. Probably a lot of them think I’m an FBI agent or a CIA agent.
When I show up [at a college], they think I’m the one on the spot. But I show up with the understanding that they’re the ones on the spot. They’re often surprised because they think they’re on such solid ground. And it’s because they’ve been exposed to that kind of emotional rhetoric.
At the time the Black Power movement came into being, I think it was a very positive movement. I think it did a lot of good for black people and white people. But like many other things, it runs its course, and there are extremes.
It’s very appealing to black students to be told that they’re great, and that black is beautiful, and to have a whole cosmos of black interests spelled out in a way that is very ego-satisfying to them, and to condemn the white man.
MILLS: So how have black students reacted to your message?
CLEAVER: I’ve experienced all kinds of reactions. The one that I find unacceptable is the one that tries to stop me from talking by hissing, running commentary – I find the communists do this and some of Stokely’s people do this. Just being very emotional and shouting.
All I want is the opportunity to express my point of view.
MILLS: Is it true that in California during the ’60s, when you started speaking out against the Vietnam War and for revolution, Gov. Ronald Reagan got the parole officials to harass you to make you shut up?
CLEAVER: There’s no doubt about that.
I was chosen by students to be a lecturer at Berkeley. And as governor, Ronald Reagan was on the board of regents of the University of California system. He used to try to prevent me from speaking on campuses.
We referred to Ronald Reagan as the father of the Black Panther Party. It started under his administration. Reagan was always trying to get me off the streets. They were always trying to revoke my parole.
MILLS: How do you feel about Reagan as president?
CLEAVER: I voted for him. I supported him over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but I was completely upset by his performance. One of the things that had me upset was his very weak foreign policy, his weak way of dealing with every problem that we had, from Iran to the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, stuff that was jumping off in Latin America.
I felt that I had seen enough of Carter’s policies to recognize that he was basically accommodating America to the expansion of Communism in the world. So when it came to the election, I chose Ronald Reagan because I felt he would give the country a very strong foreign policy, and I had no doubt that he would do the things he was talking about to the economy. I still feel this.
MILLS: You’ve been an atheist, a Black Muslim, a born-again Christian. What is your current religious status?
”…I’m not a member of any church…”
CLEAVER: I don’t know how to describe my own religious status. I’m not a member of any church, but I’m someone who’s convinced that none of our problems can be solved without addressing the spiritual element.
MILLS: Are you a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon?
”…Rev. Moon’s teachings. I’m not a follower…”
I’m not a member of the church…”
CLEAVER: Rev. Moon to me is one of the most significant religious and spiritual leaders in the history of the whole world. That’s saying a lot. I have been helped to a great extent by studying Rev. Moon’s teachings. I’m not a follower in the sense that I’m not a member of the church.
I started studying the Unification Church’s teachings in 1979, so I’ve had quite a bit of time to consider it and ponder it. The world is going through a lot of changes about Rev. Moon, but I do believe that in time they’ll be able to view him objectively.
MILLS: A few years ago, you were in the news for designing pants for men with a pouch in front to contain the genitals. Whatever became of those pants?
CLEAVER: As far as a business venture? I’m not a businessman so I wasn’t able to do any spectacular business. I lost money. But from an aesthetic point of view, from the point of view of clothing, I think this whole thing has been misunderstood.
”…the clothing industry is dominated by homosexuals…”
”…They want men and women to look basically the same…”
My design had to do with an argument against what’s being done with our clothing. Who controls our clothing? If you notice, the clothing industry is dominated by homosexuals. They want men and women to look basically the same.
There are a lot of problems involved in the design of men’s clothing. The way our clothing is designed right now requires a man to wear his genitals in either his right or his left pants leg. There are a lot of implications to that. Scientifically, it’s been determined that that structure generates a lot of heat that has a decomposing effect on sperm. There’s a whole warping effect that comes from wearing your genitals in your pants leg.
There’s a lot of evil in society that comes from clothing. Most of us are completely ignorant of this. One of the things that distinguishes us from animals is that we have the control of our second skin. This is a great power, because we can go underwater, we can go to the moon, we can go to the desert, to Alaska, because we just don’t have scales or hair. We have a technology where we manage our second skin.
This is a sacred responsibility, yet like many other things it is dealt with frivolously. And one of the most obnoxious things that is happening today is what the homosexuals are doing to our clothing.
If you view your pants as an extension of the fig leaf – which is what clothing really is, symbolically speaking – you begin to see that this is very intimately connected with the whole condition of man in the world. Scripturally, the fig leaf came about as a fallout from the fall of man. And I think from that point on, we’ve made a lot of trouble for ourselves by the way we handle our clothing.
KATHLEEN NEAL CLEAVER
Former wife of Eldridge Cleaver