Evolution of A Black Panther (2/2)

Kathleen Cleaver discusses moving to Oakland to join the Black Panther Party (BPP), assisting with the “Free Huey” Campaign, and becoming the BPP’s Communications Secretary.

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Story Transcript

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Eldridge happened to be free, but he was on parole and was not publicly part of the Black Panther Party. But Bobby Seale, who was publicly the chairman in this armed organization, was serving time in Santa Rita and the other leaders either were serving time or had kind of fallen by the wayside. They had lost their office. It was a crisis for this organization. And Eldridge asked me, please, you’ve got to come out here and help me. And when we got our tax return checks, refund, through SNCC I bought a ticket, flew out to Oakland, and began helping with a small group of, I think it was Reginald Forte, Sherman Forte, Bobby Hutton, Eldridge Cleaver, maybe Oleander. Maybe Emory. And me.

I was helping Eldridge trying to figure out, well, what do we do? Huey’s in the gas chamber, how can we resolve this? I suggested, perhaps you wanted to draw attention to his case by holding a demonstration in front of the courthouse, which is something that was done periodically and frequently in the South. But the Panthers had been an organization, patrols and had other techniques that they were implementing, so that wasn’t too appealing. I remember Bobby Hutton saying, well, I don’t want to be marching. But I’d march for Huey.

And so we organized a demonstration outside of the Alameda courthouse with placards, I suggested, and we got cars and people came around to draw attention to the fact that Huey was coming to court that day. And we sent out leaflets. And to publicize this I wrote a press release, just mailed to the newspapers and the television and radio stations, as I had observed being done in SNCC. The idea was that publicity would protect you. That if there was coverage of what you were doing it was less likely to be violently attacked. And when I was going to mail out the press release, and this is issued on a typewriter and we sent it in the mail with a postage stamp to, or on a fax machine, I had to identify myself. And so I think at that point Eldridge and I probably hadn’t even got married. So I put Kathleen Neal, Communications Secretary, Black Panther Party. So you might say I self-defined my role in the Black Panther Party.

By the time Bobby Seale got out and the demonstrations out the courthouse with Huey had become a part of the appeal and structure, and we were organizing, people were coming back in the party, holding meetings, Bobby Seale created in our apartment at one meeting a sort of a coordinating body that he called a central committee. And by this time Eldridge and I had gotten married, and so I was a part of the first central committee as the communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver. And what I did frequently was issue statements to the press that I would write. Write articles for the newspaper about our events. Be interviewed.

And at one point I started, started giving talks. I think someone, Bobby Seale had a speaking engagement and wasn’t going to be able to get back in town at some political group or community group. So they said, well, Kathleen, can you do this? And I said, okay. So I remember writing a speech and writing it and writing it, and then going to the event and presenting my speech. They said oh, that was good. I said oh, okay. So I became sort of a spokesperson and a press secretary, and a coordinator of public information in the Black Panther Party by practice.

The concept of the International Section of the Black Panther Party is not something that preexisted. Eldridge Cleaver was invited along with members of the Black Panther Party to participate in an event hosted in Algeria by the Organization of African Unity, and it was called the First Panafrican Cultural Festival. This was a concept that came out of the Organization of African Unity. It was located in Algiers because of its access to media and travel, and the resources that it had to host delegations from all over Africa. But because it was held in Algiers and the Black Panther Party was invited, along with liberation movements from across Africa, on the theme that, of that conference in 1969, that culture is a significant part of the struggle for liberation.

And so Emory Douglas, our minister of culture in the Black Panther Party was a part of our delegation. Eldridge and I were a part of the delegation. And some other members. The difference is this: what people didn’t have to know was that Eldridge had already left the United States as a fugitive, had been living in Havana. And I was on my way to join him in Havana when I found out the day before leaving from Paris to get on a plane to go to Algeria where I could catch the flight to Havana, I found out that Eldridge was actually being shipped out of Havana and he was going to be sent to Algiers. So we ended up in this country kind of haphazardly by accident, as he was a fugitive and I was his wife, and we were trying to join each other. It just so happened the country where that accidentally happened was the host of the Panafrican Cultural Festival.

So we essentially met, and my first child was born during the Panafrican Cultural Festival. Once there, the idea was, well, now that I’m here and now I see what kind of reception I receive in Africa, perhaps it’s possible to have, how did they say, liberation movement representatives in Algeria for the Black Panthers as they had for the struggle in Zimbabwe, as they had for the South African liberation movement, as they had for other struggles. And so that’s something that we pursued. It certainly wasn’t on the original agenda of the Algerian government when they issued the invitation to the Panafrican Cultural Festival.

But it’s ultimately because there was no diplomatic relations between the United States and Algeria. They would get no retaliation from the United States. Why? Because during the Six-Day War with Egypt and Israel, Algeria had fought on the side of Egypt. The United States had supported Israel. Therefore Algeria and the United States were on opposing sides in a war, and the Algerians had shut down America’s representation. There was no marine officers. And so Eldridge could not be arrested and forced to return to the United States and Algeria. That meant he felt he was free to organize and pursued the idea of an international base which ultimately, with the assistance of the Vietnamese, the representatives of what had been the National Liberation Front but now had become the provisional revolutionary government, which meant that the Vietnamese by ’69 were clearly in their view becoming so powerful in the United States that they could say that North Vietnam has a provisional government, and they will continue and they will defeat the United States, which they did very clearly within the next four years.

But they kind of–so their status had, had risen because of our support of the Vietnamese and ties between Vietnamese fighters and Black Panthers. We had their support, and ultimately the Algerian authorities agreed to give us this base. And that was the origin of the International Section of the Black Panther Party, where it was a place we hosted other fugitives, we put out a newspaper, we had a community center, and we maintained connections with radical groups in Europe and in Africa, or other places to maintain mostly informational but also cultural and in many instances political connections.

I used to respond to that question about the legacy of the Black Panther Party as it was too soon, because legacy is something that’s left after you’re dead, and the Black Panther Party, all the members haven’t died out. So we’re still in the form. However, that’s no longer true. Most of the members if not deceased are no longer active in that form. So you can say as an organization there is no more Black Panther Party. So let’s look at the legacy.

I still say that it’s too soon to tell because what the true activities and behavior and beliefs, practices within the Black Panther Party were is not what people know. I’m very stunned to realize that they have no clue as to the type of things we talked about, the type of things that we did, the programs that we initiated, the ideas we proposed, because of the distortions. Because of the manipulation. So when they read our own newspapers or see our own files or talk to us–no. They’re treated to garbage and lies. So first let’s get the true history, story, the true thoughts about the Black Panthers out.

We had a premise, and that was we want the power for our community to determine our own destiny. That’s point one. We’re still working on that. Point seven is the one we became identified with. Point seven which said we want an immediate end to police brutality and violence against black people. We also had some issues with imprisonment and military service, bad education. Really the political disabilities and the social disabilities of being what they like to call second-class citizens. We didn’t call it that. We called it a colonized people.

We had been deprived of our ability to determine our own destiny. The whole concept of black power was, in our case, power to the people. The people of our community. And so our legacy is to fight for the power to determine the destiny of our own community. To stand up, be counted, defend yourself, call for an end to police brutality and all other forms of racist injustice and tyranny. Which I think is being perpetuated as I speak by the new crowds of young people horrified, horrified at the level of violence and hostility that the police forces in this country see authorized to dispense in black communities.

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