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?
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?
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?
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 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.
[TO BE CONTINUED]