‘surrendered her life to the revolution’ when she joined the Black Panther Party after the murder of Martin Luther King. The only woman ever to lead that organisation, she is still breaking ground today.
George Luke met her online on 2 July 2022.
You grew up in Philadelphia. How old were you when you first experienced the concept of blackness – and whiteness?
I grew up in a household of three poor black working women, and all of them complained about how ‘coloured’ people were treated. There probably wasn’t a day that went by when my mother and my aunt didn’t have something to say – you know, ‘That white man told me I had to [do this or that], I told him I wasn’t going to do nothing!’ And my grandmother, who was very fair-skinned, really hated white people, because she felt she was a product of rape. I mean, it was just a constant flow of rage.
I went to elementary school at five years old and it was an elitist school, so everybody there was taught that we were special and smart. There were very few coloured kids there; most of the kids were Jewish. I remember we sang a song: ‘I am a good American/What do you have to be?’ When we learnt to say the Pledge of Allegiance, my mother would always say: ‘…and liberty and justice for some.’
So, there was a consciousness [about racial inequality] in my house – but when I went to these white children’s houses and saw how well they lived, in my mind I wanted to be them. I think that was a big awakening. I became conscious of being black, but I didn’t necessarily embrace that consciousness. The white people told me I didn’t even look like other black people – I was acceptable. I became a biddable little child and I was happy to be in their world.
Probably the hardest sentence to write in my autobiography1A Taste of Power: A black woman’s story (Pantheon Books, 1992; Penguin Modern Classics, 2022) was: ‘Finally, I became white.’ When I look back at that girl, I understand that this was more of an economic question for me than a question of colour, because when I go back to where I grew up, I love the culture of the ’hood, you know, the rock’n’roll songs and the dances – even the gangs – and I sort of feel nostalgic about that part. I just didn’t like being poor.
We told storekeepers: ‘If you don’t give us a dozen eggs a day, you won’t have a store.’ People cry, ‘My God, the Panthers are ruthless! They’re extortionists!’ OK, but we fed our people
Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
I spent time looking around for some sort of answer, as most of us do as we grow up. My big question was like: Well, if God made me, who made God? Because I need an appeal, because this is not the life I want.
And then I saw that Jesus was white and had little white children around him in all the pictures we had in Sunday school. So, by 13, I think, I stopped going to church, because Jesus was not delivering me and I realised it.
What I decided, once I met Huey P Newton2The co-founder in 1966, with Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party, of which he was ‘Minister of Defense’ and head of its central committee [in 1970] after I had joined the Black Panther Party, is that I don’t know why we’re here – I don’t even know what ‘here’ is. I don’t really understand any of it. I try to read about the Big Bang theory and all of this and I just get scared, because it’s unfathomable. I don’t have the capacity.
But do I have a feeling of love for people? Do I have empathy? Do I believe in right and wrong? I do! I’m deeply involved in what is right and what is wrong – but I don’t have any basis for saying that it comes from some spiritual world.
How did your sense of right and wrong apply to the way the Black Panthers operated?
We recognised the immorality of the entire American scheme, and operated on revolutionary principles of what was right and wrong, centred on our slogan ‘Serve the people, body and soul.’
If we wanted to open a clinic, we took over a piece of property, we didn’t pay rent. We would run an electrical line from wherever, didn’t pay for electricity. We’d go to the hospital and just steal supplies.
How did we feed the children? We told storekeepers: ‘If you don’t give us a dozen eggs a day, you have a problem. You really won’t have a store.’ People cry, ‘Oh, my God, the Panthers are ruthless! They’re extortionists!’ OK, but we fed our people.
You cannot wait for the oppressor to free you. It’s not going to happen.
Why did Huey Newton choose you to lead the Black Panthers when he fled the country in 1974?
I think the circumstances dictated it. In 1970, Eldridge Cleaver3Then the party’s ‘Minister of Information’ and the head of its international section made a declaration that the Black Panther Party had moved to the right and that he represented the left wing and was going to seize control. He told Huey that we needed to be bombing buildings, we needed to be ‘kidnapping the children of the bourgeoisie’. [By this point,] he was living in exile in Algeria, where all of these liberation organisations were based – not just the [Palestine Liberation Organisation] but Frelimo4britannica.com/…/Frelimo and the MPLA5britannica.com/…/Popular-Movement-for-the-Liberation-of-Angola – and all of them were talking about the battles they were fighting.
So, there was internecine warfare and there was a lot of bloodshed in the next several months. People were killed in New York and in San Francisco – it was really, really bad.
We had the hubris to think that revolution would come in our lifetime. We thought that there would be a point when the Government would be overthrown – we fought very hard for that
I was aligned with Bobby Seale and David Hilliard6Then respectively the party’s chairman and chief of staff [against Cleaver], so Huey moved me up to Oakland to become the editor of the [party] newspaper because there was so much intrigue going on at the time and he couldn’t trust a lot of people. I had gotten his attention because David had had me make an album of songs.7Seize the Time (Vault Records, 1969) – see music.si.edu.
So, I came into the universe of the Central Committee, ultimately replacing Eldridge as the Minister of Information. I was a trusted soldier, and I could write and edit – I had those skills that I’d gotten in those little white schools. And when Bobby Seale fell out of grace and was ousted, Huey declared that I was the chairman of the party, taking Bobby’s place. A few months later, he fled the country and left me in charge.
So, it was a process. People had been killed, David had left, it was just sort of ‘This is what it is: we can either fall apart or we can stay together.’ And Huey felt that I was smart enough and loyal enough to lead the party – and loyalty was a big trait in that kind of organisation.
You told the Guardian recently, ‘When we joined the Black Panther Party, we surrendered our lives to the revolution.’8theguardian.com/world What do you think ‘the revolution’ achieved in the end?
Well, on a personal note, with a few exceptions I don’t think you will find anybody who was in the party who didn’t think this was the most glorious time of our lives. I loved the Black Panther Party. I am grateful that I lived at that time and was conscious enough to somehow find my way to the party, because I assert that history will show that there was never an effort more organised and stronger than that of the Black Panther Party for the liberation of black people in the United States of America.
You can go back to the slave revolts, to Nat Turner or [Joseph] Cinqué, what have you, all the way through to Marcus Garvey, the Civil Rights Movement, Dr [Martin Luther] King, the  Civil Rights Act and the ’65 Voting Rights Act, you can go to anything you want to, but no one [else] challenged the fundamental problem: the government and the system.
We were saying that black liberation could only be achieved through revolutionary change and the end of capitalism. And we created a lot of consciousness about that. We had the hubris to think that revolution [would come] in our lifetime; we thought that there would be a point when we would overthrow the Government, or the Government would be overthrown by the people – we fought very hard for that.
And the war is not over. Black people continue to exist in the same conditions, essentially, as when the Black Panther Party was formed – and, really, as [in] 1865, when slavery was purportedly ended in the United States. It just kills me when people celebrate Juneteenth9A federal holiday in the US since 2021, commemorating the emancipation of black slaves in Texas on 19 June 1865 – it’s unimaginable to me that anybody really thinks this is something to celebrate as if it were real or meaningful. It’s like Santa Claus coming down the chimney, that’s how absurd it is.
I mean, there isn’t a day that goes by that you won’t see some article, study, incident that relates to some oppressive activity against black people in the United States. Just today, cops shot up some brother in Ohio.10See reuters.com/…2022-07-03.
It’s a joke, this marching around doing nothing. There’s no opposition of any kind that I can identify to the continuing exercise of power – raw, brutal power – by the United States of America
There are a lot of negroes, as I call them, that want to pretend that all we have to do is ‘just seize the opportunity that’s available to us’. But black people still have the highest poverty rate [in the US], the highest incarceration rate, the lowest education levels, the highest homelessness rate, the highest cancer death rate, the highest infant mortality rate. And we, as a people, have no real wealth.
However, as my friend Jamil al-Amin11georgiaencyclopedia.org/…/h-rap-brown said to me, it is inevitable that the pendulum will swing our way, because nothing stands still; and at that point, if some of us are still around and ready, the Black Panther Party provides a blueprint to use towards finally being free.
You’ve mentioned your 1969 album Seize the Time, which provided the Black Panthers with quite a few anthems. Have you heard any songs from the current generation of anti-racist activists that you think bear comparison?
No. It would be nice if there were some new songs that people could cling to – even another Bob Dylan would be welcome, let alone a black person – but I’m not so egotistical that I would think that those songs of mine mattered that much.
People like to pretend that art influences activity – you know, Dylan or whoever wrote a song and the whole world changed – but that’s just not true. Nobody has a song that changed the world, or a picture that changed the world, no matter what everybody says. It is the action of the people that will make things happen.
What do you make of Black Lives Matter?
I can’t figure out what Black Lives Matter is. Does it have an agenda? Does it have an ideology? What does it do? What is it other than a slogan?
You know, I’m all for a good slogan; but I felt [that] this one was particularly egregious because it suggests that we want white people to recognise that we have value. Black lives have mattered to black people for a long time, so who are we selling this message to other than white people? Who are the main ones here in the United States running around with little Black Lives Matter signs.
When George Floyd was killed, I was talking [at some event] and there was a young white woman from London there and she said: ‘But I participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in London!’ And it was all I could do not to say: ‘How white of you!’ I mean, this arrogant, white supremacist notion that if she walked around in London with a placard, somehow something fundamental in the United States of America was going to change!
It’s a joke, this marching around doing nothing. There has been no fundamental change in the conditions of the people, and there’s been no real challenge to anything. I look at the protests as being, you know, an escape from addressing the problems directly. And I attribute it to fear: I don’t want to step out of line, I don’t want to lose my job, my scholarship, my grant – and I don’t want to die.
I guess what I’m saying is: there’s no opposition of any kind that I can identify to the continuing exercise of power – raw, brutal power – by the United States of America.
Where do you think the roots of racism lie? Is it a recent construct or something as old as human nature?
In the United States, it was the ‘justification’ for the enslavement of African people. In the main, Africans were brought to this country to work and were immediately identified as ‘savages’ – so there was nothing you could really do with us but put us to work like a horse or a mule. The [notion of the] inherent inferiority of the black was fully articulated by Thomas Jefferson, the so-called architect of the Declaration of Independence, [which said] that all men are created equal and all of that stuff, right?
In Notes on the State of Virginia,12docsouth.unc.edu/…/jefferson.html he talks about the ‘immoveable veil of black’, how black people have a ‘disagreeable odour’, how they are lazy, they lust after their women, they have no love in them, they have no music or art or literature. They are, he says, inferior to the white ‘in the endowments of both body and mind’.13‘I advance it … as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.’ There is no fixing us up.
And that racist perception remains to this day – like, the poorest white person in America still retains this sense of superiority, that even if he is eating roadkill and lives in a broken-down shack with no running water and hasn’t washed his hair in the last year or two, he still feels superior to a black, even a black with a PhD.
And, worse, blacks are so inculcated by the white culture that we embrace the definitions of ourselves that they impose on us. So, if there’s a crime committed, we are always wont to say: ‘I hope it wasn’t a black person that did it!’ (Because that’s the other thing: crime is black and male – just so we get that part straight! When little white Billy Bob shoots 25 people at a school, we start examining questions of mental health, you know? Nobody calls him ‘a thug’.)
I allow the possibility that somewhere in America some white person does not imagine that he or she is superior to every black, but I doubt even that. Every day [that] I go out of my apartment and run into a white person, I’m going to see evidence of racism [both] subtle and overt.
I’ll give you an example. I live in a tall building that I would say is probably 35–40-per-cent black. I can get on the elevator and some white person will get on and expect me to push the button for their floor. It’s just automatic, you know?
Now, that doesn’t seem like much but it’s like death by a thousand cuts, you know what I mean? It’s every day. Every day, I have to decide, like most black people that I know: Am I going to take this insult, take this blow, or have a fight over something that no one else would ever understand?
The racism is palpable and it’s constant. It’s not merely post-traumatic slave syndrome – we are still living in the trauma from all of these years of living in a white-supremacist society. And yet we’re begging still to be part of their society.
So, we have developed – and maintain –a sense of inferiority as a people, and they cling to their sense of superiority.
Today, you’re working on an affordable housing complex in Oakland. Can you tell me something about that?
I’ll try not to be too long-winded!
I’ve learnt a lot about construction and I’m going to make a documentary to show people: This is how you can do it, you just have to be as crazy as I am. You have to walk over people, like ‘I don’t accept “no”’
An elected official came to me and said: What did I think we could do to reduce recidivism? And I said: Well, if I come out of the joint and I don’t have a job, nor anywhere to stay, I’m going to resort to desperate means to live, right? The biggest problem is that, I would say, 98 per cent of all employers, at whatever level, will not hire someone who’s formerly incarcerated, period.
So, I said, if they can’t get a job, they’re going to have to have their own business. In California, you can’t even own certain businesses if you’re formerly incarcerated – you can’t get a licence as a barber, you definitely can’t be a nurse. I mean, there’s probably 400 businesses that require a licence that you can’t have.
He said: ‘Do you think you could facilitate that?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ I had no idea what I was going to do, but I arbitrarily named some businesses I thought could be started if somebody financed them: a fitness centre, a grocery store, a clothing manufacturer, a restaurant.
I learnt that the law of the state of California is that where a property is what they call ‘tax-defaulted’, the county tax-collector can seize it and auction it off. [They also have discretion to] give or lease the property to some charitable organisation for a higher purpose.
So, I went to the negro tax collector here in Oakland and I said: ‘Give me this property! I’ve got a nonprofit’ (which I hurried up and created). George, what I went through to get it! If you saw me, I’d say: ‘Give me that property!’ It became my mantra. And I’m so hard, I just wore them down.
Finally, it occurred to me that I didn’t need anyone but the mayor of the city, Jean Quan. Now, at that time no black person in Oakland really liked Jean Quan: one, because she’s Chinese and there’s a whole Chinese-black thing – I can’t explain – and, two, she had been very militant against the Occupy movement.14See eg theguardian.com/world. She wanted to impose martial law!
So, I found a way to meet with her and she said it sounded like a really good idea, but I’d have to build some affordable housing as well. I said, ‘No problem.’ As if I knew how to build housing!
Now, she was up for re-election and I said: ‘Well, Mayor, I think you can win.’ And that woman looked at me [and said]: ‘Maybe with your help.’ So, I did a little radio ad for her, and that’s how I got the land. They sold it to me for a dollar. But [I’ve had to raise] $72 million to build housing on it.
I’ve learnt a lot about construction [as a result] and I’m going to try to make a documentary to show people: This is how you can do it, you just have to be as crazy as I am. You just have to walk over people, like ‘I don’t accept “no”, and unless you plan on killing me, I can handle whatever you got.’
There’s nobody I’m afraid of. I went up against the United States government as a member of the Black Panther Party. Do you think you better than the United States government? I don’t think so.
You’re 80 next year. Where do you find the drive to keep going?
The young people I work with are like: I was going to come to the meeting, but… I say: ‘I’m not interested.’ They think I’m mean, but the one thing I know is that you have to put your shoulder to the wheel
We had a brother who died recently [after] 51 years in the joint. That’s it. It ain’t got no better ending. I have a boy in the joint now – you may know my other book, The Condemnation of Little B15The Condemnation of Little B: New Age racism in America (Beacon Press, 2002) – who at 13 years old was charged and convicted as an adult for a murder he didn’t commit and was sent to an adult prison, where he remains after 25 years. (Hopefully, we’re going to get him out this year.) I think of him as my son.
So, these little obstacles that people put in my way ain’t nothing. I’m not in a jail cell. I haven’t done six years in solitary like my boy. You know, I have food, I have a nice place to live, I have a car to drive.
I have a duty to continue to fight – I can’t lay down. I work all the time. In the Black Panther Party, we were 24 hours a day at work. These young people that I work with, they’re like: I was going to come to the meeting, but, you know, blah blah blah. I say, ‘Yeah, the dog ate your homework – but I’m not interested.’ They think I’m mean, but the one thing I know is that you have to put your shoulder to the wheel. You have to keep fighting.
What I’m hoping I’m creating [with Oakland & the World Enterprises]16oaklandandtheworld.org is a model. I want to show that we have to be self-determining, we have to go and get our own shit. Ain’t nobody coming to save us. I’m not asking people to pick up a gun, because I know they’re not going to do it, not any more; but this is something they can do, so that (as we said in the Black Panther Party) they can survive to fight another day.
So, that’s how I’ve done it, through sheer force of will. I don’t have the guns, I don’t have the organisation, but I do have the will.
Do you blame black men – in particular, black fathers – for opting out of the struggle?
Well, there’s no denying that many black families are headed by women, taken care of by women. The question is: Why is this so?
Here’s the issue that we have to look at: the role of the male in a patriarchy is to be the provider and the protector. You can’t just ‘be the head’ [of the family]; as we say in the ’hood, you got to pay the cost to be the boss. You have to provide for your family – and it’s a hard-ass role when you can’t get a job.
If you are a black man in America, I’m trying to figure out, when could you get a job? In 1865? How about ’75? ’85? ’95? Pullman porter was a big-time job for black men at the turn of the last century – they shined your shoes (‘Yes, sah!’) and kissed your ass and any other goddamn thing white people asked them to do.
Even in the Forties and Fifties, when I grew up, the average black man really didn’t have much of a job. My grandfather worked on the assembly line at Campbell’s soup, which was a good job for a black man; my girlfriend’s grandfather drove a coal truck. Her father was probably a cleaner, but he always dressed up and carried a briefcase to work so he could maintain some dignity.
Another man in our community had a job in a steel mill, which was virtually unheard of. He lost his arm in an accident – steel was a very rough business – but he got enough money for them to move into a brand new house in a much better neighbourhood, ‘better’ being white. And we were like: Damn, they lucky! All he did was lose his arm and they got a house, right? Shit!
My point is that, because this is a patriarchy, the male has had more attention, and expectation, but has not had even the most minimal opportunity to get work without fighting for it: being nice, being polite… Right now, we’re telling our boys: If the police stop you, don’t talk back! Don’t do anything to make the cop mad at you! We’re teaching children to say ‘Yes, sir!’ Don’t look the white man in the face!
I tell my brothers: I know you are not my enemy. Yes, you need to straighten your damned back and quit acting crazy toward each other, OK, but I don’t expect you to become the white man who can offer his wife a home and a car and everything else. And I have to explain this to black women all the time, because you’ve got a whole group of lesbian feminists who have an anti-black-male attitude that you would not believe! There is no white person who could say more against a black man than some of these so-called sisters.
We have to get back to a sense of the collective interest: how to lift each other up together. What can we do, male or female, to create an environment where our men and our women stand up together to this monster who is our common enemy: the government of the United States and the rich corporations that run it?
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|⇑1||A Taste of Power: A black woman’s story (Pantheon Books, 1992; Penguin Modern Classics, 2022)|
|⇑2||The co-founder in 1966, with Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party, of which he was ‘Minister of Defense’ and head of its central committee|
|⇑3||Then the party’s ‘Minister of Information’ and the head of its international section|
|⇑6||Then respectively the party’s chairman and chief of staff|
|⇑7||Seize the Time (Vault Records, 1969) – see music.si.edu.|
|⇑9||A federal holiday in the US since 2021, commemorating the emancipation of black slaves in Texas on 19 June 1865|
|⇑13||‘I advance it … as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.’|
|⇑14||See eg theguardian.com/world.|
|⇑15||The Condemnation of Little B: New Age racism in America (Beacon Press, 2002)|
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Elaine Brown was born in 1943 in Philadelphia, where she was educated at Philadelphia High School for Girls. She was taught ballet and also attended the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music (now the College of Performing Arts of the University of the Arts), where she wrote her first songs.
After a term studying English and Latin at Temple University, she quit and got a job in customer service with the Philadelphia Electric Company.
In 1965, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a professional songwriter. While working as a cocktail waitress at a strip club, she met a white record executive who for two years was to be her lover and political tutor.
She became involved with the Black Liberation Movement and in 1966 began working as a reporter for the radical African-American newspaper Harambee. Soon after, she became the first representative of the Black Student Alliance to the Black Congress in California.
She joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. She helped to set up in LA the party’s first programmes to provide free breakfasts for school-age children, free buses for prison visits and free legal aid. In 1969, she recorded the album Seize the Time (which included the party anthem, ‘The Meeting’).
In 1970, she visited the Soviet Union, North Korea, North Vietnam, China and Algeria with her former lover Eldridge Cleaver.
She moved up the coast to Oakland in 1971 to become editor of the newspaper The Black Panther. She joined the BPP’s central committee as ‘minister of information’, replacing Cleaver after his expulsion from the party, and made a second visit to China, this time with the party’s co-founder and ‘minister of defense’ (and now her lover) Huey Newton.
In 1973, her second album, Until We’re Free, was released by Motown. In the same year, she ran unsuccessfully for Oakland city council, getting 30% of the votes cast.
When Newton fled the US in 1974 to avoid criminal charges, he appointed her to lead the Black Panthers – the only woman ever to do so.
The following year, she ran again unsuccessfully for the city council, gaining 44% of the vote. In 1977, she managed Lionel Wilson’s victorious campaign to become Oakland’s first black mayor.
She chaired the BPP until 1977, when she fell out with Newton, now returned from Cuba, after he defended the vicious beating of the female administrator of the party’s award-winning Oakland Community School. She immediately quit the party and fled the city with her seven-year-old daughter.
She enrolled at Southwestern University School of Law in LA in 1980 but dropped out after two years as a result of harassment.
In 1989, she met a French industrialist at a party and moved with him to his own country. Her memoir, A Taste of Power: A black woman’s story, was published in 1992.
In 1996, she relocated to Atlanta, where she founded Fields of Flowers, a non-profit organisation committed to providing educational opportunities for impoverished African-American children.
Two years later, she co-founded the grassroots group Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice. Around the same time, she founded the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee, of which she is still executive director. Her ‘non-fiction novel’ about Lewis, The Condemnation of Little B: New Age racism in America, was published in 2002. The following year, she co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform.
In 2005, she tried to become the Green Party candidate for mayor of Brunswick, Georgia, without success. She later co-founded the Brunswick Women’s Association for a People’s Blueprint.
In 2007, she made an unsuccessful bid to become the 2008 Green Party nominee for the US Presidency.
In 2014, she founded the non-profit Oakland & the World Enterprises Inc, of which she is CEO.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2022