From “Chapter Seven: ‘...Are Beyond Your Command’ ”

Excerpt from From Ike to Mao and Beyond:
My Journey from Mainstream America to
Revolutionary Communist,
A Memoir by Bob Avakian

Editors' note: The important film Black Panther is having a major impact in society. A key theme in the film is wrangling with the legacy of the Black Panthers of the 1960s. In light of this, we are highlighting excerpts from the memoir by Bob Avakian (BA), From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, A Memoir by Bob Avakian, which get into the Black Panthers and other developments at that time. In the late 1960s, out of the civil rights movement there emerged a more radical Black liberation movement and the Panthers were a key part of this. BA began working closely with the Panthers from its early days when it consisted of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton, and a small number of others. As BA says in his memoir, the Panthers were pushing him “to become more radical, to move more toward a revolutionary position, because they were taking up things that I felt very passionately about and they were doing it in a way that I saw as being very uncompromising…. So all this had a tremendous impact on me in the context of everything that was happening in the U.S. and in the world at that time, and everything I’d learned up to that point.” (p. 149) The memoir itself covers the whole arc of BA’s relationship with the Black Panther Party.

Ramparts

Bob Scheer, who I mentioned earlier, had come out from New York to the Bay Area, and he was part of what was then generally called the “new left,” which was trying to develop a movement that was different from and more radical than the old Communist Party. Besides reading things he wrote and listening to speeches he gave, I talked to Bob Scheer a lot. He had a big influence on me at that time and generally a positive one in radicalizing me.

Scheer went on to Ramparts magazine, which had originally been founded as kind of a liberal Catholic journal; as things got more radical in the ‘60s, the magazine drew more radical people into it and it became an important voice opposing the Vietnam War, supporting Black people’s struggles, and so on. It was still within a certain framework, but it was an important radical voice at that time. Scheer asked me if I wanted to come work there, doing research and helping to prepare different articles. That sounded like a good way for me to combine earning a living with doing something worthwhile, and it also gave me a job where I didn’t have to do the 9-to-5 thing. I would get my research assignments done, but I also had a lot of freedom to be involved in the things that I thought were most important.

One of the important stories we did at Ramparts concerned Donald Duncan. One day some people from the Berkeley anti-war movement came to me and said that they were talking to this guy who was a soldier who was questioning the Vietnam War very seriously and deeply. They wanted me to talk to him because I had done a lot of public speaking and study around the war. So I spent quite a bit of time over at their house talking to this guy, who turned out to be Donald Duncan.

Duncan had been a soldier in Vietnam—he was at the rank of master sergeant when he left Vietnam. He’d come back very disaffected by and very bothered by the war—questioning it and thinking it wasn’t right, but not that clear on a lot of things about it, understandably. I asked him a lot about his experiences in Vietnam and did what I could to help him come to a clearer understanding of the nature of the war and what was wrong with it. And at a certain point, I suggested to both the Ramparts editors and to Donald Duncan himself that they do an article in which he would tell his story and come out and denounce the war. This ended up being a front cover article, with a picture of Duncan in uniform and the headline “I quit!” At that time, there weren’t that many soldiers who’d been in the war itself and come out and publicly denounced it. Ramparts had a circulation of a couple hundred thousand or so, and this article had an impact even beyond the readers of Ramparts.

While I had argued with soldiers that the mere fact that they had been in Vietnam didn’t mean that they were right about the war, there is a truth that if you’ve “paid your dues” fighting there and then you come to say that it’s wrong, that has a big impact on many people—including for the reason that people who are more backward or conservative can’t say, “Oh, that’s just those disgruntled hippies who are cowards, who are draft dodgers, and all that.” As a matter of fact, I would, and did, uphold those people who dodged the draft as doing something truly heroic—not George W. Bush, but people who dodged the draft because they opposed the war, not just to save their own ass. People who evaded the draft, or outright refused to be drafted, or refused to go to Vietnam once they were in the military—people who did these things because they opposed the war—they were doing heroic things, definitely more heroic things than U.S. soldiers who, with all their destructive technology, were massacring and slaughtering the Vietnamese people. Nevertheless, for the U.S. population broadly, for someone who’d been in that war to speak out against it had a very big impact.

I also worked on an article about discrimination in professional sports. This was right up my alley, combining my love for sports with being able to do something to expose injustice. So I interviewed some professional athletes—and I tried to interview Bill Russell, who had been a big hero of mine when I was a kid. I described the article and the magazine to Russell, and he refused—I’m not sure exactly why.

But Jim Brown, one of the great running backs in football history, did agree to be interviewed, and this was interesting. This was around the time when I first met Eldridge Cleaver, who had gotten out of prison on parole. As a condition of parole, he had to have a job. Ramparts had given him a job as a writer, and I’d met him in that context. He and I went to L.A. together to interview Jim Brown, who had these programs that were supposed to improve the lives of Black people, with small businesses and things like this. At one point in the interview things got very sharp because I asked, “Well, what are these programs actually going to do for the average Black person in Hough?” (Hough referred to a street in the center of the ghetto in Cleveland, where Jim Brown had played professional football and where his programs were centered at that time.) And, let’s put it this way, he didn’t like that question—he got very indignant and gave me some answer which I don’t remember in all its details, but which didn’t really answer the question.

But the article did end up being mainly a positive one, focusing largely on Jim Brown—which partly reflected where people at Ramparts, including myself, were at then, and partly the fact that Jim Brown was in certain limited ways standing up against the Establishment at that time, although the main aspect of what he was doing was very well within the system. And that came through as well in the interview.

Eldridge in particular was very acutely aware of this. When we were leaving, after interviewing Jim Brown, Eldridge told me, “This guy’s just bullshit, man. This is just bullshit what he’s running. This has got nothing to do with ending the oppression of Black people.” That verdict from Eldridge obviously made an impression on me, even though the article ended up being mainly positive in its presentation of Jim Brown.

 

Getting with Eldridge, Huey and Bobby

Eldridge Cleaver was much more radical than people that I’d known before. When I first met him, he was talking about how, when Malcolm X had been assassinated, Malcolm had been trying to get together this organization that he called the “Organization of Afro-American Unity,” inspired by the Organization of African Unity,8 and Eldridge was talking about trying to revive that organization. Then he ran into Huey and Bobby and decided that the Black Panther Party was really much more the way to go. But generally he was very radical, and through him I met people who were associated with SNCC9 and things like that. All this obviously had a big effect on me.

One time through Eldridge I got this issue of the SNCC newspaper and they had this cartoon portraying Nasser, who was the head of the government of Egypt at that time, going up against Israel, and the cartoon drew a parallel with how Black people had to deal with Jews who were exploiting them in the ghetto in America.10 This really bothered me. I was already learning about imperialism, partly from Eldridge, so I said to him: “Look, this is not right. The common enemy here is imperialism. What’s wrong with Israel is not the Jewish character of it; it’s the fact that it’s an instrument of imperialism. And the common cause of Black people in the U.S. and people in Egypt is that they’re going up against imperialism.” Eldridge said, “Well, why don’t you write them a letter?” So I did. I made these arguments and I made the point in writing the letter that I was a strong supporter of SNCC, and of Black liberation, but this bothered me because it wasn’t the right way to look at the problem and to analyze friends and enemies, and so on. So they wrote back and said, “We take you at your word that you’re a supporter of Black liberation and let us make clear that we are not anti-Semitic and we don’t see Jews as the enemy.”

I had already met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton separately from Eldridge, and then after I had known Eldridge for a while and he started becoming part of the early beginnings of the Black Panther Party, I got to know Huey and Bobby more deeply and in a more directly political way in that context. Before that I had met them through some old high school friends of mine. One night at a rec center in Berkeley, my friend Billy introduced me to this guy who was nicknamed Weasel, who was going to the community college in Oakland—he had formerly gone to McClymonds and played on the team that beat Berkeley High in overtime in the 1963 TOC—and he told me about this African-American cultural program that was being held by a group on the community college campus called the Soul Students Advisory Council. And that’s where I met Huey for the first time.11 I had actually seen Bobby Seale before that on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley reading this poem called “Uncle Sammy Call Me Full of Lucifer”—which, as I recall, may have had some macho bullshit in it but was mainly a stinging political indictment of the U.S. and what it was doing in Africa and around the world as well as to Black people in the U.S.

So I’d seen Bobby before, but then I met Huey at that cultural program and we actually got into a conversation when he came up to me and said, “Who are you, Socrates?” There weren’t very many white people at this program, and I guess he thought I looked sort of philosophical! I laughed and said no, and then we got into a philosophical and political discussion. He asked me, “Are you in the CP?” I said I wasn’t. And then he said, “Well, that’s good ‘cuz they’re not radical at all. They’re just counter-revolutionary. Are you in PL (Progressive Labor Party)?” “No,” I said. He went on: “They’re not radical at all. They pretend to be radical, but they’re not radical either. They’re not really for overthrowing the government or anything like that.” So we had this whole discussion.

Bobby Seale was actually the emcee of this Soul Students cultural program, and there were a lot of different performances that night. But what I remember most was Bobby Seale—both because he was very effective at this and also he was hilarious. I found out from him later that he’d actually been a comedian for a while after he got out of the Air Force. He would do really great impressions of everybody from Kennedy to Bill Cosby and was just really hilarious as well as being very penetrating with some of his satire and the ways he was going after the government.

Huey, Bobby and Eldridge saw themselves as the heirs to Malcolm X, taking up what Malcolm X was doing when he was assassinated and carrying it forward. In my eyes, they were taking it and becoming even more radical with it. They had this revolutionary stance, they were indicting the whole system—that’s what they got from Malcom X—but they were calling for revolution, too. At the same time, they were open to talking and debating and struggling over things. That struck me as well.

I remember one time I was down at the same community college and there was this other Black nationalist group meeting in a classroom and the door was open, and this guy was giving an agitational speech about the blue-eyed devils, and so on. I couldn’t help it, I was interested and I was drawn to listening. He was denouncing the honkies and the blue-eyed devils, and he looked up at one point and he saw me and he said, “And that goes for you, too, honky!” So, I just said, “Okay,” and walked off. But what struck me about Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and Eldridge was that their indictment of the system was more powerful and more profound than this, but along with that they were open to anybody else who was opposed to the system and they would try to push you to become more radical. That was a lot of the influence that Eldridge and Bobby and Huey had on me, pushing me to become more radical, to move more toward a revolutionary position, because they were taking up things that I felt very passionately about and they were doing it in a way that I saw as being very uncompromising—and at the same time they were willing to argue and debate and struggle with you. So all this had a tremendous impact on me in the context of everything that was happening in the U.S. and in the world at that time, and everything I’d learned up to that point.

 


 

8. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed in 1963 by newly independent governments of Africa. [back]

9. SNCC, or the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, grew out of the civil rights sit-ins and voter registration drives in the South during the early 1960s. SNCC became increasingly radicalized and nationalist as the decade developed: in 1966 Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) assumed leadership and declared its goal to be “Black Power,” rather than integration; in 1967, Rap Brown (Jamillah Al-Amin) became leader and the whole organization assumed a more revolutionary and anti-imperialist stance. [back]

10. In 1967, Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and seized the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, further dispossessing the Palestinian people, who had already been turned into refugees by the 1948 war which created the Israeli settler state. This was the so-called “six-day war.” The U.S. left as a whole not only did not take a clear stand against this, but many actually supported the Israeli attack. SNCC stood out at the time for taking a stand against the Israeli aggression, and lost quite a bit of financial and political support as a result. [back]

11. Bob Avakian has written a number of pamphlets and articles on the Black Panther Party, including “Huey Newton and the Panthers…The Early Years…and What’s Up Today”—a four-part interview conducted in May 1989 immediately after Newton’s death, which touched on his relationship with Newton and Newton’s strengths and weaknesses as a revolutionary leader and the tragedy of his life. ... See also the book by Bob Avakian A Horrible End – or An End to the Horror? [back]