WGBH Openvault

Basic Black; Eldridge Cleaver / Henry Louis Skip Gates Interview


License Clip

More material is available from this program at the WGBH Archive. If you are a researcher interested in accessing the collection at WGBH, please email archive_requests@wgbh.org.

Undigitized item: Request Digitization

Untranscribed item: Request Transcription

Basic Black
Eldridge Cleaver / Henry Louis Skip Gates Interview
Program Number


Series Description

THe series was formerly known as Say Brother. Series title change as of 1/8/1998. This series is black produced and is one of public television's longest-running series that is rooted in and reflects the culture, concerns, achievements and history of people of African descent. Also includes controversial issues, African American artists, and events of special interest to the African American community.

Series release date: 1/8/1998

Program Description

This Frontline co-production, combines footage from onetime Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's last major interview with personal reflections on the activist by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates.

In March 1997, social activist, former Black Panther, and Soul on Ice author Eldridge Cleaver sat down with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a discussion of his life as a civil rights activist. It would be the last major interview Cleaver gave before his death, from a heart attack, in May 1998.

"For me, Cleaver’s main importance was as the leader of the militant wing of the Black Panther party," says June Cross, who produced this program after working with Gates on FRONTLINE’s The Two Nations of Black America. "For Skip [Gates], Cleaver is important as an eloquent writer on the black left. This program explores both perspectives." Leaving Cleaver draws on the 1997 interview, extensive archival footage, and commentary from Cleaver’s former wife Kathleen, as well as 12 hours of audio tapes of a 1975 interview that Gates did with Cleaver in Paris.

In 1968, while the teen-aged Gates watched Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Watts riots on television, Cleaver was in California’s notorious Folsom prison, serving out a 9-year term resulting from a rape case. Cleaver would go on to become Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, organizing—with the help of his wife, Kathleen—protests to free jailed Panther founder Huey Newton.

That April, two days after Martin Luther King was shot, Cleaver and 13 other well-armed Black Panthers engaged the Oakland police in a shoot-out. "That was the first expression of freedom I had, because during that time, the repressive forces couldn’t put their hands on me," he tells Gates.

By 1969, the Black Panthers had become a national movement, which Kathleen Neal Cleaver credits to her husband’s efforts. But by then, the FBI had declared the Panthers "public enemy number one" and the Cleavers—"the power couple of the late 1960s," Gates says— had become political exiles. They sought refuge first in Canada, then Cuba, then Algiers, where they were living in 1970 when the Black Panther Party finally fell apart as Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton denounced each other. Later, it would be revealed that the FBI , through its counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO, had done much to sow the seeds of that distrust.

Cleaver left Algiers for Paris, where he lived for five years. It was during this time that Henry Louis Gates first interviewed him when he was working as a stringer for TIME magazine. The article he wrote was never published, but the visit resulted in a strong friendship between the two men.

Eldridge Cleaver turned himself into the FBI in San Diego in 1975; charges against him were reduced and he served one year of community service. With Gates, he reflects on how his public voice changed since then: he became a born-again Christian, anti-communist, a conservative who traded his black leather jacket for a suit. "I had a chance to witness Marxism up close…I saw that it wasn’t working," he says. "After I ran into the Egyptian police, the Algerian police, Idi Amin’s police in Uganda…I began to miss the Oakland police."

Even in 1997, through the lens of his avowed conservatism, Cleaver still criticizes the civil rights movement. "The big failure of the civil rights movement was that it didn’t have an economic plank," Cleaver says, adding that 25 years later, it’s economic issues, not segregation, that are the most pressing for black Americans today. "Money is where the rubber meets the road....the Panthers were all about economics, but we didn't have a winning scenario [against the United States government]," he says.



Asset Type

Broadcast program

Media Type


Social Issues
Race and Ethnicity
Chicago: “Basic Black; Eldridge Cleaver / Henry Louis Skip Gates Interview,” 01/28/1999, WGBH Media Library & Archives, accessed April 23, 2019, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_1A0575A2A4CF4B82A67120F8ED59ED20.
MLA: “Basic Black; Eldridge Cleaver / Henry Louis Skip Gates Interview.” 01/28/1999. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Web. April 23, 2019. <http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_1A0575A2A4CF4B82A67120F8ED59ED20>.
APA: Basic Black; Eldridge Cleaver / Henry Louis Skip Gates Interview. Boston, MA: WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved from http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_1A0575A2A4CF4B82A67120F8ED59ED20
If you have more information about this item, we want to know! Please contact us, including the URL.