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Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas, on 13th May, 1945. Her father, Ernest Neal, taught sociology at Wiley College before moving to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He later joined the Foreign Service and the family lived in India, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines.
Kathleen returned to the United States to finish her education. While studying at Barnard College she became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1967 she left college to work full-time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following year she met Eldridge Cleaver and moved from New York to San Francisco to join the Black Panther Party (BPP). The couple married on 27th December, 1967.
Kathleen Cleaver became the BPP's National Communications Secretary and helped to organize the campaign to get Huey Newton released from prison. She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Black Panthers Central Committee.
On 6th April, 1968 eight BPP members, including Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and David Hilliard, were travelling in two cars when they were ambushed by the Oakland police. Cleaver and Hutton ran for cover and found themselves in a basement surrounded by police. The building was fired upon for over an hour. When a tear-gas canister was thrown into the basement the two men decided to surrender. Cleaver was wounded in the leg and so Hutton said he would go first. When he left the building with his hands in the air he was shot twelve times by the police and was killed instantly.
Cleaver was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He was given bail and in November, 1968, he fled to Mexico with Kathleen. Later the couple moved to Cuba. They also spent time in Algeria.
While in exile Cleaver had disagreements with Huey Newton and in 1971 he was expelled him from the Black Panther Party. Soon afterwards Cleaver formed the Revolutionary Peole's Communication Network and Kathleen returned to the United States to establish the party in New York.
While living abroad Cleaver underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity. He now rejected his former political beliefs describing the system in Cuba as "voodoosocialism". He also wrote an article for the New York Times where he argued "With all its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world."
Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975. Tried for his role in the 1968 shoot-out, Cleaver was found guilty of assault. The court was lenient and Cleaver, now a born-again Christian, received only five year's probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service.
Kathleen Cleaver became a student at Yale University in August, 1981. She graduated in 1983 with a degree in history. Kathleen divorced Eldridge Cleaver in 1985 and three years later received a law degree from Yale University and began teaching at Emory University in Atlanta.
Her book, Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Black Panthers and Their Legacy, was published in 2001.
Q: What was it that was appealing to you about the Black Panther Party?
A: I encountered the Black Panther Party when I was in SNCC. I had gotten involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the same time that it articulated black power as its position. I was a student in New York, and I started working in the New York office. The Black Power Movement challenged all the preconceived notions of blacks not being able to determine their own destiny. It was essentially a very nationalistic self-determination position. And what appealed to me about the Black Panther Party was that it took that position of self-determination and articulated it in a local community structure, had a program, had a platform and an implementation through the statement of how blacks should exercise community control over education, housing, business, military service.
Waves of rebellion spread across black communities with the news of King's killing. Memphis, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and a score of other cities erupted that weekend. Washington, DC, went up in flames. In the Bay Area, police cars flooded black neighborhoods, and the National Guard was put on alert. Garry got the arrest warrant for Bobby Seale withdrawn, and they held a press conference at the courthouse on Friday. Bobby had shaved his mustache and beard to disguise himself, and his face took on a young, innocent look. Bobby emphasized that the Black Panther Party opposed rioting as both futile and self-destructive, for black neighborhoods were always the worst harmed. He spoke on radio, television, and at rallies in a marathon effort to staunch the disaster splattering around us. Eldridge told me that it was all the staff could do to explain how senseless it was to the hundreds of people who rushed to our office clamoring for guns to vent their rage in a disorganized manner.
On Saturday, Eldridge and I met at the entrance to Sproul Plaza at Berkeley to go to the rally he was speaking at on campus. Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at him, his black leather jacket gleaming in the sun. With his black turtleneck sweater, black pants, black boots, and black sunglasses, he seemed cloaked in death. I shuddered. The thought flashed through my mind that I would never see him again. I pushed it away - anything might happen - but I didn't want to think about it now. A wave of tenderness swept over me, as I thought of how casually Eldridge was risking his life to keep Huey out of the gas chamber.
Eldridge gave an electrifying speech. He didn't want to remain at the rally, but instead insisted on rushing back to the Panther office. "Isn't there someplace I can take you for a few hours?" he asked. "I don't want you at the office today, and I think it's too hot for you to go back home."
"Drop me off at Kay's house," I said. "I haven't seen her lately, and she lives near the campus."
Kay was a graduate student at Berkeley. She and I had been friends since we were children in Tuskegee, where her cousin Sammy Younge was murdered for his involvement in the civil rights movement. After he was shot, I had dropped out of college and joined the movement. That evening at her house, Kay and I talked about our lives until her husband, Bill, got home.
After dinner, we all watched the late news in the living room. Scenes of local memorial rallies for Dr. King and riots breaking out around the country dominated. Kay and Bill went to bed after the news was over, and I pulled the telephone over to the coffee table that faced the sofa, wondering why Eldridge was taking so long to come pick me up.
A bulletin flashed across the screen about a shoot-out involving the Oakland police - no location or time was mentioned. I recalled my earlier premonition about Eldridge's death, then blanked out there on the sofa, waiting for the phone to ring. I slept so soundly that none of the calls stirred me until around five the next morning. I answered the ringing telephone.
Alex Hoffman, one of Huey's attorneys, was saying in his low, tired voice, "I suppose you've heard by now, Kathleen, but Eldridge is in San Quentin."
Alex went on to say that Eldridge and seven other Panthers had been arrested last night after a shoot-out near David Hilliard's house, and that Bobby Hutton had been killed.
I went numb with shock.
"I'll take you to see Eldridge in prison as soon as I can get the details worked out," Alex said. "Always leave a number where I can reach you."
By the time I saw Alex on Sunday, Eldridge had been shuttled off to the prison in Vacaville, some fifty miles north of the Bay Area, isolating him from the rest of the jailed Panthers. Alex and I were waiting in a drab cubicle reserved for attorneys' visits when I spotted Eldridge being pushed down the hallway in a wheelchair. He looked like a captured giant, cuts and scratches on his face, the hair burned off the top of his head, his foot covered by a huge white bandage. When the guard wheeled him into the room, I could see that Eldridge's eyes were swollen, his face puffy, and his beard matted.
The sight left me too dazed to cry. Now I understood the glazed expression I'd seen in photographs of the faces of people whose homes or churches had been bombed, as if they couldn't believe what they were looking at. Anticipating or reading about terrifying violence does not prepare you to accept it. I felt too scared of what might happen to Eldridge in that notorious prison to dwell on how close he had come to being killed the night before.
Since I'd last seen him, he'd been trapped in an Oakland basement where he and Bobby Hutton had run for cover after gunshots flew between two Oakland police and several carloads of Black Panthers. A fifty-man assault force pounded bullets into the house where they hid for ninety minutes. When a tear-gas canister that had been thrown into the basement caught fire, Eldridge and Bobby agreed to surrender. Eldridge was not able to walk because a bullet had hit his leg. He told Bobby to take off his clothes so the police could not accuse him of hiding a weapon, but Bobby only removed his shirt. When he walked out into the floodlights in front of the house with his hands in the air, a hail of bullets killed him on the spot. Only the shouts from the crowd drawn by the gunfire saved Eldridge from an immediate death when he crawled out of the basement behind Bobby.
Q: Why did the Panthers-SNCC coalition fall apart?
A: I think it was totally misunderstood on both sides, what was intended. When Stokely Carmichael was drafted by Huey Newton in May of 1967, as a member of the Black Panther Party, he was very proud of it. He went around showing his scroll. SNCC had a central committee that made decisions. Stokely Carmichael was becoming a very public and highly note notorious person, more so than anyone in SNCC had ever been. So there was a lot of conflict in SNCC about how decisions were being made. The Black Panther Party had a very small, tight central committee, and decisions were made by consensus. And the consensus in the Black Panther Party was that SNCC should be merged into the Black Panther Party. This was not discussed with SNCC. So when James Foreman was drafted as minister of foreign affairs and Rap Brown as minister of justice and Stokely Carmichael as prime minister, this was not something that had been ratified or discussed by the leadership structure of SNCC. And so the failure to understand the two organizational differences plus some intervention on the part of police agents that made sure it collapsed, led to the disintegration of it.
Q: In 1997, you have now graduated from Yale Law School with highest honors. You've clerked for very the most distinguished black jurist alive the the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham. And you've been an associate at Cravath, Swain and Moore , which many people would say the heart or the inner logic of the capitalist system. In retrospect, were the Panthers right?
A: Yes. Yes. We were right. That's not sufficient, to be right. Tom Paine was right. But the American Constitution didn't reflect his views. You have to have institutional, corporate, financial, military power. And on the other hand, you have to have the mass support of people, their hearts and their minds and their beliefs. Now, the revolutionary positions that we took were not consistent with the beliefs of the majority of the American people, because the majority of the American people believe in the system as it is. They just believe the system didn't work right, but it should work right. What we believed is, the system was fundamentally corrupt and could never work right, and had to be replaced. Now, the educational effort that it would take to transform the society is something that the resources at the disposal of handfuls of youth organizations could not accomplish. We could have accomplished a far broader educational effort, had we not been so viciously sabotaged and attacked by a broad array of police agencies. The FBI had its police against us. The CIA had its police against us. The DIA had its police. The police have its own squad. So the forces arrayed against us - not to mention our own internal confusion and dissension - so the forces arrayed against us, a youth organization, coming into being in 1966, in which maybe less that one per cent of the people were over 25 - we would have had to expand, incorporate broader and broader segments of the black community align ourselves with broader and broader segments of the working class and radical white community. We would have had to take two and three or four generations to do this.
Kathleen Cleaver - History
About two weeks before I joined SNCC, "Black Power" replaced "Freedom Now" as the battle cry. We, young women and young men who flocked to the front lines of the war against segregation, were contesting the remaining legacy of racial slavery. What we sought to eliminate were the legal, social, psychological, economic, and political limitations still being imposed on our human rights, and on our rights as citizens. That was the context in which we fought to remove limitations imposed by gender, clearly aware that it could not be fought as a stand-alone issue.
During that era, we hadn't developed much language to talk, about the elimination of gender discrimination. Racism and poverty, imposed by bloody terrorists backed by state power, seemed so overwhelming then, and the ghastly backdrop of the war in Vietnam kept us alert as to what was at stake. It was not that gender discrimination wasn't apparent. It was evident in the most intimate matters&mdashseparate bathrooms marked "colored women" or "white ladies" it was obvious in the facts that so many schools did not allow women to attend, and that so many jobs were not available if you were a woman. But from the early to mid-1960s, the first order of business was not how to advance our cause as women but how to empower the community of which we were a part, and how to protect our lives in the process.
Being in the Movement gave me and everyone who joined it a tremendous education. That experience taught us how to understand the world around us, how to think through the issues of what we could do on our own to advance our peoples cause, how to organize our own people to change the world around us, and how to stand up to terrorism. Everything I learned in SNCC I took with me into the fledgling Black Panther Party. I started working there in November 1967, three or four weeks after Huey Newton was jailed on charges of killing an Oakland policeman in a predawn shoot-out. I organized demonstrations. I wrote leaflets. I held press conferences. I attended court hearings. I designed posters. I appeared on television programs, I spoke at rallies. I even ran for political office in order to organize the community around the program of the Black Panther Party and mobilize support to free Huey Newton.
At times, during the question-and-answer session following a speech I'd given, someone would ask, "What is the woman's role in the Black Panther Party?" I never liked that question. I'd give a short answer: "It's the same as men." We are revolutionaries, I'd explain. Back then, I didn't understand why they wanted to think of what men were doing and what women were doing as separate. It's taken me years, literally about twenty-five years, to understand that what I really didn't like was the underlying assumption motivating the question. The assumption held that being part of a revolutionary movement was in conflict with what the questioner had been socialized to believe was appropriate conduct for a woman. That convoluted concept never entered my head, although I am certain it was far more widely accepted than I ever realized.
Nowadays, the questions are more sophisticated: "What were the gender issues in the Black Panther Party?" "Wasn't the Black Panther Party a. istion of sexism? Etc., etc., etc. But nobody seems to pose the question that I had: Where can I go to get involved in the revolutionary struggle? It seems to me that part of the genesis of the gender question, and this is only an opinion, lies in the way it deflects attention from confronting the revolutionary critique our organization made of the larger society, and turns it inward to look at what type of dynamics and social conflicts characterized the organization. To me, this discussion holds far less appeal than that which engages the means we devised to struggle against the oppressive dynamics and social conflicts the larger society imposed on us. Not many answers to the "gender questions" take into consideration what I've experienced. What I've read or heard as answers generally seem to respond to a particular model of academic inquiry that leaves out what I believe is central: How do you empower an oppressed and impoverished people who are struggling against racism, militarism, terrorism, and sexism too? I mean, how do you do that? That's the real question.
My generation became conscious during a period of profound world turmoil, when the Vietnam War and countless insurgencies in Africa, Asia, and in Latin America challenged the control of the resources of the world by the capitalist powers. They were facing a major assault. Those of us who were drawn to the early Black Panther Party were just one more insurgent band of young men and women who refused to tolerate the systematic violence and abuse being meted out to poor blacks, to middle-class blacks, and to any old ordinary blacks. When we looked at our situation, when we saw violence, bad housing, unemployment, rotten education, unfair treatment in the courts, as well as direct attacks from the police, our response was to defend ourselves. We became part of that assault against the capitalist powers.
In a world of racist polarization, we sought solidarity. We called for Black power for Black people, Red power for Red people, Brown power for Brown people, Yellow power for Yellow people, and, as Eldridge Cleaver used to say, White power for White people, because all they'd known was "Pig power." We organized the Rainbow Coalition, pulled together our allies, including not only the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the youth gang called Black P. Stone Rangers, the Chicano Brown Berets, and the Asian I Wor Keun (Red Guards), but also the predominantly white Peace and Freedom Party and the Appalachian Young Patriots Party. We posed not only a theoretical but a practical challenge to the way our world was organized. And we were men and women working together.
The women who filled the ranks of our organization did not have specifically designated sex roles. Some women worked with the newspaper, like Shelley Bursey, who became a grand jury resister when she was jailed because she refused to respond to one of the investigations into the Black Panther Party newspaper. Some of us, like Ericka Huggins, saw their husbands murdered, then were arrested themselves. In Ericka's case, she was jailed along with Bobby Seale and most of the New Haven chapter on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. She was later acquitted, but imagine what happens to an organization when fourteen people at once get arrested on capital charges. That doesn't leave much time to organize, or to have a family life. Maybe that was the kind of pressure that they hoped would force us to give up.
I created the position of Communications Secretary, based on what I had seen Julian Bond do in SNCC. I sent out press releases, I got photographers and journalists to publish about us, I wrote articles for our newspaper. I ran for political office on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, against the incumbent Democratic state representative&mdashwho, by the way, was Willie Brown (now mayor of San Francisco). We ran a campaign poster in the Black Panther newspaper, which was a drawing of Willie Brown with his mouth sewed up, his body tied up in rope. The caption read: Willie Brown's position on the Vietnam War, political prisoners, and racism, you get the idea. We were imaginative in our approach to political organizing. Matilaba [J. Tarika Lewis], one of the earliest women members of the Black Panther Party, published drawings in the newspaper along with Emory Douglas. Connie Matthews, a young Jamaican who was working for the United Nations in Copenhagen, met Bobby Seale when he came over there on a tour, joined the Black Panther Party, and became our International Coordinator. Assata Shakur, who joined the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, later became convicted of murdering a state trooper after a shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike in which she was wounded and another Panther, Zayd Shakur, was killed. Fearing that she would be killed, she escaped from prison, lived underground for a while, and eventually received asylum in Cuba.
In fact, according to a survey Bobby Seale did in 1969, two-thirds of the members of the Black Panther Party were women. I am sure you are wondering, why isn't this the image that you have of the Black Panther Party? Well, ask yourself, where did the image of the Black Panthers that you have in your head come from? Did you read those articles planted by the FBI in the newspaper? Did you listen to the newscasters who announced what they decided was significant, usually, how many Panthers got arrested or killed? How many photographs of women Panthers have you seen? Think about this: how many newspaper photographers were women? How many newspaper editors were women? How many newscasters were women? How many television producers were women? How many magazine, book, newspaper publishers? Who was making the decisions about what information gets circulated, and when that decision gets made, who do you think they decide to present? Is it possible, and this is just a question, is it possible that the reality of what was actually going on day to day in the Black Panther Party was far less newsworthy, and provided no justification for the campaign of destruction that the intelligence agencies and the police were waging against us? Could it be that the images and stories of the Black Panthers that you've seen and heard were geared to something other than conveying what was actually going on?
What I think is distinctive about gender relations within the Black Panther Party is not how those gender relations duplicated what was going on in the world around us. In fact, that world was extremely misogynist and authoritarian. That's part of what inspired us to fight against it. When women suffered hostility, abuse, neglect, and assault&mdashthis was not something arising from the policies or structure of the Black Panther Party, something absent from the world&mdashthat's what was going on in the world. The difference that being in the Black Panther Party made was that it put a woman in a position when such treatment occurred to contest it. I'll always remember a particular mini-trial that took place at one of our meetings. A member of the Party was accused of raping a young sister, who was visiting from the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party, and he got voted out of the Party on the spot. Right there in the meeting. In 1970 the Black Panther Party took a formal position on the liberation of women. Did the U.S. Congress make any statement on the liberation of women? Did the Congress enable the Equal Rights Amendment to become part of the Constitution? Did the Oakland police issue a position against gender discrimination? It is in this context that gender relations&mdasha term that we didn't have back then&mdashin the Black Panther Party should be examined.
I think it is important to place the women who fought oppression as Black Panthers within the longer tradition of freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida Wells-Barnett, who took on an entirely oppressive world and insisted that their race, their gender, and their humanity be respected all at the same time. Not singled out, each one separate, but all at the same time. You cannot segregate out one aspect of our reality and expect to get a clear picture of what this struggle is about. In some cases, those who raise issues about gender are responding to what they think is the one-sided portrayal of the Black Panther Party as some all-male, macho revolutionary group. But look at where the picture is coming from before concluding that the appropriate response is to investigate gender dynamics within the Black Panther Party. I am not criticizing the project, but I am criticizing the angle.
The way Black women have sustained our community is phenomenal. Historically, we did not live within the isolation of a patriarchal world, we were thrust into that brutal equality slavery imposed. Our foremothers knew we would have to face the world on our own, and they tried to prepare us for that. What I think need to be examined and explained more fully are the powerful contributions women have made to our resistance against slavery, to our resistance against segregation, to our resistance against racism. Placing the participation of women in the Black Panther Party within that context illuminates a long tradition of fighting women.
Memories Of a Proper Girl Who Was A Panther
Thirty years ago, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, instantly recognizable by her iconic Afro and knee-high leather boots, was writing to agitate for the Black Panther Party.
Today she is 55, the Afro has given way to a cascade of golden-brown locks, and Ms. Cleaver is engaged in a rather different writing project. She is plumbing her buried past for a book aptly titled ''Memories of Love and War.''
Unearthing those recollections has taken years. It has forced her to recall the murder and incarceration of countless friends. It has pushed her to reflect on what happened to many others, including her ex-husband, Eldridge, the Panthers' information minister who became a Republican, a Mormon and a drug abuser. It has compelled Ms. Cleaver to consider her own trajectory: the constant surveillance by law enforcement officials, the raising of two children on the lam, the dissolution of the Black Panthers and then the breakup of her own marriage.
The story of Ms. Cleaver's memoir not only underscores the difficulty of writing about a life spent literally under the gun. It also reveals how tricky it can be for such a central figure to write a personal account of such a contested period of American history. Does she confirm or defy official Panther lore? Does she set the record straight on the unflattering things written about her, most notably in the former Panther leader Elaine Brown's 1993 memoir, 'ɺ Taste of Power,'' in which she and her ex-husband are described as destructive elements of the organization?
Martin Duberman, a historian who has also written memoirs, says the history of a movement written by an outsider is not necesssarily any more reliable than one by a participant. ''The counter-assumption tends to be, once a historical account is conscientiously done by a so-called objective observer, it is definitive,'' Mr. Duberman said. ''There would be a variety of accounts, none of which by itself will be a definitive version of what went on. All you have to do is take part in a bridge game and later ask the four people what happened.''
For her part, Ms. Cleaver says she can't be bothered with answering other people's accounts of history (although she does dismiss Ms. Brown's version as unreliable).
''It's a memoir,'' she said recently. ''I'm entitled -- in fact, I am required -- to be subjective and emotional and personal.'' She was speaking during a conversation over sushi in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from the New York Public Library, where she was one of 15 fellows this year at the Center for Scholars and Writers. ''That's not going to be, by definition, historical.''
Revealing herself took some getting used to, however. Once she offered an early manuscript to a writing teacher. ''It doesn't really say much about you,'' she recalls him saying. ''Well,'' she snapped, ''that's nobody's business.''
She offers a throaty laugh at this exchange now. It has taken a long time to be able to pick through threads of memory. This book has undergone various incarnations over the last 15 years. ''I wrote agitational material,'' she said. ''I had no clue that if you tell a story in which you are a participant, you have to write about yourself.'' Kathleen Neal, who was born in 1945, spent her earliest years in what she remembers as a sheltered, segregated black community, almost Victorian in its conventions, in Tuskegee, Ala. Her mother had an advanced degree in mathematics. Her father taught sociology at Tuskegee University before joining the Foreign Service and taking the family to India and the Philippines.
As a teenager, she attended a desegregated Quaker boarding school and enrolled at Oberlin College in 1963. But it wasn't long before she dropped out, moved to New York City and threw herself into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then a driving engine of the civil rights movement.
She was 21 when she met Cleaver and through him, the Panthers. He had just been released from Folsom State Prison. ''Soul on Ice,'' his groundbreaking 1967 prison memoir, was attracting enormous attention because of his confessions of rape.
They were married within months, on Dec. 27, 1967. (The wedding date -- which they had forgotten -- was one of the few useful pieces of information she has culled from the files kept on her by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she says.)
In 1968, after a shootout with the Oakland, Calif., police in which another Panther was killed and two policemen injured, Cleaver fled to Algeria. A few months later, pregnant with their first child, Ms. Cleaver joined him. There, they had a son and a daughter. By 1971, after bitter leadership battles inside the organization, the Cleavers split from the Panthers.
Today she compares those four years in Algeria, then ruled by a military dictatorship, to being shipwrecked. It was one of the only times in her life she remembers being depressed. ''Iɽ never been marooned,'' she said.
The task of raising her children kept her anchored. Youthful delusions of immortality helped her survive, she says, and probably, too, the contradictory conviction that life could end at any moment. ''You don't have to maintain your sanity if you think any day, you might get killed,'' she explained.
In 1975, the Cleavers returned to the United States, and Cleaver, after turning himself in to the authorities, drifted sharply to the right. It is a metamorphosis that Ms. Cleaver doesn't discuss much. ''It has nothing to do with me,'' she declares.
She will say that she considered leaving him long before she actually did. She was held back by two things: the knowledge that slavery had torn apart black families for centuries, and that her other family, the Panthers, had by then disintegrated into discord and paranoia. ''I didn't initiate the collapse of the movement, but I had to initiate the separation of my family,'' she said. ''That was very hard.''
When she finally did leave -- in 1981 -- she picked up where she had left off before she met Cleaver. She moved with her two children to New Haven and enrolled at Yale University to complete her undergraduate degree.
They were divorced in 1987. Cleaver died two years ago.
Ms. Cleaver went on to earn a law degree, work with the white-shoe Manhattan firm of Cravath, Swain & Moore, and teach law at Emory University, Sarah Lawrence College and the Cardozo School of Law. In 1994, she took a year off to work on the book full time.
Still, it has taken her a long time to pour the words onto the page. She pulled from her briefcase a section she had just finished, about the peak years of Panther activity. In 15 pages, she records three deaths, five trials. ''It's very traumatic, writing about assassinations, writing about people getting killed, writing about people getting arrested,'' she said.
These days, when she isn't writing, she lectures widely about the Panthers. Next Saturday she will appear for a question-and-answer session after the screening of a documenary on the Panthers at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater.
She is still an advocate for political prisoners, and still delights in watching street protests. She lives in an affluent village near New Haven with St. Clair Bourne, a documentary filmmaker. If Ms. Cleaver's life today seems like a sharp contrast to the days when her 1968 campaign poster for the California State Assembly pictured her holding a gun, it is only the latest curve in a story that has taken many unpredictable turns. In some ways, it's possible to see the more radical twist as the one that led a girl with such a proper past to a life with the Panthers.
Sometimes, there is a glimpse of the traditionalist in her. She bemoan the fact that children who misbehave at school no longer fear that their mothers will be called. Other times, she appears stunned to discover that many parents no longer eat dinner with their children every night. You mean Kathleen Cleaver, the young radical, had time for that sort of thing when her children were young? ''Yes!'' she replies emphatically. 'ɼooked it, too!''
Does she sometimes miss the revolutionary life? Not at all, she declares. She is happy she's not in jail. She is happy she's not a Republican, she says, chuckling. She is happy, she adds, to be alive.
10 Black Women That Changed History
Kathleen Cleaver is an iconic figure from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Black Power organization that Beyoncé's dancers paid tribute to at Super Bowl 50. Cleaver served as the Black Panther Party's communications secretary alongside her husband, Eldridge Cleaver.
Cleaver joined the struggle as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but has fought for freedom for over 40 years. Currently, she is a senior lecturer and research fellow at Emory University School of Law. Cleaver is at work on her much-anticipated memoir, "Memories of Love and War."
Fannie Lou Hamer
Ever heard or used the phrase "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired?" Thank voting rights organizer and activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer, like Cleaver, was a member of SNCC. She assisted with the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which sent activists to the southern state in 1964 to help African-Americans register to vote.
While in Mississippi, Hamer was arrested and tortured by prison guards. Her kidneys were damaged and she left the prison with a limp. Still, the warrior didn't stop fighting for freedom. Instead, Hamer ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965 and was appointed to the Democratic National Committee of 1968. She also raised awareness about the sexual violence committed against Black women fighting for civil rights by testifying at the Democratic National Convention in August 1964.
Hamer's legacy will live on forever.
Ella Baker's name isn't as well-known as MLK or Rosa Parks, but she mentored them and dozens of other civil rights leaders. Baker, who began working with the NAACP in 1940, partnered with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to work alongside MLK. She led the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.
The activist also helped to create SNCC and other civil rights organizations. She is often referred to as "Fundi," a "Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation," according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Her leadership transformed the world.
"You didn't see me on television you didn't see news stories about me," she said of the 1960's. "The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders."
More of Ella Baker's amazing story is told in "FUNDI: The Story of Ella Baker."
Most people are familiar with Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white patron. It's considered the act that started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet, Parks wasn't the first Black woman to disobey the ridiculous law.
In March 1955, then 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to relinquish her bus seat. She was charged with disturbing the peace, assaulting a police officer, and violating segregation laws. Parks, who was working as a secretary for the local NAACP, began searching for ways to use Colvin's case to galvanize the upcoming boycott.
She was never catapulted to prominence, like Parks, because the NAACP soon discovered she was pregnant and the father of her unborn child was married to another woman. Colvin isn't bitter, though.
She told the New York Times in 2009 that the Civil Rights Movement is bigger than one person. "Maybe by telling my story — something I was afraid to do for a long time — kids will have a better understanding about what the Civil Rights Movement was about," she said.
Read more about Claudette Colvin's incredible sacrifice in "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice."
Before Hillary Clinton, there was the unbought and unbossed Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm began her career in politics at Brooklyn College, after her professor told her she had a "quick mind and debating skills."
The first-generation American took those words and ran with them. In 1968, Chisholm became the first African-American Congresswoman, representing Brooklyn in the House of Representatives. She followed this historic act with another one: in 1972, she became the first Black woman to run for president, claiming that no other candidate cared as much about issues plaguing the Black community.
Her run was called the "Chisholm Trail," according to National Women's History Museum. Ultimately, she didn't earn the Democratic nomination, but she earned 151 delegate votes at the convention.
Chisholm — referred to as the "people's politician" — served in Congress for 14 years. During that time, she introduced over 50 pieces of legislation, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, and served on the Committee on Education and Labor. President Bill Clinton attempted to appoint her as the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined. Though Chisholm died in 2005, her political legacy continues to inspire women, including the one who may just become America's first female president.
Learn about Shirley Chisholm's historic presidential run in the PBS documentary "Chisholm '72."
Diane Nash was, and continues to be, a warrior for freedom. In 1959, she transferred from Howard University in Washington, D.C. to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there she learned the extent of segregation and decided to battle against it.
By 1961, Nash became a full-fledged activist. She participated in multiple sit-ins, which led to stints in jail. At one point, she was sentenced to two years in prison for "teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi." She, too, was a prominent member of SNCC, and coordinated the Freedom Rides to Southern states entrenched in segregation.
Nash is still fighting for freedom. Years ago, she refused to attend the commemoration march to Selma because George W. Bush was present.
"I refused to march because George Bush marched,” Nash told journalist Roland Martin on TV One's News One Now. "I think the Selma movement was about non-violence and peace and democracy. And George Bush stands for just the opposite: For violence and war and stolen elections, and his administration … had people tortured."
Ida B. Wells
You owe a lot to Ida B. Wells-Barnett if you are a journalist reporting on racism, sexism, and other social issues. She's a titan who laid the blueprint for journalists to do important work around these issues.
Wells-Barnett deserves far more credit than she receives. She fought for voting rights for women, reported on lynching, and clashed with white feminists on the importance of intersectionality.
In 1889, Wells-Barnett left the education field to pursue writing. She became part-owner of the "Free Speech and Headlight," an African-American newspaper. There, she reported on the brutality of lynching and advocated for Black women. After leaving Memphis for Chicago, she continued her crusade by publishing "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," an amazing book that should be taught in every history class.
Wells-Barnett was also a passionate advocate for women's rights. She participated in the 1913 suffrage march and was also a founding member of the NAACP.
Her life's work will live on forever.
PBS tells Ida B. Wells' story in the documentary, "Ida B. Wells: A Passionate for Justice."
Elaine Brown served as the chairwoman of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense from 1974 to 1977. She took over the reigns of the organization after Kathleen Cleaver first held the leadership position.
Brown also served as editor of the Black Panther Party's newspaper, "The Black Panther." She also ran for Oakland City Council, but didn't win the seat. Her political ambitions didn't end there. In 2007, Brown ran as the Green Party's candidate for the presidency.
To learn more about Elaine Brown, read "A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story"
Dorothy Height is a Civil Rights Movement legend. Referred to as the "godmother" of the Civil Rights Movement, Height served as chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as the Director of the YWCA School for Professional Workers, and organized around civil rights issues.
Alongside fellow NCNW member, Height organized Wednesdays in Mississippi, workshops that brought Black and white women together during the height of the Civil Rights Movement to discuss racial issues.
She, alongside Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and worked to put more women in political office.
As a thank you for her service, President Obama awarded Height the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and called her "the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans."
Kathleen Cleaver: Civil Rights Activist, Law Professor, Former Black Panther
Kathleen Cleaver was born Kathleen Neal on May 13, 1945, in Memphis, Texas. She came from a well-educated family, with her mother holding a master’s degree in Mathematics and her father a sociology professor. Her father joined the Foreign Service, which meant that she had the opportunity to broaden her perspective and outlook through travel and residence in such countries as the Philippines, India, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
From an early age, she was active in the fight for civil rights, engaging in protests alongside her parents in Alabama beginning in the 1950s. In 1963, Neal graduated from a renowned Quaker school, subsequently enrolling in Oberlin and Barnard Colleges. In 1967, she left school to join the mainstream fight for Civil Rights, taking a position in New York City as a secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
As an organizer at Fisk University, she met Eldridge Cleaver, the then-Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The two got married in December 1967 in Oakland, California, after already having joined the Party a month earlier. She joined a group of prominent revolutionary women within the party, including such people as Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown. Involvement with the Black Panther Party meant that Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver were constantly harassed. Several raids were conducted on their apartment and numerous attempts were made on their lives.
The Cleavers were forced to go into exile in 1968 after Eldridge was accused of attempted murder, moving to Cuba, Algeria, and North Korea (where their child was born). Kathleen eventually returned to the United States via New York City to promote a new organization after the International Section of the Black Panther Party, to which the Cleavers belonged, was expelled from the greater Black Panther Party.
Kathleen Cleaver - History
Merritt Park, Oakland, California - April 12, 1968
Kathleen Cleaver was the first woman to become a highly visible leader in the militant Black Panther Party, and one of the few women to emerge as a nationwide symbol of the black power movement. From 1967 to 1971, Cleaver was the Panthers' communications secretary. She worked closely with her husband, Eldridge Cleaver, and other Panther leaders to expand the ranks of the party nationwide, while fending off a secret FBI campaign to destroy the Panthers. 1
Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas in 1945. She grew up in a well-educated, middle-class family. Her father, a sociologist, joined the Foreign Service when Neal was a girl she spent half her childhood living abroad. Neal attended a Quaker high school near Philadelphia and graduated with honors. She was a talented student, but in 1966 dropped out of Barnard College in New York to work full time on civil rights issues with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The black power movement was on the rise and Neal wanted to be a part of it. Like many young African Americans in the mid-1960s, she was fed up with what she considered the limited gains made by the civil rights movement. She embraced the potential of the black power movement to push African Americans toward full self-determination and to contest, as she said, "the remaining legacy of racial slavery." 2
At a SNCC conference in 1967, Neal met Eldridge Cleaver, the radical intellectual who was on parole from California's Soledad Prison. Cleaver had been convicted of rape and served nearly a decade in prison. He was completing a book of essays on race issues he wrote while in jail. Cleaver's Soul on Ice was published to significant acclaim and became a classic of black power literature. Kathleen says that at the SNCC conference, Eldridge "was thrilled to be around those civil rights organizers whose courage had inspired him from afar, and the revolutionary atmosphere he encountered among us captivated him." 3
Kathleen Neal also captivated him. Eldridge convinced Kathleen to join him in San Francisco to work for the Black Panther Party. He had begun to work with the party as minister of information shortly after his release from prison. "What appealed to me about the Black Panther Party was that it took th[e] position of self-determination and articulated it in a local community structure," Kathleen Cleaver told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a 1997 interview. "[It] had a program, had a platform and an implementation [strategy] through the statement of how blacks should exercise community control over education, housing, business, military service." 4 Kathleen and Eldridge married in December 1967.
As the most prominent woman in the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver was often asked about the role women played in the organization. She always responded that it was the same role as a man's. For Kathleen, the only relevant question was simply, "Where can I go to get involved in the revolutionary struggle?" 5 According to Cleaver, her activism was built on the work of a long line of African American women who had come before. In a 2001 essay, "Women, Power, and Revolution," Cleaver writes that while growing up, she was inspired by women like Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Robinson, all of whom led daring assaults on Southern segregation. According to Cleaver, "These women were unfurling a social revolution in the Deep South." 6
Cleaver's mission was to unfurl a revolution in the rest of the United States. As she writes, "Those of us who were drawn to the early Black Panther Party were just one more insurgent band of young men and women who refused to tolerate the systematic violence and abuse being meted out to&hellipblacks. When we looked at our situation, when we saw the violence, bad housing, unemployment, rotten education, unfair treatment in the courts, as well as direct attacks from the police, our response was to defend ourselves. We became part of that assault against the capitalist powers." 7
Kathleen Cleaver was a skilled organizer and Panther spokesperson. She created the position of communications secretary based on what she had seen activist Julian Bond do in SNCC. As Cleaver writes, "I organized demonstrations. I wrote leaflets. I held press conferences. I attended court hearings. I designed posters. I appeared on television programs, I spoke at rallies." 8
One of those rallies was held in honor of Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old Panther killed by police in an Oakland, California shootout. In her speech, Cleaver describes Hutton as a martyr for black liberation and laments the tyranny of the criminal justice system. More than 1000 people attended the memorial service in Oakland's Merritt Park. As Kathleen spoke, her husband Eldridge was in jail in nearby Vacaville. He had fought the police alongside Hutton and had been wounded. He was arrested for violating his parole.
The gunfight was part of an escalating series of confrontations between Panthers and law enforcement officials. 9 Beginning in August, 1967, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered a wide-ranging counter-intelligence program designed to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the Black Panther Party and other black liberation groups. 10 The code name was COINTELPRO. Enlisting local law enforcement agencies nationwide, the FBI "declared war on the Panthers." 11 Their tactics included infiltrating the party, sowing mistrust and conflict among members and planting false and misleading stories in the media. 12 In 1968, alone, the police killed at least eight Panthers in Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle. The next year they arrested 348 Panthers "for a range of offenses, among them murder, rape, robbery, and assault." 13 In 1969, the police and FBI killed at least 10 other Panthers, including two in Chicago who were shot in their sleep. 14
Eldridge Cleaver continued to have his own troubles with the law. He was released from the prison in Vacaville in June 1968, but was ordered to return to jail at the end of November to serve out the rest of his original prison sentence. On November 24, 1968, Eldridge disappeared, fleeing first to Cuba and then to Algiers. Kathleen joined him there in June of 1969, just in time to give birth to their first child, Maceo. The next year she gave birth to a daughter, Joju. The Cleavers lived in exile until 1975, when they decided to come home. Eldridge had undergone an enormous conversion, abandoning his revolutionary principles and embracing Christianity. He was ready to surrender, serve time and move on.
In the late 1970s, Eldridge became well known as a politically conservative, born-again Christian. Kathleen, meanwhile, retained her radical views. The two separated in 1981 and she moved with her children to New Haven, where she earned her BA and law degrees from Yale University. Kathleen went on to practice law and to teach at several schools, including Emory University in Atlanta. Despite her own move into the ranks of the middle-class, Cleaver has remained deeply critical of capitalism.
The Black Panther Party was all but dead by the end of 1971, destroyed in part by the FBI, in part by internal disagreements and confrontations. As the scholar Ward Churchill writes, "Both the relative inexperience of its leadership and the obvious youthfulness of the great majority of its members helped prevent the Party from mounting a mature response to the situation it confronted." However, Churchill continues,"The scale and intensity of the repression to which it was subject&hellipmake it doubtful that even the most seasoned group of activists would have done better." 15
Kathleen Cleaver says another reason the Panthers failed to incite revolution in the United States has to do with capitalism itself. According the Cleaver, too many Americans had a financial stake in maintaining the status quo. "When you have people who are revolutionaries," she told Henry Louis Gates in 1997, "they repudiate the commitment to making money, and say, 'We want justice. We want change. We want truth. We want freedom.' Well, that's not going to work if the structure [of society] is based on financial rewards and financial incentives. So we were at odds with the way the system worked. We had a different idea. We said, 'Power to the people.'" 16
Listen to the speech
My first reaction upon finding out about the attack upon the leadership of the Black Panther Party April 6, was that I was glad that I was not a widow for black liberation.
Here I have a message, a telegram that I think I'd like to read, from the widow of our greatest spokesman for black liberation, Malcolm X. It's to the family of Bobby James Hutton, in care of myself.
The question is not will it be nonviolence versus violence, but whether a human being can practice his God-given right to self-defense. Shot down like a common animal, he died a warrior for black liberation. If the generation before him had not been afraid, he perhaps would be alive today.
Remember, like Solomon, there's a time for everything. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to love, a time to hate. A time to fight, and a time to retreat. For brotherhood and survival, remember Bobby. It could be your husband, your son, or your brother tomorrow. Crimes against an individual are often crimes against an entire nation. To his family: only time can eliminate the pain of losing him, but may he be remembered in the hearts and minds of all of us. Betty Shabazz.
Whatever path we seem to take, it always has one end: a racist bullet. A racist bullet murdered Malcolm X, murdered Martin Luther King, murdered Bobby Hutton. Attempted to murder Huey Newton attempted to murder Eldridge Cleaver. From the streets, from the flying of this bullet in the air into the flesh of a black man, a whole structure proceeds: walls of courthouses, bars of jails, locked keys, billy-clubs, police.
Everywhere you turn you're encaged. The same police force, the very same police force that murdered Bobby Hutton in cold blood, deliberately, provided a funeral escort to the cemetery. The very same police force that attempted to assassinate Eldridge Cleaver is lining the highways from here to Vacaville, stacked deep. The town of Vacaville is closed down. There's double security on the penitentiary. Machine gun guards in the church.
One bullet in the flesh is not enough 50 policemen in the streets of West Oakland is not enough for them. Right over there in the parking lot they've got 700 policemen, waiting.
Huey Newton &ndash there on the 10th floor of the Alameda County Courthouse &ndash Huey Newton held the key to liberating the black people. He stated if the racist-dog policemen do not withdraw from the black community, cease their wanton murder, and torture and brutality of black people, they will face the wrath of the armed people.
For the simple demand &ndash basic human liberty &ndash Huey Newton is in jail, charged with murder. Bobby Hutton is dead. Eldridge Cleaver is in jail, charged with three counts of assault with attempt to murder. David Hilliard, national captain of the party is in jail, three counts of murder. And a series of other brothers in the Black Panther Party. This is only the first. They move against every leadership as it extends itself. As each group of leaders rises up their [inaudible], but they cannot stop [us] by wiping away our leaders. For every leader that's shot down, more spring up, until the people rise up as one man and fight and gain their liberation, and this is what this one man, Bobby Hutton, died for.
We lost something very precious when we lost Bobby Hutton. But Bobby Hutton didn't lose anything. Bobby Hutton took his stand he gave his life. And here we are, we have our lives. He added something to them. It's up to us, to whether we can treasure that and carry that forward, or if we'll allow the walls of the jails and bullets of the racist dog police to increasingly intimidate and encircle and murder us until we degenerate into a state maintained purely by brute police power. This time, this day, is not far off. We have very little time. We are in a race against time.
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton. Thank you.
People, Locations, Episodes
Kathleen Cleaver was born on this date in 1945. She is a Black educator, lawyer, writer, and activist.
Born in Dallas Texas, Kathleen Neal Cleaver's father was a sociology professor at Wiley College and her mother held a degree in Mathematics. With her father's work, the family spent many of her early years abroad in Liberia, the Philippines, and Sierra Leone. Cleaver completed high school at the Georgia School in Philadelphia in 1963. Cleaver dropped out of Barnard College in 1966 when she was a sophomore to work full-time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she served in the Campus Program.
From 1967 to 1971, Cleaver was the communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, the first woman member of their Central Committee. She married Eldridge Cleaver in 1967. After sharing years of exile with her former husband, she returned to the United States in late 1975. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in history from Yale University in 1984, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
After receiving a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1989, Cleaver became an associate at the New York law firm of Cravath, Swain and Moore. Afterwards, she served as a clerk for the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. While an assistant professor of law at Emory University, she served on the Georgia's Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts and became a board member of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. She devoted many years to the defense of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former Black Panther Party leader who won his habeas corps petition in 1997 after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Cleaver has been a visiting faculty member at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, the Graduate School of Yale College and Sarah Lawrence College, where she was the Joanne Woodward Professor of Public Policy during 1999. She has taught legal ethics, litigation, torts, a legal history seminar entitled "The American Law of Slavery and Anti-Slavery," and a course on Women in the Black Freedom Movement. She is a Senior Research Associate at the Yale Law School and executive producer of the International Black Panther Film Festival.
Cleaver has won fellowships at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, the W.E.B. Du Bois institute of Harvard University, and the Center for Historical Analysis at Rutgers University. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library also gave her fellowships to complete the book of memoirs that she is working on, "Memoirs of Love and War."
Her writing has appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including Ramparts, The Black Panther, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe and Transition. She has contributed essays to several books, including Critical Race Feminism, Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, The Promise of Multiculturalism: Education and Autonomy in the 21st Century: A New Political Science Reader and The Black Panther Party Reconsidered.
She has co-edited a collection of essays entitled Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (Routledge, 2001). In 2005, Cleaver was selected an inaugural Fletcher Foundation Fellow.
The Book of African American Women
150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters
by Tonya Bolden
Kathleen Cleaver looks at then and now on PBS’ ‘Black America Since MLK’
The outrage following Beyoncé's Super Bowl 50 performance paying homage to the women of the Black Panther Party earlier this year proved that the "black power" organization co-founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., triggers high emotions even today. And Kathleen Neal Cleaver, a professor at Emory Law School for over two decades now, was in the thick of it all.
As the first communications secretary for the Black Panther Party, Cleaver, who also married the organization’s controversial minister of information Eldridge Cleaver (who brought her into the fold), came to national and international prominence during Newton’s high-profile court appearances surrounding allegations of killing a police officer in 1967.
She emerged as the first prominent female member of the Black Panther Party. And, in his latest PBS series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” which explores the last five decades of African-American history in this country, Henry Louis Gates speaks with Cleaver about the Panthers’ lasting impact. Even today, her passion for the work in which they engaged cannot be contained.
“It was a wonderful, an amazing coming together after 50 years of a movement that has in fact impacted the world,” she says via telephone about attending the Black Panther Party 50th Anniversary festivities in Oakland in late October. “Not just black people in the United States but the world,” she adds. “There are many groups in other countries that have modeled their resistance to the same type of racial or economic or ethnic exclusion such as the Maori in New Zealand.”
Cleaver, born in Memphis, Tenn., was introduced to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) while a student in New York and worked in its fundraising office there as a secretary before becoming a secretary in the Atlanta office. While helping to organize a conference, she met her future husband Eldridge Cleaver and moved from Atlanta to Oakland. Even though her history in the city is long, she insists that “I’m not really the person to comment much about Atlanta. It’s a very pleasant place to live and I enjoy living here.”
Teaching at Emory Law School has been particularly pleasant for the Yale Law School alum. “You work with people who are smart, who are young, who want to accomplish something. They have a lot of energy and you’re teaching them different aspects of the law,” she says.
Her experiences with the Panthers, particularly raising awareness around their co-founder Newton’s legal battles spearheaded by attorney Charles Garry, inspired her to go to law school. And many of those concerns influence her work to this day.
“The area I’ve been teaching in is legal history and areas of law and citizenship and law and race,” she explains. “This is an area that academically and politically that’s interesting to me so I get to teach about things that are interesting to me.”
She also finds today’s political landscape interesting in how it has and has not changed. “The United States is a very intriguing country in that it has a lot of flexibility. You can make a lot of changes and, guess what, things kind of end up in the same place. Maybe not the same way but the same place,” she says.
“The fundamental issues when we came into existence was the Vietnam War, racial domination and economic exploitation,” she explains, referring to the Black Panther Party. “So the only one not on the top of the list is the Vietnam War. We still have a lot of economic exploitation, a lot of racial domination, not necessarily in the same patterns, not necessarily to the same degree, but there is plenty of work to do to reach what folks used to call the Promised Land.”
Cleaver sees echoes of the past all around us. “We’re in a mode the puts Donald Trump in the role of George Wallace, Bernie Sanders in the role of McGovern and Hillary Clinton in the role of Richard Nixon,” Cleaver explains, citing an observation by a journalist whose name she cannot recall, just hours before Trump’s surprising election as president. “I find that very useful. So that shows some things change, some things haven’t.”
And, in the wake of it all, some would argue that Black Lives Matter is as high-profile today as the Black Panther Party was then. Yet Cleaver admits to not being intimately involved with that movement. "I'm an observer of Black Lives Matter," she explains. "I'm not a participant and I really don't have any close ties to make any comment other than what I read in the paper.
“What I will say is, when I first read about them, they said that they took their model from Ella Baker, who was a very wise and important figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is the organization that I was in in the late 1960s. So that’s a wise choice.
“That means that they’ve committed to social justice and nonviolence and they have some sort of structure that allows the members to form their own chapters and basically choose the path that they want.”
Fifty years later, she, like many others, remains curious as to why the government chose to attack the Panthers. “It’s not the only organization, but it’s the most attacked organization. Therefore it’s been one of the best known,” she says. “I think the government needs to answer for it. Why was it the most attacked? It was attacked because obviously the FBI and the federal government and many other state governments and police departments thought that this was not something that they wanted to deal with and they set out to destroy it.”
Still, there have been unexpected highlights in the journey from then to now. “We have had a black president in the White House for eight years, which is something most people couldn’t even have imagined, particularly black people, but it happened. And it has had its effect. Its effect culturally. It’s also had its effect politically,” she says.
Kathleen Cleaver - A Living Liberator
Kathleen Neal was born on May 13, 1945 in Memphis, Texas. With two parents who were college graduates, it wouldn’t be tough to see the important role that education and higher learning would go to play in her life and also the intellect that she would go on to display in her activism work.
Her father joined the Foreign Service and the family would spend the next several years in India, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. These experiences abroad in countries populated mainly by people of color, especially such diverse ethnic groups would forever shape her demeanor and outlook. In the early 60’s, Kathleen Neal returned to the United States to go to high school. Initially she enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, and then transferred to Barnard College in New York City.
In 1966, Neal’s heavier interest in activism saw her drop out of Barnard and concentrate her involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. One of her first tasks was to organize a black student conference to take place at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. At this conference is where she would meet the then Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Eldridge Cleaver. Kathleen would go on to say her and Eldridge were a “meeting of the spirit, she was becoming a revolutionary and was very impressed with his statesmenlike quality.”
carrying the name Kathleen Cleaver, she decided to leave SNCC and join her husband in San Francisco to work for the Black Panther Party.
Cleaver would become the first woman included in the Party’s central committee. Engaged as the Communications Secretary, Cleaver’s role was to write and give speeches nationwide, and also be the media spokesperson for the organization.
Kathleen returned to college receiving a full scholarship to Yale University in New Haven, CT where she would enroll in August 1981. She would graduate in 1983, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts in History.
In 1987, Kathleen Cleaver divorced Eldridge, while in law school. She would graduate from Yale Law School in 1988 joining the New York City law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore shortly thereafter before accepting a position as a law clerk for the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in 1991. Then in 1992, Cleaver joined the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches the law.
Witness to History : The time was the ‘60s. The nation was in tumult. Kathleen Neal Cleaver--diplomat’s daughter, civil rights organizer, housewife, attorney . . . revolutionary--recalls her years with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers.
Friends warned her about the hazards of walking alone in the pedestrian tunnels that connect the New York subway. It’s dangerous down there, they said, forgetting--if they ever knew--that for years, Kathleen Cleaver lived with threats on her life “the fact,” she once remarked offhandedly, “that you might be killed any minute.”
Still, it came as a rude shock when a young punk--a kid no older than her son, Maceo--put a gun to her temple. Cash , he hissed. Give it to me. And that ring. The money, she handed over willingly. The ring, she paused over. As a girl her father had placed it on her right hand. When she married, her husband slipped it on her left.
Her assailant cocked his weapon. She gave him the ring. She parted, at that moment, with her only tangible link to the two most influential men in her life. But later, as she mulled over the significance of the loss, she realized she had gained the opening to the memoir she had been struggling with--trying and trying to write--for more than a decade.
Here at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, where she is spending the year writing full time, Kathleen Neal Cleaver tells this story as one chapter in a life of extraordinary witness. Diplomat’s daughter, civil rights organizer, full-time revolutionary, suburban housewife, single mother, part-time cleaning lady, high-priced attorney, professor of law: Fifty years old last month, she has simmered in the caldron of contemporary history. Her book, “Memories of Love and War” (under contract to W.W. Norton & Co.), will cover the years from 1954 to 1984 from Brown vs. the Board of Education to her own education, a summa cum laude diploma from Yale and a juris doctorate from Yale law school.
“I’d say in the time frame I’m covering, the United States was going through a transformation the level of which had not gone on since the Civil War,” she said. “And it was tied to the Civil War, all the unresolved issues.”
Until now, the autobiography has remained uncompleted because Cleaver was enmeshed in what she calls “the tyranny of the everyday,” ordinary events that swallow every breathing moment. There were two kids to raise, Maceo--now 25 and researching the effect of stress and the environment on African American youth in Atlanta--and Joju, a 24-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who hopes to become an actress. When the children were still in elementary school, Cleaver left her husband, the celebrated militant Eldridge Cleaver, and headed East to resume her education. Having left Barnard College in 1965 to work for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she entered Yale as “an older” student--that is, older than 30.
Among the jobs she held to finance her schooling was one cleaning houses. That shows up on her three-page resume, along with her current position as assistant professor of law at Atlanta’s Emory University and two years as an associate at the kid-gloved Manhattan law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Her job as communications secretary for the Black Panthers in Oakland does not.
The organization was young then, founded in 1966 to combat what its members believed was a pattern of police violence against the African American community.
When the Panthers traveled en masse, their very presence made a statement, remembers DugaldStermer, the former art director of Ramparts magazine. He recalled Kathleen Cleaver as a formidable figure who “didn’t want anyone accusing her of being nobility.”
She adopted “a more-radical-than-thou kind of personality,” said Stermer, who is on the board of directors of the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. “She was saying ‘right on’ a few more times than she had to.”
Pictures from that era show Cleaver with a giant black Afro and an expression of intense determination. Today her hair is a mass of golden brown braids, Pre-Raphaelite style.
It was in 1967 that she met Eldridge Cleaver. He was handsome and he was charismatic. “The other thing was that he was so smart,” his former wife recalled. The fact that he was also on parole from Soledad Prison was not a concern.
Cleaver had spent part of her childhood in India, where her father was in the Foreign Service. “Nehru had written a book in jail. To be with people who had been in jail had no stigma to me.”
Besides, she thought of Eldridge as a writer not an ex-con. “Soul on Ice” had just been published, and he was working for Ramparts, the now-defunct journal of 1960s leftist politics.
They married nine months after they met. Four months after their wedding, her husband was arrested following a shootout involving some Black Panthers and the Oakland Police. Initially he was released, but when he was ordered to return to court, he left the country. His wife followed on what turned into a six-year sojourn in Algeria, Cuba and France.
It was a political whirlwind that saw the Cleavers expelled from the Panthers in 1971.
“By the time I’m 22, I’m married,” she said. “By the time I’m 24, I’m in Algeria and pregnant. By the time I’m 25, I have two kids. And I’m tired.”
While working for a photojournalism agency in Paris in 1974, Cleaver began outlining a book about their four years in Algeria, “an experience so bizarre that the only way I knew how to make sense out of it was to write about it.” But the story was complicated, and the complexities continued to confound her as she endeavored to put pen to paper.
Four drafts--and 20 years--later, Cleaver is still into a book she now intends to complete by next year. Starling Lawrence, Cleaver’s editor at W.W. Norton, remains convinced that Cleaver’s “unique, to say the least, perspective” will be an asset in recounting this period.
“Here is someone who was involved in some of the great issues of our time, up to her eyeballs,” Lawrence said.
The recent film “Panther” reflects another dimension of public fascination with the topic. Directed by Mario van Peebles, the movie is based on a novel by his father, Melvin, and bills itself as a story, not a documentary. Still, some critics charged that the movie painted an excessively rosy image of the Panthers as urban do-gooders, running such programs as free breakfasts for schoolchildren.
But Cleaver, who had no role in making the film, views the movie as not unlike a Western--not entirely historically accurate, but “just a movie, after all.”
By contrast, Cleaver’s book envelopes actual events and individuals. And in so doing, Cleaver said, she is attempting to record the black power movement as it took its place alongside the anti-war movement and the women’s movement.
Cleaver viewed herself as “a revolutionary,” a role that was a logical progression, she said, of her involvement in the civil rights movement. Her work in the rural South was not so different from what the Panthers were up to in the Bay Area, she said. “They weren’t talking about some abstract notion of justice, but dealing with the welfare of masses of black people,” she explained.
While Cleaver has been known to liken the Panthers to Minute Men, a group of armed citizens defending their community, the fact is that shootouts between the police and the Panthers were not uncommon. Cleaver insists that the Panthers were not advocates of violence.
Still, metaphorically and literally, “blood on the ground” was among the legacies of the Panther period, Cleaver said, which makes her switch to the legal aristocracy somewhat puzzling. Far from practicing poverty law, Cleaver went straight to one of this country’s most prestigious groups of attorneys, a firm described by one of Cleaver’s acquaintances as “the white Panthers.”
Cleaver dismisses such notions. “They are very smart people,” she said of her former legal colleagues. The pay was good, and she had two children and “a lot of legal education bills” to pay off.
But Cleaver has by no means disassociated herself from her previous life. She remains involved, for example, in an ongoing effort to free imprisoned former Panther leader Elmer (Geronimo) Pratt, who is serving a life sentence in California for a 1968 robbery and murder.
In 1987, she got divorced. By that time the procedure was a formality, ending what had become an unhappy, abusive union. “It wasn’t the divorce that was acrimonious,” she said. “It was the marriage.”
Cleaver said her children are in touch with their father, who lives in Berkeley, but she has no contact with her ex-husband. Today she keeps company with a New York filmmaker, St. Clair Bourne.
Cleaver hopes her book will rekindle interest in what she sees as the positive pillars of the old Panther philosophy: “conviction, determination, commitment.”
In the Sturm und Drang of the 1960s, Cleaver said, “everybody was talking. You couldn’t shut them up. There was all this commentary, but there was also a resonance.”
Then again, she pointed out, “If you know someone is listening, you’ll say something.”
Cleaver balked at the image of herself as a prism through which some of this history might be filtered. “I don’t know if that’s the right word,” she said, pausing to search for another description. Finally, she said, “I’m a witness.” Her face lit into a smile. “And I have a big mouth.”