Kathleen Cleaver

Kathleen Cleaver

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Kathleen Neal Cleaver, interviewed in Spring 1997.

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.

(2) Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Memories of Love and War (1999)

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.

(3) Kathleen Neal Cleaver, interviewed in Spring 1997.

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.