Born on October 27, 1944 in Waxahachie, Texas, Emanuel Cleaver earned a BS in sociology from Prairie View A&M University in 1972, and a Master of Divinity degree from the Saint Paul School of Theology in 1974. He served as the senior pastor of Saint James United Methodist Church (in Kansas City, Missouri) from 1969-2005.
A lifelong Democrat, Cleaver sat on KC’s city council from 1979-91 and was the mayor of Kansas City from 1991-99. As mayor in 1991, he founded “Harmony in a World of Difference,” an anti-prejudice program based in KC. Cleaver has been a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005, representing Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District. He belongs to the Congressional Black Caucus (which he has chaired since January 2010) and was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus prior to 2015. In addition, he is a member of the Democratic National Committee, the NAACP, the National Conference of Black Mayors, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (whose Kansas City chapter he founded).
Cleaver is a cousin to former Black Panther Party leader Pete O’Neal, who jumped bail and fled the country after his 1969 conviction on a gun charge—and who thus would be subject to prison time if he were ever to return to the U.S. At the time of his conviction, O’Neal was a Marxist revolutionary who advocated an armed uprising against America’s white power structure and tried to provoke a bloody race war against the police. In the 1990s, Cleaver attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a pardon for O’Neal from President Bill Clinton.
On December 6, 2006—three days before the 25th anniversary of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner by former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal—Cleaver was one of 31 U.S. House Members (all Democrats) who voted against a resolution “condemning the decision of St. Denis, France, to name a street in honor of … Abu-Jamal.”
Subscribing to the theory that greenhouse gases emitted by human industrial activity are the primary causes of potentially catastrophic climate change, Cleaver in June 2007 said: “Global Warming may not yet be irreversible, but time is not on our side.”
In April 2009, Cleaver and six fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus—Marcia Fudge, Michael Honda, Barbara Lee, Laura Richardson, Bobby Rush, and Melvin Watt—visited Havana to meet with Cuban dictators Raul and Fidel Castro. The purpose of the meeting—which took place in a secret location and without the customary presence of a U.S. State Department official—was to discuss the possibility of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. Afterward, Cleaver said of Fidel Castro: “He’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met!” In May 2013, Cleaver was one of 59 House Representatives who signed a petition urging President Barack Obama to grant general licenses for all categories of travel from the U.S. to Cuba.
On March 20, 2010, Cleaver’s office put out a press release stating that an angry, white, anti-Obamacare demonstrator had spit upon Cleaver as the congressman walked past him on the steps of the Capitol. A video of the incident discredited this claim, however, showing that the man was merely shouting at the nearby Cleaver. The congressman himself subsequently referred to the purported spitter only as someone “who allowed saliva to hit my face” as he bellowed his opposition to the healthcare law.
In January 2012, Cleaver, addressing President Obama’s lack of success in lowering the black unemployment rate, said: “A white president, frankly, could be pushed a great deal more than we would push President Obama because nobody would accuse him or her [a white president] of having partiality toward African-Americans. So it’s a tough spot. It also means we still have a long way to go in terms of race relations in this country …”
In February 2012 Cleaver was named as a national co-chair of Obama For America, a pro-Obama re-election group that later evolved into Organizing For Action.
In April 2012 the Bank of America filed suit against Cleaver, seeking repayment of a $1.3 million loan (from 2002) that the congressman had repeatedly “failed and refused” to pay back; he had used the money to open a car-wash business which ultimately failed. The suit was settled in 2013. At that time, the car wash was sold for approximately $464,000, which in turn was applied toward lowering Cleaver’s massive debt on the loan.
A supporter of comprehensive immigration reform that would establish a path-to-citizenship for millions of illegal aliens currently residing in the United States, Cleaver aligns himself on this issue with fellow Progressive Caucus member Luis Gutierrez.
In April 2014, Cleaver condemned Republican Congressman Paul Ryan for having recently cited research by Bell Curve author (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) Charles Murray in his (Ryan’s) lamentation about “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Cleaver grossly mischaracterized Murray as a purveyor of “racist sewage” and “white supremacy” who believes that “a lot of poor people are born lazy.” Moreover, Cleaver derided Ryan as someone who “doesn’t know anything about people, African-American men or the Latino men, in the inner city.”
In early 2018, Cleaver was the subject of an ethics complaint stemming from his having paid more than $60,000 in taxpayer funds to Rao Abbas, an unqualified former McDonald’s employee, to handle and manage his digital data files for three years. Evidence showed that Abbas was a “ghost employee” who did not in fact work for Cleaver. The person actually in charge of Cleaver’s data files during that three-year period was Imran Awan, a Pakistani-American who was strongly suspected of being a foreign spy. For details about Awan, click here.
In early January 2021, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow Democratic Rep. James McGovern — in an effort to “honor all gender identities” — introduced a resolution that would require Members of Congress to reference a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, or in-law as “parent, child, sibling, spouse, or parent-in-law.” Against that backdrop, Cleaver, while delivering the opening prayer for the new session of Congress on January 4, 2020, ended the prayer with the phrase “amen and a-woman.” As conservative commentator Ben Shapiro later pointed out in a tweet: “’Amen’ is a Biblical Hebrew word: אמן. It is a word simply meaning ‘may it be so.’ It has nothing to do with the word ‘man’ or ‘woman’ because it is FROM HEBREW.”
For an overview of Cleaver’s voting record on a variety of key issues during his legislative career, click here.