Kathleen Cleaver was born as Kathleen Neal on May 13, 1945 in Dallas, Texas. Her mother held an advanced degree in mathematics, and her father, Ernest Neal, was a sociology professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The Neal family moved to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1948. After graduating in 1963 from a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia, Kathleen briefly attended Oberlin College. She then transferred to Barnard College but dropped out in 1966 to take a job in the New York office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following year, she became a secretary for SNCC’s Atlanta-based Campus Program.
In March 1967, while organizing an April student conference slated for Fisk University, Kathleen met Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party‘s (BPP) Minister of Information. Eight months later she moved to San Francisco to join BPP, and she married Mr. Cleaver on December 27, 1967. “I was becoming a revolutionary and I was impressed by his statesmanlike quality,” Kathleen recalls. As the first female member of BPP’s Central Committee, Ms. Cleaver went on to serve as the organization’s Communications Secretary until 1971. Also during her tenure with the Party, she organized a national campaign to free its incarcerated Minister of Defense, Huey Newton.
Kathleen Cleaver has described BPP as a righteous resistance group that was framed by the FBI for crimes it did not commit, and as a “liberation movement” that resorted to violence only when absolutely necessary for purposes of “self-defense.” “The only way you can reach a conclusion that the Party was violent is [if you believe] that blacks are not entitled to defend themselves,” she says. Recalling her days with BPP, Cleaver once said: “The Black Panther Party believed [that] the liberation of blacks from racist exploitation and capitalist exploitation required a social revolution to transform the economic and political institutions of the U.S.”
In 1968 Ms. Cleaver waged an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the California State Assembly, running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
After Eldridge Cleaver led an armed 1968 ambush of Oakland police officers and was charged with attempted murder, he jumped bail and fled to Cuba for seven months. The following year he moved on to Algeria, where he and his wife reunited (in July 1969) and set up an international BPP office. In July of ’69 as well, Kathleen gave birth to her first child, Maceo, named after the nineteenth-century Cuban general Antonio Maceo.
In 1970, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver joined future Black Panther leader Elaine Brown and a number of other leftist radicals in attending the World Conference of Anti-Imperialist Journalists, an eight-day affair held in Communist North Korea. Representatives of the Communist societies of North Vietnam and China were also present at this event, where attendees uniformly extolled North Korea as an earthly paradise. That same year, Kathleen Cleaver gave birth to a daughter while she and her husband were staying in North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang.
The Cleavers were expelled from BPP in 1971 as a result of a conflict between Huey Newton, who called for an end to the group’s use of armed violence, and Eldridge Cleaver, who advocated urban guerrilla warfare. At that point, the Cleavers (still in Algeria) formed a new, short-lived organization called the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. They subsequently lived in Paris from 1973 until late ’75, at which time they returned to the United States. When Eldridge Cleaver was tried for his 1968 shootout with police and was convicted of assault, Kathleen Cleaver organized a Defense Fund for her husband.
Kathleen Cleaver eventually returned to school and earned a BA in history from Yale College in 1984, as well as a JD from Yale Law School in 1989 (two years after her divorce from Eldridge). Her motivation for becoming an attorney, she says, was to “help all the prisoners who were arrested and unfairly tried and put in jail by the government.”
After completing her education, Cleaver spent two years as an associate with the Manhattan law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, and later clerked for Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. She also taught variously at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the Graduate School of Yale University, and Sarah Lawrence College. In 1992 Cleaver joined the faculty of Emory University Law School, where she continues to serve as a Senior Lecturer. At Emory, she has taught courses in pre-trial litigation, professional ethics, torts, legal history, and U.S. law regarding citizenship and race.
In 1993 Cleaver served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts, and she became a board member of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
In June 1998 she participated in the Black Radical Congress‘s first national assembly in Chicago.
Since 2000, Cleaver has co-directed the Atlanta-based Human Rights Research Fund, which, according to her Emory University profile, seeks to “challenge the racist and military policies within the United States.”
Post-9/11, Cleaver condemned the Patriot Act as an assault on the civil liberties of Americans. She accused the U.S. government of “using the whipping boy of terrorism the way they [previously] used the whipping boy of communism to get their own sordid little corporate war programs in place.”
In January 2002, Cleaver endorsed the creation of a national anti-Iraq War newspaper, War Times, by a group of San Francisco leftists affiliated with STORM and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Fellow endorsers included Phyllis Bennis, Paul Buhle, Noam Chomsky, Winona LaDuke, Barbara Lubin, Frances Fox Piven, Tim Wise, and Howard Zinn.
In a wide-ranging 2002 interview, Cleaver made the following noteworthy statements regarding race, property rights, and capitalism:
One evening in March 2004, Cleaver took part in a special screening of a promotional documentary about the terrorist Weather Underground Organization (WUO). She joined former WUO member Laura Whitehorn in a panel discussion that portrayed the ’60s terrorists as idealistic youths who had courageously spoken out against the Vietnam War and racism in America.
Asked in a 2004 interview whether she saw similarities between America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Cleaver lamented that the terrorist insurgents in Iraq were not making greater efforts to reach out to antiwar radicals in the U.S.: “I wish there were, in the sense that the Vietnamese made a very conscientious effort in their foreign and military policies to include Americans opposed to the government…. [T]hey were able to engage, discuss, and talk with American citizens and the antiwar movement. I don’t see that type of communication happening in the case of Iraq.”
In 2008 Cleaver signed a statement circulated by the Partisan Defense Committee, an organization calling for the release of the former Black Panther and incarcerated cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Cleaver also tried to help win the freedom of the late Geronimo Pratt, another incarcerated former Panther, who murdered a Los Angeles schoolteacher in 1968.
Continuing to harbor hopes for the societal revolution she sought to foment during her days with BPP, Cleaver once said to an interviewer: “Have I changed my views on how society needs to be changed? No. It needs fundamental root-and-branch improvement, not plastering over.” By Cleaver’s telling, “racist and white supremacist and exploitative practices are engrained” in American society and government, and the “inability to treat Black people in a humane fashion” has “become part of the identity of the United States.” Elaborating on this theme, Cleaver says: “White supremacy is a function of the colonial or imperial domination of peoples of color. When you use these Europeans as the rulers of Indians and Africans in creating a society based on a plantation system of slavery, in which the majority of the workers are black or brown, and all the owners are completely white and European and speaking a different language, then the core of the development of a society is white supremacy.”
For additional information on Kathleen Cleaver, click here.
Further Reading: “Kathleen Cleaver” (Emory Law School, Keywiki.org, Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia of African American History – Volume 1, New World Encyclopedia, BlackPast.org); “A Sit-Down with Kathleen Cleaver” (April 2002); “Witness to History: [Kathleen Cleaver] Recalls Her Years with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers” (Los Angeles Times, 6-19-1995); The Professors (David Horowitz, Regnery Publishing, 1996, pp. 89-91).