- Senior Lecturer in Law at Emory University
- Former Communications Secretary for the Black Panther Party
- Former wife of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver
- Teaches that “racist and white supremacist and exploitative practices are engrained” in American society and government
Kathleen Neal Cleaver was born on May 13, 1945 in Dallas, Texas. She attended Barnard College but dropped out in 1966 to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she served as a secretary for its 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. (The couple would divorce twenty years later.) Kathleen Cleaver went on to serve as BPP’s communications secretary until 1971. During her tenure with the Party, she organized a national campaign to free its incarcerated minister of defense, Huey Newton.
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.
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 and set up an international BPP office.
In 1970, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver joined future 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. 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.
In 1993 Cleaver served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts, and became a board member of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Since 2000, Cleaver has co-directed the Atlanta-based Human Rights Research Fund, which, according to her Emory 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.
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 told 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.”
These ideas make up the substance of Cleaver’s Emory seminar on the laws of slavery and anti-slavery. They also figure in other courses she teaches, most prominently “American Legal History: Citizen and Race.”
For additional information on Kathleen Cleaver, click here.