Cleaver speaking at Free U.S. Political Prisoners Spring Break Jericho March Rally on 27 March 1998
May 13, 1945
Kathleen Neal Cleaver (born May 13, 1945) is an American professor of law, known for her involvement with the Black Panther Party.
Kathleen Cleaver, née Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas on May 13, 1945. Her parents were both activists and college graduates of the University of Michigan. Her father was a sociology professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and her mother earned a master's degree in mathematics. Three years after Cleaver was born, her father, Ernest Neal, accepted a job as the director of the Rural Life Council of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and they moved to a predominately black community beside the campus. Six years later, Ernest joined the Foreign Service. The family moved abroad and lived in such countries as India, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines. Spending time in India exposed Kathleen to different beliefs, including socialism, communism, and nationalism. The family returned to the United States after her brother died from leukemia and the family broke apart. Cleaver attended a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia, George School, which had just been desegregated. She graduated with honors in 1963. She continued her education at Oberlin College, and later transferred to Barnard College. In 1966, she left college for a secretarial job with the New York office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after her friend from childhood, Sammy Younge, had been murdered by white supremacists. The shift of the movement was characterized by the change from "Freedom Now" to "Black Power." Cleaver had been trying to get involved with the movement since she was sixteen. Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash, and Ruby Doris Robinson are among the Civil Rights fighters that inspired her to be involved in change and question the role of gender.
Cleaver was in charge of organizing a student conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. At the conference, Cleaver met the minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver, who was speaking at the conference. He had just gotten out of jail and published Soul on Ice. She moved to San Francisco in November 1967 to join the Black Panther Party. There she became the Communications Secretary for the party and worked on organizing demonstrations, creating pamphlets, holding press conferences, designing posters, and speaking at rallies and on TV. She created the position herself, motivated by Julian Bond in SNCC. The party was revolutionary in the way that gender was approached; over two thirds of the members were women. Kathleen Neal and Eldridge Cleaver were married on December 26, 1967. Cleaver became the communications secretary and the first female member of the Party’s decision-making body. She also served as the spokesperson and press secretary. Notably, she organized the national campaign to free the Party’s minister of defense, Huey Newton, who was jailed. Kathleen Neal Cleaver was among a small group of women that were prominent in the Black Panther Party, which included Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins.
In 1968 (the same year her husband ran for president on the Peace and Freedom ticket) she ran for California's 18th state assembly district, also as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom party. Cleaver received 2,778 votes for 4.7% of the total vote, finishing third in a four-candidate race.
As a result of their involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Cleavers were often the target of police investigations. The Cleavers’ apartment was raided in 1968 before a Panther rally by the San Francisco Tactical Squad on the suspicion of hiding guns and ammunition. Later that year, Eldridge Cleaver staged a deliberate[dubious ] ambush of Oakland police officers during which two police officers were injured. Cleaver was wounded and fellow Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed in a shootout following the initial exchange of gunfire. Charged with attempted murder, he jumped bail to flee to Cuba and later went to Algeria.
When Cleaver returned to the United States, he stated the shootout was a deliberate ambush against police. The same author who broke the news of this claim doubted its veracity, because it was in the context of an uncharacteristic speech in which Cleaver stated "we need police as heroes," and said that he denounced civilian review boards of police shootings for the reason that "it is a rubber stamp for murder." The author speculates that it could have been a pay off to the Alameda County justice system, whose judge had only just days earlier gave Eldridge Cleaver probation instead of prison time; Cleaver was sentenced to community service after getting charged with three counts of assault against three Oakland cops. The PBS documentary A Huey Newton Story finds that “Bobby Hutton was shot more than twelve times after he had already surrendered and stripped down to his underwear to prove he was not armed.”
Kathleen reunited with Eldridge in Algeria in 1969, which was a police state at the time, after seven months of Eldridge's exile in Cuba. Cleaver gave birth to their first son, Maceo, soon after arriving in Algeria. A year later in 1970 she gave birth to their daughter Joju Younghi Cleaver, while the family was in North Korea. In 1971, Huey Newton, a fellow party member, and Eldridge had a disagreement; this led to the expulsion of the International Branch of the Black Panther Party. The Cleavers formed a new organization called the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. Cleaver returned to promoting and speaking about the new organization. To accomplish this, she and the children moved back to New York. The Algerian government became disgruntled with Eldridge and the new organization. Eldridge was forced to leave the country secretly and meet up with Kathleen in Paris in 1973. Cleaver left for the United States later that year to arrange Eldridge’s return and raise a defense fund. In 1974, the French government granted legal residency to the Cleavers, and the family was finally reunited. After only a year, the Cleavers moved back to the United States, and Eldridge was sent to jail. He was tried for the shoot-out in 1968 and was found guilty of assault. He was sentenced to five years' probation and 2,000 hours of community service. Cleaver went to work on the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund and he was freed on bail in 1976. Eldridge’s legal situation was not finally resolved until 1980. Throughout this time, Eldridge shifted his political views to the right.
After leaving Eldridge, Kathleen Cleaver went back to school in 1981, receiving a full scholarship from Yale University. She graduated in 1984, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. In 1987, she divorced Eldridge Cleaver. She then continued her education by getting her law degree from Yale Law School in 1989. After graduating, she worked for the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and followed this with numerous jobs including: law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia under Judge A. Higginbotham, the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, visiting faculty member at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, the Graduate School of Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College.
In 2005, Cleaver was selected an inaugural Fletcher Foundation Fellow. She then worked as a Senior Research Associate at the Yale Law School, and a Senior Lecturer in the African American Studies department at Yale University. She is currently serving as senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law. In addition to her career, she works on numerous campaigns, including freedom for death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and habeas corpus for Geronimo Pratt. Cleaver has also worked for many years on and published her book Memories of Love and War. She and other former members of the Black Panther Party continue to meet and discuss issues and heal from the movement.
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