Kathleen Neal Cleaver is an American civil rights activist and law professor. Cleaver has had an influential career in activism and was one of the most high-profile women in the revolutionary Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
Born in Texas in 1945, Neal’s father joined the American foreign service when she was young, so she spent much of her childhood between the United States and India, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. In a 2014 interview with the Library of Congress, Neal reflected that living in India, in particular, had an important impact on her, as she was able to see India move from a model of colonial rule to self-government at the same time as the civil rights movement was accelerating in America.
After returning to the United States in 1961 for high school, Neal was hugely inspired by the non-violent civil rights protests of students in Georgia – even making a presentation about the protests in an assembly to the overwhelmingly white student body. Neal had wanted to attend the March on Washington after graduating high school, but her parents forbid it, thinking it would turn violent.
Neal couldn’t settle at college, enrolling and then leaving her studies at both Oberlin and Barnard before fully throwing herself into the civil rights movement and going to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in New York City in 1966. Although Neal had been interested in the civil rights movement for a long time, Neal’s decision to join the SNCC was also prompted by the murder of her childhood friend and SNCC activist, Sammy Younge.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a political grassroots organisation which was formed in the 1960s after the success of nonviolent sit-ins in the southern states of America, harnessing the power of students and young people to affect change in America. Throughout the 1960s they led campaigns to register voters in Black and rural communities in the Deep South, campaigned to elect Black officials and raised the issues of African-Americans to national political debate.
While working for SNCC, in 1967, Neal helped organise ‘Liberation Will Come from a Black Thing,’ a conference at Fisk University. At the conference, Neal met writer Eldridge Cleaver, who had just been released from prison and was the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. The couple fell in love, and Neal moved to San Francisco to be with him – they were married the same year.
Founded in 1966, the Black Panther Party were a militant force in the civil rights movement, challenging police brutality and eventually expanding to have international membership. They also had a community focus, creating a free breakfasts for children programme, free medical clinics and lessons in self-defence.
The year Kathleen Cleaver moved to San Francisco, Huey Newton, one of the Black Panther’s leaders, was in jail, accused of killing a police officer following a shooting. Cleaver attended a meeting of the Black Panthers to discuss how to help Newton and suggested a demonstration outside the courthouse, taking it upon herself to manage the press to get publicity for Newton’s trial. From there on, Cleaver became the Communications Secretary for the party and organised demonstrations, press conferences and spoke on TV and at rallies, spreading the message of the Black Panther Party across the country.
Along with Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins, Cleaver became one of the most prominent and visible women in the Black Panther Party and the first woman to be appointed to the Black Panthers Central Committee.
Due to their involvement in the Black Panthers, the Cleavers were often targets for police intimidation. One such incident happened four months after their wedding, when Eldridge Cleaver was arrested and charged with attempted murder following a shooting in which fellow Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed. Following this, in 1968, Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria to avoid prison, where Kathleen Cleaver joined him a year later. In 1975, after 12 years in exile, and the Black Panthers now dormant, the Cleavers returned to the United States with their son and daughter.
In 1981, Cleaver left her husband (the couple divorced in 1987) and accepted a place at Yale University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in history. She went on to earn her law degree at Yale Law School.
Graduating with the highest honours, Cleaver went on to work for distinguished African-American federal court judge A. Leon Hinninbotham and teach law at several universities. Cleaver currently teaches law at Emory University in Atlanta.
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