Kathleen Cleaver, 1945

  • Kathleen-Cleaver-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, and Politics & LeadersWoman Tags: Abolitionist and African-American Women

  • HerStory

    Civil rights activist, a law professor, and an African-American history expert. One of the most significant women in the Black Panther Party.

    Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas, to well-educated and civil rights activists’ parents. When she was 9 years old, they moved to live abroad following her father’s job. Living in third world countries as Liberia, India, and Sierra Leone opened her up to different beliefs and ideologies. When her brother died of leukemia, she returned to the US to complete her education in a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. After graduating high school with honors, she studied at Oberlin College and then transferred to Barnard College, where she got more involved in civil rights movements. When her childhood friend got murdered by white supremacists, she moved to NYC to work at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
    A year later, when she is 22, she met Eldridge Cleaver – the minister of information for the Black Panther Party. Not long after, she moved to San Francisco, and they got married. She served as the Communications Secretary for the party, holding press conferences, organizing rallies, and delivering speeches all over the country. She became the first female member to participate in the decision-making meetings, and as such, she had a huge impact on the progressive way that gender was approached at the party. She also helped party members, especially women, with their problems, from food and medical care to prison visits and rehabilitation after been tortured and living underground. As one of the party’s leaders, she and her husband were often investigated by the police, and in 1968 their apartment was raided. Later that year, her husband escaped to Cuba after being accused of attempted murder for staging ambush on police officers, in which two police officers were injured. She reunited with her husband in Algeria, where she gave birth to their first son, and in the following year, while in North Korea, she gave birth to their daughter.
    In 1971 the International Branch of the Black Panther Party was separated, and the couple founded a new organization – Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. Cleaver returned to NYC with her children to promote the organization. After 12 years in exile, her husband came back to the US, straight to jail. Although he was released after two years, they broke up, and in 1981, 36 years old Cleaver went back to school with a full scholarship to Yale University. She graduated with honors with a BA in History, and she continued to study for a J.D. degree, in a mission to become a lawyer. Afterward, she worked at a law firm in NYC, then as a law clerk in the US Court of Appeals, as well as a lecturer in numerous academic institutions. Throughout the years, she published articles in various newspapers and magazines and contributed to many scholarly essays regarding civil rights and the feminist aspect of the movement.

    “Do you want to live on your knees or die on your feet?”

    “Do you want to live on your knees or die on your feet?”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In 1968 she ran for California’s 18th state assembly district and finished third in a four-candidate race.
    • She wrote a memoir called “Memories of Love and War,” describing her life as a central figure in the Black Panther movement.
    • In the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were files with records about her. She used them to retrieve some facts for her book.
    • Over two-thirds of the Black Panther members were women.
    • She decided to become a lawyer after watching the Watergate Hearing in the early 1970s.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books she wrote

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  • Civil Rights History Project: Kathleen Cleaver

    Kathleen Cleaver oral history interview for the Civil Rights History Project conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Atlanta, Georgia, 2011-09-16.

  • Cleaver in 1971. Photo credit - Wikipedia