By Tilesha Brown, Special to the AFRO
Kathleen Neal started out as a painter, but by the time she graduated high school, she was on an entirely different path. She would enroll in Oberlin College in Ohio her freshman year, then Barnard College in New York before dropping out completely and joining the renowned Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at its headquarters in Atlanta. In April of 1967, at a SNCC student conference on the campus of Fisk University, her life took a dramatic turn.
That was when she met Eldridge Cleaver, the only speaker that had made it to this particular conference in the middle of a North Eastern snow storm that spring. As it turned out, Cleaver was an author, a freshly released prisoner, a member of the Black Panther Party, and Kathleen’s future husband.
Senior Lecturer, Kathleen N. Cleaver, Emory University. (Courtesy Photo)
“For him, it was a love at first sight kind of thing,” Kathleen says, “And I didn’t believe in that so it took him longer to get my attention.”
But it didn’t take too long, because within months, after letters, phone calls and plane trips to California, she’d packed up her things to go and live with him for good. They were engaged in November of 1967 and wed the next month at a drive-in wedding chapel in a small town called Alta Dena, near Los Angeles.
Both then dug deep into the inner workings of the Black Panther Party as it unfolded right in the middle of their living room. The Black Panther Party was a brand new organization at the time, and according to Cleaver, even though it kind of came out of nowhere, everyone was excited to be there.
“I couldn’t help but become apart of it,” Kathleen says, “Eldridge and all of his friends were all really involved and I was right there in the middle of it all.”
She became the Communications Secretary for the organization right away. And she was one of the primary people responsible for the rapid expansion of the movement across the country.
“Communication was key,” she recalls, “I would type out press releases for demonstrations and send announcements to the radio and all the press to let people know what was going on and how they could help.”
She also helped circulate petitions at rallies and demonstrations to get candidates on the ballot from what they called the Peace and Freedom Party. They’d worked to get the tens of thousands of signatures to make it a legitimate party on the California ballot by themselves. Then, she even ended up running alongside Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge for official offices in the state. What that did was give them a lot more resources to get sound trucks and radio spots. They were building up a momentum around the whole movement and getting a lot of publicity.
But while they were entrenched in the work of moving the needle in the fight for civil rights, they slowly became the center of police investigations. They were under constant surveillance— tracked everywhere they went. And in 1968, her husband Eldridge was involved in a shootout with Oakland police, where two officers were injured and fellow Black Panther, Bobby Hutton, was killed.
Eldridge was released on $50,000 bail because of a fluke in the court case where the state did not send an attorney to represent themselves in the case. When it came time for him to surrender later that year, Kathleen stood in their old-style victorian house as people flocked to protest for Eldridge’s freedom.
“People were outside, inside, all over,” she says, “But Eldridge disappeared.”
The next thing she heard was that he was on a plane to Havana, fleeing for his life.
They became a couple on the run. First, Cleaver flew to France and then to Algeria to meet Eldridge. Then it was on to Paris for a number of years and back to the United States in late 1976 when Eldridge finally negotiated his return to the United States. The entire time Cleaver was still working as a public figure for the first ever Pan-African Cultural Festival and the Organization of African Unity.
Kathleen bore two children while abroad before returning to the United States in 1976, after Eldridge’s surrender. But over the course of the next decade, she would divorce him and start an entirely new journey. She returned to school and finished her Bachelor’s degree before enrolling in Yale’s Law School, with the intention of becoming a criminal defense attorney.
“I wanted to learn how to get people out of prison,” she says.
And she did help. Although she changed her mind about becoming a criminal defense lawyer after seeing them in action in court rooms in different parts of the country, she did work to mobilize political support for death row inmates. People like Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist convicted for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer and Geronimo Pratt, who was freed in 1997.
Now, at 72 years-old, she is a senior lecturer, teaching Legal History at Emory University School of Law. In addition, she is working on a memoir that spans the years of her life between dropping out of college and when her husband surrendered to California police in 1976. The working title: “Memories of Love and War.”
According to Kathleen, these were the more adventuresome parts of her life and if she’s going to write a book, she says, she wants it to teach people something they could never have known anything about.
According to Cleaver, this generation’s movement doesn’t compare to the time when she was working as a Black Panther because back then, there was a war going on and it was such a tumultuous time.
“It was the era of the Vietnam war and the images we had of warfare, children fighting, the whole concept of liberation and African American independence…that formulated how we thought.”
Kathleen says she has a lot to say, and when her 14 grandchildren grow up and read this book, they’ll know exactly what she and the rest of the party were up against and how they fought for justice so they could live in a better world.
For right now, she’s not too caught up in the accolades or the praise. When asked how she feels about being considered one of the top Black women to know in American history, she says she never really planned for it to be this way.
“It was never a particular goal of mine,” she says, “I grew up in a lot of different places and I’ve seen a lot of different things. And when this book is finished, we’ll see if it leads into another phase of life for me. That’s just how it goes.”
No matter what’s in store for the future, though, Kathleen Cleaver’s legacy as a Black Panther and advocate for social justice is one that could serve as a revolutionary and transformative for Black Americans and women everywhere.