Cleaver, Kathleen Neal 1945–
Kathleen Neal Cleaver 1945–
Lawyer, professor, former Black Panther
To many, Kathleen Cleaver is best known for marriage to Black Panther leader and Soul on Ice author Eldridge Cleaver. Since the couple’s divorce in 1987, however, she has staked out a reputation all her own as a law professor and expert in African-American history. By transforming herself from expatriate revolutionary to respected scholar, Cleaver has brought her unique perspective on critical issues of race, gender and class to a wider audience than was previously possible, while maintaining her commitment to social and economic justice.
Kathleen Neal was born on May 13, 1945 in Dallas, Texas, the oldest child of Ernest and Juette (Johnson) Neal. Unlike many of her future fellow revolutionaries, she did not grow up in poverty. Her father was a professor of sociology at Wiley College, and her mother held an advanced degree in mathematics. Soon after Cleaver was born, her father accepted a job at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he served as director of the Rural Life Council, teaching sociology and planning community development projects. Cleaver was raised in a somewhat-sheltered, segregated, middle-class black community. After six years at Tuskegee, Ernest Neal joined the Foreign Service, and the Neal family spent the next several years in such exotic locations as India, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Philippines. Cleaver would be forever changed by her childhood experiences abroad in countries populated mainly by people of color.
Cleaver returned, minus her parents, stateside as a teen to attend high school. She graduated in 1963 from the George School, a Quaker boarding school located near Philadelphia. Cleaver then enrolled in Ohio’s Oberlin College, eventually transferring to Barnard College. By this time her interest in activism was greater than her interest in coursework. In 1966 she dropped out of college to concentrate on her involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), taking a job in that organization’s New York office. The following January, Cleaver was transferred to SNCC’s Atlanta office to serve as secretary of the Committee’s Campus Program. One of her tasks for the program was to organize a black student conference to take place that spring at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was at this conference that she met Black Panther Party (BPP) Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, who had recently been released from Folsom State Prison.
At a Glance…
Born Kathleen Neal on May 13, 1945, in Dallas, TX; daughter of Ernest (a sociology professor) and Juette (Johnson) Neal; married Eldridge Cleaver, 1967 (divorced 1987); children: Maceo and Joju. Education: Oberlin College, attended, 1963; Barnard College, attended, 1965; Yale University, bachelor’s degree, 1983, law degree, 1989.
Career: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, campus program secretary, 1967; Black Panther Party (BPP), communications secretary, 1968, co-founded BPP international wing, 1970; co-founded Revolutionary People’s Communication Network, 1971; Cravath, Swaine & Moore, attorney, 1989-90; clerk for Judge A. Leon Higgmbotham in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District, 1991; Emory University, assistant professor of law, 1992-97; Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, visiting professor, 1997; Yale University History Department and African American Studies Program, visiting faculty, 1998; Sarah Lawrence College, Joanne Woodward Professor of Public Policy, 1999; Yale Law School, senior research associate, 2000-; International Black Panther Film Festival, executive producer, 2001.
Addresses: Office —123 Leetes Island Rd., Guilford, CT 06437.
The BPP Minister’s fiery rhetoric and the Panther’s more radical approach to issues of race and class appealed to Cleaver. Apparently, Eldridge Cleaver appealed to her as an individual as well. The pair married on December 27, 1967, over the objections of her parents. “It was a meeting of the spirit,” she told People Weekly. “I was becoming a revolutionary and I was impressed by his statesmanlike quality.”
Cleaver left SNCC and joined her husband in San Francisco to go to work for the Black Panthers. In an organization dominated by men, Cleaver became the first woman included in the Party’s central committee, its highest decision-making body. As communications secretary, her role was to write and make speeches nationwide and serve as media spokesperson. She was one of the chief organizers of the campaign to free jailed Panther Minister of Defense Huey Newton in 1968. She also undertook a campaign of her own that year, running unsuccessfully for California State Assembly on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
1968 was also the year in which tensions between San Francisco police and the Black Panthers escalated into frequent violent conflict. In January, police raided the Cleavers’ apartment on the basis of an alleged tip about a weapons cache they were said to be housing. On April 6th, Eldridge Cleaver was injured in a shootout with police that also left one Panther dead and two officers wounded. Charged with violating parole in the aftermath of the incident, Eldridge fled the country, spending seven months in Cuba before crossing the ocean and settling in Algeria in 1969. Pregnant with their first child, Kathleen Cleaver joined her husband in Algeria in July of that year, where she soon gave birth to their first child, Maceo, named after the Cuban general Antonio Maceo. The Cleavers’ second child, daughter Jojuyounghi (Joju), was born in North Korea the following year.
Meanwhile, the Cleavers had made Algeria the base of their newly founded international wing of the Black Panther Party. In 1971 a spat between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton resulted in the Cleavers’ international branch’s expulsion from the Party. Following the split, the Cleavers and their allies formed a new organization, the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network, with Kathleen Cleaver again functioning as the public face of the group in its contacts with the press and the public. During their exile, the Cleavers gradually began to sour on the Marxist philosophy they had promoted as Panthers. Unable to remain in Algeria, they resettled in Paris in 1973. By this time, the fugitive Eldridge Cleaver had set in motion the process that would enable his eventual return to the United States.
In 1975 the Cleavers moved back to America, where Eldridge turned himself in to authorities and set about arranging a plea agreement that emphasized community service. The next few years were spent in California tying up the loose ends of his legal entanglements. During this period, Eldridge underwent a political transformation that saw him become increasingly conservative. He also became very religious, first as a Christian and then later as an adherent to the Mormon faith. In 1981 Kathleen moved, along with both children, across country to go back to college. She enrolled at Yale, graduating with honors in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in history. The Cleavers divorced in 1987.
Two years later, Kathleen graduated from Yale Law School, after which she joined the prestigious New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. In 1991 she moved to Philadelphia to clerk for Judge A. Leon Higginbotham in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District. She took her first academic job a year later, joining the law faculty of Emory University in Atlanta. While at Emory, Cleaver served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts.
During the second half of the 1990s she took on several short-term appointments. She was a visiting professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York in 1997. In 1998 she received a Wallenberg fellowship in Human Rights at the Center for Historical Analysis at Rutgers University, and was also a visiting faculty member in Yale University’s History Department and African American Studies Program. She was the Joanne Woodward Professor of Public Policy at Sarah Lawrence College during 1999, and that year she was also a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, where she worked toward the completion of her yet-to-be-published memoir, Memories of Love and War.
The projects continued to come along in rapid succession in the early part of the 21st century. In January of 2001 Cleaver hosted “The Heritage: The Panther Perspective” on the BET Movies cable channel. She also served as executive producer of the International Black Panther Film Festival in Harlem that year, and was employed as a senior research associate at Yale Law School.
This combination of establishment and anti-establishment activities would have been unthinkable thirty years earlier, when Cleaver’s career focused on radicalism. Although some of Cleaver’s politics and methods may have changed over the years, she has remained a steadfast defender of civil rights.
Essence, December 1999, p. 111.
New York Times, June 17, 2000, P. B9.
New York Times Magazine, January 31, 1993, p. 22.
People Weekly, March 22, 1982, p. 82.
PRNewswire, January 15, 2001.
Yale Daily News, February 22, 1995.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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