Thursday, March 29, 2007

Women's History Month: A Profile of Kathleen Cleaver--Educator, Writer, Lawyer and Activist

Kathleen Neal Cleaver

(1945-) Educator, writer, lawyer, activist

Although Kathleen Neal Cleaver first came to the attention of the public because of her relationship with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther Party, she has many accomplishments outside of her relationship with Cleaver for which she is well known. She is widely viewed as a gifted lawyer and educator who speaks out ardently against racism. She is greatly in demand as a lecturer and has published numerous articles in newspapers and magazines.

Born on May 13, 1945, in Dallas, Texas, Cleaver was the first child of Ernest Neal and Juette Johnson Neal. Her father was at that time a sociology professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Her mother held a master's degree in mathematics. Shortly after Cleaver's birth, Ernest Neal accepted a position as director of the Rural Life Council of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. After six years teaching sociology and designing community development projects, Ernest Neal joined the Foreign Service and moved the family abroad. The Neals would spend the next years in such locations as India, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines.

While her parents remained in West Africa, Cleaver returned to the United States and enrolled in the George School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There she completed high school in 1963, graduating with honors. Cleaver began her college education at Oberlin College in Ohio and later transferred to prestigious Barnard College in New York. In 1966, she left college to work in the New York office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Cleaver's January 1967 arrival at SNCC's Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters set off a series of life-altering events. As secretary of SNCC's campus program, she assisted in organizing a black student conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the attendees at the March conference was the minister of information for the Black Panther Party (the Party), Eldridge Cleaver.

Eldridge Cleaver's intense oratory about black nationalism and revolution captivated Kathleen Neal Cleaver. Attracted by the Party's more radical approach to social change, she left SNCC and joined the Black Panther Party and Eldridge Cleaver in San Francisco in November 1967. The couple was married on December 27, 1967.

Speaks for Black Panther Party

Kathleen Neal Cleaver's impact on the Party was immediate. As the national communications secretary she became the first female member of the Party's decision-making body, the Central Committee. In that role, she served as the Party's spokesperson and press secretary, delivering speeches across the country. In 1968, she organized the national campaign to free the Party's jailed minister of defense, Huey Newton. In that same year she ran unsuccessfully for the California state assembly on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom party.

The Black Panther Party also impacted Kathleen Neal Cleaver's private life. On January 16, 1968, the eve of a scheduled Panther rally, the Cleavers' apartment was raided by the San Francisco Tactical Squad, who claimed to have been informed about a cache of guns and ammunition. On April 6 of that year, Eldridge Cleaver was wounded in a "shoot-out" between several Panthers and the San Francisco police; only one of the Panthers was armed.

As a result of the confrontation, Eldridge Cleaver was charged with parole violationsóhe had been on parole since November 1966 for a 1958 conviction for assault with intent to killóand scheduled to report to the parole board to be returned to prison on November 27, 1968.

Unwilling to face another term of incarceration, Cleaver left the country on November 26, leaving his wife behind, and arrived by a rather circuitous route in Cuba on Christmas day, 1968.

Eldridge Cleaver lived under guard in Havana, Cuba, for seven months waiting for Cuban authorities to fulfill promises to bring over his wife and other members of the Party. By summer 1969, a mutual distrust had developed between the Cubans and Cleaver.

Additionally, the press had discovered his whereabouts and sought interviews. The combined situations served as a catalyst for the Cubans to request that Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver meet elsewhere.

The Cleavers were reunited in Algiers, Algeria, in July 1969. Their son, Maceo, named for the black Cuban general Antonio Maceo, was born on July 29. One year later, Kathleen gave birth to their second child, Jojuyounghi (Korean for young heroine), while the couple and other members of the Party were in North Korea.

After a disagreement between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver during a live talk show on February 26, 1971 (Cleaver spoke long distance from Algiers), the International Branch of the Black Panther Party was expelled from the Party. The Cleavers and the former international members formed the Revolutionary People's Communication Network (the Network). Kathleen Neal Cleaver was again called on to use her public relations talents to promote the organization.

In the fall of 1971, Kathleen Neal Cleaver and the children returned to the United States to set up a headquarters for the new organization in New York. With the children in the care of her mother, she traveled the country explaining the position of the Network. She returned to Algiers in the spring of 1972.

The government of Algeria was becoming increasingly unhappy with Eldridge Cleaver and the Party remnant. Eldridge Cleaver had become disillusioned with the government's decision to give back money obtained by hijackers and with the move to align more closely with the United States. As relations cooled and financial support from the Algerian government, other countries, and individuals ceased, the group sought another location. Without a valid passport, Eldridge Cleaver had to leave Algiers secretly. His rendezvous with his wife took place in Paris, France, in January 1973.

While living underground in Paris, Eldridge Cleaver made several unsuccessful appeals for asylum. In the fall of 1973, Kathleen Neal Cleaver returned to the United States to try to arrange her husband's return as a parolee on bail and to raise a defense fund to cover legal fees. By 1974, the French government, under the direct influence of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, granted legal residency to the Cleavers and the family was reunited in Paris.

During the year in Paris, Eldridge Cleaver became increasingly unhappy with his life as an expatriate and finally decided to return to the United States. On November 15, 1975, the Cleaver children were sent to Pasadena, California, to stay with their paternal grandmother. Eldridge Cleaver arrived in New York on November 18 and was immediately jailed.

Having stayed on in Paris to conclude matters, Kathleen Neal Cleaver returned to the United States in late 1975 and began to work full time on the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund. Eldridge was finally freed on bail on August 13, 1976. The family was reunited in Los Angeles on August 16.

Eldridge Cleaver's legal situation was finally settled in 1980 when he agreed to plead guilty to three counts of assault in return for having the charge of attempted murder dropped. Once her husband's legal problems were resolved, Kathleen Neal Cleaver returned to college. In August 1981, having received a full scholarship to Yale University, she moved the children to New Haven, Connecticut, leaving Eldridge in California. She graduated in 1983, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a bachelor of arts degree in history.

Becomes Lawyer and Educator

In 1987, Kathleen Neal Cleaver divorced Eldridge Cleaver. After receiving her law degree in June 1988 from Yale Law School, she joined the New York City law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore. In 1991, she accepted a position as a law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1992, Cleaver joined the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches law.

Of her experiences with the Black Panther Party, Cleaver told the New York Times Magazine, "It was thrilling to be able to challenge the circumstances in which blacks were confined; to mobilize and raise consciousness, to change the way people saw themselves, blacks could express themselves."

Cleaver continues to have a very active life. As an advocate for the elimination of racism from our culture, she has published articles in magazines and newspapers since 1968 and is much in demand on the lecture circuit. She has also been featured in a number of film documentaries.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Kathleen Neal Cleaver has what it takes to lead this and many other countries. She is not smart; she is brilliant! She advocates for purposeful peace for all at a very affordable price; education and re-education. She is not dead yet and will live on through her deeds and accomplishments for eons. The truth cannot be silenced, only skewed and spun.

Powerful Peace-