KATHLEEN CLEAVER: A Black Panther Turned Bulldog

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Unapologetic in her efforts to abolish systematic injustice, Kathleen Cleaver ’84 LAW ’89 has long been a leader in radical political circles. As a Barnard college student, she became inspired to join in the work of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth-dominated initiative that became one of the key civil rights organizations during the 1960’s. In 1967, she met and married Eldridge Cleaver, one of the first leaders of the Black Panther Party.  Attracted to their Black Power ideology, Cleaver then joined the Black Panther ranks and moved to San Francisco, committed to eradicating the injustices that she continued to witness. Targeted by the FBI for their involvement with the Panthers, both Cleavers fled the United States. Eldridge Cleaver fled first to Cuba, which Kathleen thought would be her eventual stopping point. Unforeseen circumstances led them both to Algeria, where they would spend four years in exile, leading the international section of the Black Panther Party. At the age of 32, Cleaver decided to re-enroll as an undergraduate at Yale, with the goal of attending law school upon receiving her degree. At the age of 34, Cleaver attended Yale Law School. Since then, she has dedicated herself to teaching, as a lecturer at Emory Law School, a public policy professor at Sarah Lawrence College and an African-American Studies Professor at Yale College. The exhibit “The Bulldog and Panther: The May Day Rally and Yale” honoring the work of the Black Panthers in New Haven is currently displayed at Sterling Memorial Library and will be up until Friday May 16. She spoke to WEEKEND about growing up in activist communities and navigating elitist spaces. 

Q. To start off and get a little bit of background on your upbringing, tell me about your family and your life growing up. 

A. I was born in Texas and also lived in Alabama and North Carolina. My parents were both college-educated and civil rights activists in their own right, so I grew up in an environment that contributed to my own consciousness of justice. As a child, I grew up traveling with my parents because my father was in the Foreign Service. I knew the South because I had lived there, but did not have ties to the rest of the United States. I lived in India, the Philippines and West Africa. My father’s work was designing projects to elevate peasant farmers, projects dependent on the support of the country. When the president of the Philippines was killed, support for the project was withdrawn and we had to move. Being abroad I was able to see firsthand and understand that no necessity existed for the white supremacist regime that existed in the United States.

Q. You mention that your parents were civil rights activists themselves. How did that impact your own decision to enter the movement?

A. Well, first, my mother was a schoolteacher and protested segregated schools during the pre-Brown era, but this was in the 1930s before World War II and before there was hysteria surrounding possible involvement in communist movements. Activity eventually shifted to younger people.

In 1963, I saw high school girls my age protesting against the denial of the right to vote for blacks in Georgia. They were getting arrested for their nonviolent demonstrations and went to jail singing Freedom songs. I was so inspired by their bravery; they attracted me to the idea of nonviolent resistance and following up the resistance of the students who did sit-ins at lunch counters, protesting the denial of the right to be seated at lunch counters.  Back then you could shop in the five- and ten-cent stores, and order food to go, but not sit down at the counter and eat it. Students challenged the system, and sat down in the seats anyway, in a series of actions across the South. They became the basis of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the organization I eventually joined in 1966.

SNCC is difficult to capture in history because it did not have a ‘figurehead’ to write about, but gained the highest respect from activists, from black youth, from the students across the country. Do you know about James Forman?

Q. No, I don’t think I know who he is.

A. Exactly. He was the executive director of SNCC, but that organization functioned on a different plane to the one which the news media understood. It ran differently. It was a movement of people generating mass mobilization, but there was no figurehead. Being a leader under this arrangement has a different type of commitment — one for all, all for one — the stakes were higher, anyone might get shot, or arrested, or injured. You could be killed.

Q. You were in Algeria for four years. Can you talk a little about your experience there?

A.Eldridge was a fugitive, which is why we were there in the first place. We were leading the international section of the Black Panther Party, leading solidarity committees. Algeria was one of the only places in Africa with extensive access to the press. It was an outpost and facilitator of solidarity for the Black Panther Party.

Q. How have you navigated elitist spaces (Yale, Yale Law) and manipulated them for the empowerment of your community?

A. My experience at Yale probably did not mold me as it might have done an 18-year-old; I came to Yale when I was 36. I had more ties to the faculty than a typical undergraduate student might, and I also had more ties to the local community since my two children were attending New Haven public school while I went to college. Yale was a different place when I was here: there was more a carryover from the politics of the ’70s. Income inequality was not as extreme as it is today. Today the students seem to be either from more wealthy or far below wealth, [there aren’t] as many middle class kids as there used to be.

It was the ’80s, when Reagan announced he was a candidate for President he did it in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Why did he do that, when he was the Governor of California?  What had happened in Philadelphia, Mississippi — it was the murder of the three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Mickey Schwerner. To announce his candidacy there was to align himself with the white supremacist attitudes of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He took an anti-civil rights stance.  I wanted to finish my college education so I could apply to law school, I wanted to do what I had seen Charles Garry — the San Francisco attorney who defended the Black Panthers — do. He was a brilliant, charismatic and highly effective criminal defense attorney. I wanted to know what he knew, and I came to Yale to be able to finish my B.A. and enroll in law school, which I did at Yale.

Q. For those interested in furthering the causes that you and the Panthers had worked towards advancing, what advice would you give? Do you think that it’s possible to have a movement like that re-emerge? 

A. I am not sure if such a movement could happen during this time. The Black Panthers were a product of their time. During the emergence of the Panthers, the Vietnam War was happening, and that caused great social unrest. It is hard to start a movement when everyone involved is either imprisoned or has been assassinated. The Panthers have been demonized. I am not sure if there are enough young people who would be aware enough to start such an initiative. Young people today are not being educated in public schools. The prison industrial complex is trapping them. These things happen in waves, so we’ll just have to wait. But I’d like to end on a positive note: I would like to see a day in which the political climate of intimidation and repression dissolves into one rectifying injustice and enhancing social well-being.

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