By Harshita Singh
Kathleen Cleaver was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) from 1967 to 1971, serving as the Communications Secretary on the first Coordinating Committee. She is currently a professor of law at Emory College, and one of the few surviving leaders of the original Party.
As a child, Cleaver was heavily influenced by the civil rights movement in the U.S. Later on in high school, she was inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization that mobilized student support for the movement.
The SNCC was created by Ella Baker, and women like Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash, and Ruby Doris Robinson led mass mobilizations throughout the country. Cleaver knew that was where she needed to be.
In 1964, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael changed his organization’s slogan from “Freedom Now” to “Black Power”. Two weeks later Cleaver, who at the time was volunteering with the SNCC, dropped out of college to fully dedicate herself to the black liberation movement. She was hired as the Campus Program Coordinator, and developed education programs and conferences on black power for college students.
Although she did not know it at the time, Carmichael was also recruited into the BPP as a Field Marshall. The six months that Cleaver and Carmichael were in SNCC together were the closest the BPP and SNCC came to working collaboratively.
During this period, she met her future husband Eldridge Cleaver. Eldridge was a journalist for Ramparts magazine, and an underground member of the BPP.
After Huey Newton of the BPP was arrested on the charge of killing a cop in October of 1967, Cleaver moved to California to join the Party as an official member, and became an integral force behind the Free Huey campaign. She helped mobilize over 5,000 people to surround the courthouse where Huey was having his trial.
“Publicity would protect you – if there was coverage of what you were doing, you were less likely to be violently attacked.”
As the primary contact for mainstream media, Cleaver became a representative of the BPP, publicly taking up the role of Communications Secretary. Cleaver’s ability to use the media as a tool would prove to be paramount to keeping Newton out of the gas chamber.
By 1969, two thirds of the BPP membership consisted of women. Women’s contributions were manifested in every major wing of the Party including the survival programs, rallies, newspaper and artwork. Cleaver became the only female member of the Party’s first Coordinating Committee.
In 1969, Eldridge took asylum in Algeria. Cleaver joined him there, and together they began building an international base for the BPP. Cleaver’s work with communists abroad made concrete the idea that the struggles of colonized people, whether Afro-Americans or Algerians, are connected. Although Cleaver left the Party in 1971 because of the split between her husband and Newton, she continued to make the case for black people organizing for their own self-determination.
As a young student, Cleaver used her family’s wealth to support the work of the SNCC. Later, recognizing the BPP as the vanguard of the revolutionary movement in the U.S., she became its member.
When the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service needed articles for the Huey campaign, she wrote for the newspaper. At the point when most of the Party leadership was in jail or in exile, she became a leader and publicly demanded accountability for the murders of her friends, challenging the black community to stand with her.
Kathleen Cleaver is not a stand in for every woman who took abuse for fighting a misogynist, racist, and exploitative system. But she is a reminder of what it takes to hold an organization and revolutionary movement together. Her coordinating skills and creativity effectively connected Party members across the U.S., and show us a way to re-ignite and broaden our struggles today.