Kathleen Neal Cleaver Remembers Her Time with the Black Panthers

When Kathleen Neal was recruited to join the Black Panther Party in 1967, it was political and personal for the college student. On one hand she wanted to spread consciousness about black oppression and exploitation. On the other she was madly in love with party member Eldridge Cleaver, and he needed her to help save founding member Huey Newton from the death penalty. It's this humanity underneath the black berets and at the heart of the black leather trench coats that award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson aimed to capture in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. This comprehensive, well-balanced documentary chronicles the history of the revolutionary organization from its formation in Oakland in 1966 to its tragic implosion. SF Weekly spoke to Kathleen Neal Cleaver, today a faculty member of the Emory University School of Law, who also holds an appointment at Yale University’s African American Studies Department, about the film, which opens Oct. 2, finding love amid the turmoil, and the Panthers' legacy.

[jump] How did Stanley Nelson get involved with the film?

I was involved and lived with St. Clair Bourne for nine years. He tried to do a documentary about the Black Panther Party, but he had died. At his memorial, Stanley said, 'I should make that film.' Two and a half years later I got a phone call from Stanley, and he said, 'I got the money.' PBS has funded easily six or seven documentaries that Stanley Nelson has made, and so he has a relationship with them and he has the 'Genius Grant,' which gives him a status that other filmmakers don't have.

Also, Stanley had been fascinated with the Panthers before he ever became a filmmaker, so he had an investment that I didn't understand. He was quite a bit younger, so I think he was 15 when the party started, and he was intrigued by [Chicago Black Panther member] Fred Hampton.  

How do you think Stanley Nelson did?

I think his film is very distinctive, because it's not what you might expect. Whatever you expect, you don't expect to see a black woman with gray hair talking about men touching an elephant. The other documentary opened with Panthers and marching and gunshots, but his is very gentle, very philosophical. The speaker was one of the teachers in the Panthers' school, and she is a very calm yogi. This is the person you hear first. That's different. Stanley did a great job.

What was left out?

There was also a whole shelf of history that couldn't be in the film. One of my comrades, his son said, 'Daddy, why don't you tell me about the Black Panther Party?' and he said, 'I'm not gonna tell you. The Black Panther Party history is X-rated.' [laughs] Now that's the part that Stanley doesn't have. There are other stories, and I hope there'll be other films. I had been hoping to see a film about a series of women Panthers. There were women Guerrillas, women who have held office, women who went to Africa, a really diverse group of people. But who's gonna fund that?

How did you first join the 1960's Civil Rights Movement?

I wanted to join, like many young people, when I was in high school in Pennsylvania in '63, and saw the civil rights demonstrators, the freedom fighters, and I was very impressed. I saw the picture of the girls in the back of a paddy wagon in Albany, Georgia who had been arrested for protesting that black people couldn't vote, and they were in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I wanted to do what they did, but I couldn't get to Georgia. I wanted to be brave like them. I wanted to go where they went. So I ended up going to college at Barnard in New York, and I had a boyfriend who was a SNCC member and I was hired by the director as a secretary in the fundraising office in 1966. Then I became a secretary in the Atlanta office. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

How did you handle the antagonism that came from the KKK and the police?

Everyone I knew in SNCC had to have experiences where they were frightened. The non-violence phase was petering out. It came down to the intensity of your commitment to achieving your goal of achieving Black Power, and making sure that we became independent of all this racism and violence. You knew you might get killed, but also you knew they couldn't kill everybody. So it was that collective feeling. The Panthers didn't have a religious perspective, so it wasn't like we were committed to the policy of nonviolence and would pray and do all this. It was more people who had been in the military or prison, so they were tough, or women who take risks, because it mattered. The Panthers were among the first generation to go to college and there was the anticipation that the world would be a different place. We were gonna make it a different place. Because so many of us were committed to this, it helped us not be frightened.

People were killed, though. It's not like it was a walk in the park. We saw people killed or almost killed. I remember there was a shooting right outside the Panther office, and I had just left two minutes before. It was risky. Remember how at 18 you felt invulnerable? I was 22. We were committed, passionate, young and willing to take risks. We loved Huey and loved the Black Panthers and felt like it was a very healthy response to exploitation and oppression. No one had seen that before. But I was blessed. I have no arrest record and have no bullet shots in me. 

How did you meet Eldridge Cleaver?

SNCC held a conference called Liberation Will Come from a Black Thing. All of the presentations and papers from that conference, I had to type the stencils so they could produce it. So I was typing up the conference I had helped organize, and that's the conference where I had met Eldridge in the spring of '67. 

Then you visited him in San Francisco that summer. What was your experience of SF during the Summer of Love?

He wanted me to visit him because he was on parole. I got there on the 6th of July and left sometime in August, so maybe five or six weeks. I have to tell you that my pivotal experience was that Eldridge and I got engaged. But Eldridge lived on Castro St., right down the street from Haight Ashbury, so we would walk over there, we would eat there, we would go out to dinner.  

I came from Atlanta, Georgia and we did not have hippies in Atlanta. We did not have people walking down the street in robes, smelling like patchouli, with flowers in their hair. I had never seen this. It was different, but what was strange to me, was that just about everybody that I saw in San Francisco, where he lived, seemed to be white. But I'd see black people in Oakland, when we'd go see the Black Panthers. I said, 'Where are the black people?'  But I was in love, and it was the Summer of Love and so it was all kind of romantic. We got engaged, and then I went back to my job in Atlanta.

How did you end up joining the Panthers?

Huey Newton was injured in that incident with Officer Frey. Officer Frey was killed, Huey was wounded and sitting in Oakland County Jail on the charges of killing a policeman. Bobby Seale was in jail on the charges stemming from that trip to Sacramento. The party had lost its office, it didn't have any money, it wasn't publishing its newspaper — basically a big crisis for the panthers. Eldridge was a secret Panther, because he was on parole and shouldn't be associated with the group that bore weapons openly. But when Huey was shot, they had stopped carrying the weapons, because the law was changed. When Huey was shot, you may say Eldridge was the only adult in the room. He said, 'You gotta come out here. You gotta help me.' I didn't have any money, but after getting my tax refund check, I bought a ticket on some really cheap airline, because it was an emergency. Huey was in jail facing the death penalty.

There was a meeting as soon as I got there. We said we have to save Huey. Huey was going to go to court on a specific date, and what I said, coming from the South and a civil rights group, is why don't we hold a demonstration in front of the courthouse when he goes to court? So we planned that and got people to come down.  It was very small. But that brought attention to the press; so then I sent a press release to alert them about our next court appearance.  I signed it Kathleen Neal, Communications Secretary, Black Panther Party. But then in December we got married, and I became Kathleen Cleaver. I was the first woman people saw on the news as a spokesman for the Black Panthers.

How did your family feel about your position in the Panthers and your relationship with Eldridge Cleaver?

My friends and family were praying for me everyday. My father was worried about me. My mother certainly didn't approve of my relationship. My mother met Eldridge early on and her attitude was that he was immature, that he didn't know enough about life, because he had been locked up for nine years. So to her that meant he was not really a mature person, and she was dead right. But I was all of 21 and I was madly in love with Eldridge.

Looking back, I could say he was a very naive person. He had been out of circulation for nine years, so he didn't know anything. He'd never see a Laundromat before. But there was something so touching about a grown man who was so unaware.  

Did you mind that he had been to prison?

Listen, my connection to Eldridge had been through his writing. Those of us who were in SNCC, in New York, had read him in Ramparts. He had written about the Black Muslims in prison, and he was very articulate, and there was no radical, slick magazine that had any black writers, so it was startling. We were terribly impressed. So when we had this conference, and we invited him, and he was the only significant person that came, because there was a blizzard in the East Coast, that's how we met. He was extremely well read and intelligent. He knew and talked more and was smarter than all the college kids I knew, so he had impressed me intellectually. He said it was love at first sight. It was not love at first sight for me.  

Why not?

First of all, he was very big and tall and had no expression on his face. Now I understand that that's how men who've been in prison a long time look. They conceal their feelings for so long that they have this mask. He was physically imposing, but as I spent more time with him, he seemed very gentle. But I wasn't sure, 'cause he was just so big. But he was like a teenager in a certain sense, that he was just developing who he is. Emotionally, I was probably more mature than he was. In that sense, we probably were more compatible than most people would have thought. 
So he was pursuing me for 10 days and eventually got my attention. We got together, and I think right before I had to leave, I was in love with him.

Why did you eventually divorce?

We went off in different directions. After we came back from living in Algeria with our two children in 1975, we settled in the Bay Area as a family. He had to go to trial, and between returning to the US and getting out on bail, he had become a Born Again Christian. I'm from the South, so that didn't impress me, because I knew a whole bunch of people who were born again. But I had decided that I wanted to go to law school, after seeing [Black Panther attorney] Charles Garry and what he did. I hadn't finished college, so I decided that I wanted to go back, but I was having a difficult time as Eldridge's personality was undergoing a kind of change. He had a condition that I had never heard of called manic-depressive.

When he and I were first married, he was mostly manic and maybe a little depressed, but I didn't pick it up that it was depression. He was very manic and excited, but we were in a lot of dangerous situations, so maybe there were a lot of things I didn't notice. But when we came back to California and settled in and had a routine life and lived in the suburbs and our children went to school, he was still acting really strange. All those conditions that could have provoked all that anxiety are gone but his behavior is the same. Then I realized there was something cyclical about it, that certain times he would behave a certain way — that I was experiencing life with someone who was manic-depressive. But we didn't have a name for it, so it was very confusing and demoralizing.

I wanted to go back to college, so I was applying to colleges all over the East Coast, and I was accepted at Yale. Then I told him that I'm leaving. They had accepted me so quickly — it was a transfer — so there wasn't any time to get a divorce. I had to pack up and leave within three months from the time I was accepted. It was all very sudden for him, and he wasn't quite prepared for that. So I just packed up, took our kids and moved. After I finished law school in 1989, I just filed for divorce. Our lives changed, the things that connected us changed. But we were married for 20 years, so I guess that's probably in American terms a pretty good record.

Any regrets?

I have no regrets being married to Eldridge. I could never imagine how I'd have the skills or the experiences or the opportunity to discover and learn things and use the abilities I did when married to Eldridge. It was a phenomenal and extremely difficult and at times dangerous experience, but I'm still here. 

The Black Panthers are no longer, yet racism is still alive and well all over the world. What is the Panthers' legacy?

The legacy that remains is the extraordinary willingness to challenge a power that looks much greater than the power of the organization. Another is that your imagination is your greatest weapon. We became a model for other exploited and oppressed people within a government. We gave youth in capitalist environments subjected to vicious racism and poverty a way of fighting back, a way of standing up and a way of claiming dignity and respect and liberation.

What would you like audiences to take away from the movie?

What I would hope is that people would examine and study carefully and get to understand what the Black Panther Party was about, as opposed to this narrow, shallow, stupid racist view that's been around for so long. 

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